Mercedes 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe review by Motor Klassik

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The classic car magazine Motor Klassik has tested the Mercedes 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe since 2002, which just a few days ago became the most expensive car in history, being sold for a record 135 million euros. Here are the impressions of the Motor Klassik experts from 20 years ago.

Photo: Motor Klassik/Auto motor und Sport 

The story is absolutely superb. In 2002, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Mercedes SL, the then editor-in-chief of Motor Klassik, Hans-Jörg Götzl, had the opportunity to drive this unique car.

For 50 years, the combination of the letters SL (sport and light) has been synonymous with extraordinary sports cars. But the most interesting SL model of all has only its name and silhouette in common with its relatives because it was not the sports version of the SL but used the platform and the engine from the W196 racing car.

The story written by Hans-Jorg Gotzl in MotorKlassik almost 20 years ago is very emotional. It is written from the perspective of a schoolboy returning home at lunchtime and having a Mercedes SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe drive past him.

“It was a Mercedes, Dad, it had a star in the radiator grille – and it was silver and incredibly beautiful and incredibly loud.” “Maybe an experimental car, a prototype,” Dad would guess. “No, it looked somehow… older.” His grandfather, who has come especially for dinner, will intervene. “Did the car have an opening in the right side of the hood with a wire mesh in front of it?” he’ll ask with a twinkle in his eye. “I think so, yes.” “And did it have  gullwing doors?”. “Yes. And spoked wheels?” “Also.” “And was it very loud?” “Oh, yeah.” Then Grandpa will beam with joy and say, “Honey, it’s hard to believe, but you must have met the Uhlenhaut coupe.”

And the grandfather continue to explain: “Rudolf Uhlenhaut was the head of the testing department at Mercedes-Benz. He was born in 1906 as the son of the Deutsche Bank director in London. Uhlenhaut was a talented engineer and he could drive almost as fast as the best racing drivers.” “And he built this car?” “Two of them, actually, one with a red interior and one with a blue interior.”

Mercedes 300 SLR Uhlenhaut coupe reaches 130 km/h in less than 7 seconds. Perhaps with a smoother, more controllable clutch it would get up to that speed even faster. And if you maneuver the 5-speed manual gearbox fast enough through the superb crawl, on the highway you can take the speedometer needle to almost 300 km/h. But without earplugs, you’ll go deaf.

Why so extreme? The explanation is simple. The Mercedes 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe is nothing more than a coupe body mounted over the drive train of the W196 Formula 1 car, two headlights, turn signals, and cloth-trimmed seats.

Grandpa explains:
“Before the Second World War Mercedes built incredibly successful racing cars that feared only competition from Auto Union.” “Those were the first Silver Arrows, weren’t they?” the grandson would ask. “Exactly. And after the war, of course, Mercedes wanted to continue that tradition. So they built a sports car first – the 300 SL with the famous gullwing doors. That was in 1952, 50 years ago. But the real goal was to return to Grand Prix racing in 1954. To achieve this, they built a revolutionary racing car, the W 196.” “Didn’t Fangio drive it?” asked the junior. “Indeed,” replied the grandfather, who added that the Mercedes W196 won nine of the 12 races it competed in and Fangio became world champion in 1954 and 1955.

The W196 engine consisted of two 4-cylinder blocks with a total displacement of 2.5 litres, had direct injection and desmodromic valve timing meaning the valves were closed by a cam rather than the valve spring. This solution was needed because of the high revs which ensured better valve closure and the high revs provided a respectable 280 HP.

“And how did the Uhlenhaut coupe was born?” Grandpa clarifies: “From the Formula 1 car was derived a model with which Mercedes wanted to win the World Sports Car Championship in 1955 – and succeeded. Engineers modified the chassis of the W 196 and made room for a second seat and the engine block was cast from light alloy.

The basic concept remained the same, but the sports car, called the 300 SLR, now had a three-litre, 300 HP engine. With this car, Briton Stirling Moss won his first race, the Mille Miglia, and set the circuit record that still stands today. Rudolf Uhlenhaut commissioned a coupé body around this successful racing sports car, practically a two-seater Formula 1, at the time.”

Two examples were built and the example in the Motor Klassik test, the one with the red upholstery is exactly the one that sold at auction. This is also the car that Uhlenhaut drove as a company car.

But the driving position was uncomfortable because you had to stand with your feet over the cardan shaft with the clutch on the left and the brake and accelerator pedal on the right. A panel clad in imitation red leather separates the three pedals from each other. The four-spoke steering wheel is positioned far forward and can only be reached by short people with outstretched arms.

In the coupe the mechanical engine noises are infernal. From 5000 rpm, it’s a real inferno. Rudolf Braunschweig, the former editor-in-chief of the Swiss Automobil Revue, had the blue-interior coupé at his disposal for tests in 1956, covering several thousand kilometres but with special silencers.

Still, in the city, the line between driving pleasure and torture is fluid. Coincidentally, there is almost no vehicle from this era that offers more pleasure. In addition to the brutal acceleration, the SLR’s lightweight chassis contributes to the driving pleasure, not to mention the brakes, whose effect is supported by a pump on the rear axle, depending on speed.

With one of the two copies sold to a private investor it is now much less probable to see a Mercedes 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupe even in the Mercedes museum.