In 1955 Sir Stirling Moss and his co-driver journalist Denis Jenkinson won the Mille Miglia, setting the unbeaten average speed record of almost 160 km/h in the process. Moss was one of a strong group of drivers and cars entered by the car brand with the star – Mercedes-Benz – that year, with cars including the 300 SLR and 300 SL as well as the humble 180 D “Ponton”.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of its incredible performance in May 1955, Mercedes-Benz brought some of the cars and drivers involved in the original race back to Italy to recreate part of the legendary race. Which is why on April 23 the famous Futa and Raticosa passes on the road between Florence and Bologna were a little more crowded, and noisy, than usual…
Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR
At the start of the 1950s Mercedes-Benz decided to re-enter the racing world, and asked chief engineer Rudolph Uhlenhaut to create something special. “Rudy” came up with project R (as in “Rennwagen”, the German word for racing car) 196, a single car capable of competing and winning a Formula 1 grand prix – in single seater configuration with both open and closed wheels and an 8 cylinder 2.5 liter engine – as well as road races (in the R196S configuration with two seats, covered wheels and a 3 liter engine. Nine of this latter “Sports” version were built. Of these chassis #03, #04, #05 and #06 were entered in the 1955 Mille Miglia, the model’s debut race. Chassis #01 and #02 were never used in races, but used as test and practices cars. #07 and #08 were the Coupé Uhlenhaut type, #09 was never assembled and #10 was the “prototype” prepared as a development model for the 1956 season.
300 SLR at the 1955 Mille Miglia
The 1955 race started in Brescia and the first car out of the blocks was car #03 driven by Juan Manuel Fangio, with racing number 658, number plate W21-6169. Then came Kling in car #05, racing number 701, number plate W21-6171; Hermann and co-driver Eger in #06, racing number 704, number plate W21-6172 and finally Moss-Jenkinson in #04, racing number 722, number plate W21-6170. Kling had to retire because of a crash just before Rome. Hermann was forced to retire because his fuel cap wasn’t closed properly during a refill in Rome; fuel began to splash out, soaking both driver and co-driver. Hermann tried to press on, but some fuel enter his goggles, blinded him and caused him to crash. Fangio finished the race in second place, 31 minutes behind Moss with his incredible victory time of 10 hours 7 minutes and 48 seconds.
300 SL at the 1955 Mille Miglia
Sir Stirling Moss wasn’t the only victorious Mercedes-Benz driver that day. American John Fitch entered the race with an ex-works 1955 300 SL “Gullwing”, racing number 417, number plate W21-6628. He was competing in the GT class for cars with engine capacities bigger than 1300 cc. John Fitch had the idea of using his co-driver Kurt Gessl as navigator, and as a result he drove a flawless race, winning his class and finishing fifth overall in 11 hours 29 minutes and 21 seconds. He beat two other 300 SLs as well as plenty of cars with much bigger engines.
180 D at 1955 Mille Miglia
The Diesel class was the first to start the 1955 Mille Miglia. There were 10 entrants, 3 of whom drove Mercedes. Car number 04 was a privately entered Mercedes-Benz 180 D, racing number 04, Austrian number plate T3-330. Behind the steering wheel were Helmut Retter and Walter Larcher. After 16 hours 52 minutes 25 seconds, driving at an average speed of 94.65 km/h (the car’s maximum speed was about 110 km/h) they won their class. Retter was the owner of a Mercedes-Benz distributor in Tyrol, Austria, and Larcher one of his employees. Two 180 Ds finished behind them in the Diesel class.
April 23, 2015: 300 SLRs back on the Futa pass
This, then, is the background to a very special day last Thursday when Mercedes-Benz went back to the most iconic section of the road used for the 1955 Mille Miglia: the section that leads over the Futa and Raticosa passes in the Apennine Mountains on the road from Florence to Bologna. Mercedes brought along three 300 SLRs, a couple of 300 SLs and a 180 D “Ponton”. As special guests, the only two surviving drivers who raced the 300 SLR in the ‘55 MM: Sir Stirling Moss and Hans Hermann. To see three 300 SLRs together is already something special, but to hear them driven by two of the greatest drivers of the period was a real one off. Both Hermann and Sir Moss are now in their mid-80s, but they were more than happy to jump behind the steering wheels of their 300 SLRs. It was evident from the start that time had not affected their instincts: the way they released the clutch and changed gear was as smooth as if they had been driving the cars every day since 1955! Their smiles at the end of the drive were absolutely unforgettable. But could Hermann have won the ‘55 MM if he hadn’t had the fuel problem? According to Sir Stirling, no chance. According to Hans, who had been faster than Stirling on some sections, he could have done it. The competitive instincts never die, even after 60 years! The other 300 SLR was driven alternately by Bernd Mayländer, the current F1 safety car driver, and Christian Vietoris of DTM Racers. They were both driving the model for the very first time.
300 SL and 180 D on the Futa pass
Mercedes wanted the commemoration to be perfect, so it brought along a couple of 300 SLs, one painted like Fitch’s car, and a 180 D recreation. “Unfortunately we do not have the original 300 SL and 180 D anymore,” said Gerhard Heibrink, Director of the Mercedes-Benz archive. “It seems incredible, but though we have very detailed files on the Mille Miglia expeditions, we can’t find the chassis number of John Fitch’s car, though we do have some suspects. With the 180 D, however, we have all the information, but simply haven’t been able to locate the car yet.”
Even more info on this memorable event will follow soon…
Photos courtesy of Daimler.