Not officially a race, of course – but a tour to the Grand Canyon proves the perfect opportunity to discover the full magic of the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing, aboard a very special example.
Words Donald Osborne Photography Patrick Ernzen
ld. Daring. Foolish? Bringing an old competition car back to life after decades of resting isn’t for the faint-hearted. But sometimes the lure can be too powerful to resist, especially with the promise of inspiring roads on which to exercise the result of your endeavours.
The vastness of the American West offers plenty of these, sinuous asphalt and the evidence of millions of years of geological drama heading into the far distance under huge skies. So this is the story of a single-family-owned ‘garage find’, of how the spirit of this machine and its former owner has inspired its current custodian, and how it reprises the activities of its ancestors in a rally that, while on the US side of the southern border, also has a strong visual sense of Mexico.
I’m sharing a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL on the 300 SL Foundation’s inaugural 300 SL Classic rally with its owner, my friend Don Rose. The rally crosses 1066 miles of Arizona, and is the brainchild of long-time 300 SL enthusiasts Craig McLaughlin, Tom Thornhill and John
Willott. Their plan was to create an event that would ‘celebrate the cultural legacy of these iconic cars and embody the quality and style of Mercedes-Benz’, and to give owners the chance to exercise their 300 SLs as they were built to be used: on open roads in spectacular scenery. There are 46 teams taking part, 17 of them in Gullwings. Including this one.
SO, WHAT’S SO SPECIAL about a Gullwing? The ‘supercar’ word is overused, devalued even, but sometimes it comes to vivid, raging life in a way that surprises. Spend a few moments with a 300 SL Gullwing and you realise that the word doesn’t necessarily allude to something low, mid-engined and stupendously rapid.
In a 1950s context a supercar is a Gullwing, long considered one of the blue-chip certainties among ‘collectable’ cars, a machine whose value always seems to be heading upwards. One of the reasons might be their perceived usability. Most owners have held onto their cars for a long time, and have been more interested in driving them than showing them.
The 300 SL doesn’t conform to the normal rules of high-end collectability. A venerated and ultra-desirable classic car is normally one produced in minuscule numbers, perhaps with an even smaller survival rate. They might be frighteningly difficult to live with, requiring great sacrifices in comfort, and be a challenge to keep on the road with a plethora of parts machined from unalloyed unobtainium. Not so the 300 SL.
Known internally as W198, the 300 SL was launched during 1954 in New York at the instigation of the US importer, Max Hoffman. He had convinced Mercedes-Benz management that he could easily sell a production version of 1952’s W194 300 SL racing coupé to wealthy Americans. With 1400 coupés and 1858 roadsters built from 1954 to 1963, Hoffman’s vision was certainly validated. By the standards of high-performance sports cars of the 1950s these were strong numbers, especially when compared with the number of roadgoing Ferraris built in the same time frame.
The final 1963 roadsters languished for some time at dealers, yet the 300 SL was always something special. It never seemed to become a ‘beater’, abandoned on roadsides or passed down to spotty teenagers to keep running however they could manage. It held the imagination too firmly for that.
People remembered the sight of the W194 in 1952 and how it had heralded the return to motorsport of Mercedes-Benz, only seven years after the end of World War Two and 13 years after the ‘Silver Arrows’ had swept all before them. With a one-two finish for the distinctive ‘gullwing’ coupes at the Le Mans 24 Hours in June, and another in November in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, Mercedes was back.
Hoffman encouraged the owners of the roadgoing 300 SL Gullwing to take them to the racetrack at the weekend, and many did. Seldom before had privateer drivers had at their disposal Gullwing helped move and shape the earth in the automotive sphere much as geology has done in the world itself; our car lines up with siblings; sometimes trees are the backdrop, sometimes rockfaces.
a car of such high performance and advanced engineering. The tube-frame chassis, direct fuel injection, generally under-stressed mechanicals and an impressive power-to-weight ratio made the Gullwing a formidable weapon in the hands of a talented driver.
That performance still startles today. Driving a 300 SL requires almost no allowances for its age in modern traffic conditions. A good one will go, turn and stop just the way you want it to in the second decade of the 21st Century. Imagine that in the middle decade of the 20th.
MANY HAVE DEBATED the future of our hobby, as the generation who began to collect after World War Two passes away and the next generation ages. Will those who grew up in a digital world have any affinity with resolutely analogue motor vehicles? While hardly a Millennial, our 300 SL owner, Don Rose, is an interesting case study.
Some might recognise him as a past specialist with RM Sotheby’s from 2006 to 2017. He’s now retired from that role and has more time to enjoy his cars. The car that brought him to the 300 SL Classic suits him perfectly.
If anyone outside Microsoft, Apple, Google or Amazon could be a face of the digital transformation, it’s Don Rose. His first career was in music, something he and I have in common, albeit in different ways. In 1983 I was singing at the Metropolitan Opera. Don, who had grown from record-store owner to New Wave band label owner, was starting with a few friends the world’s first all-CD music production company, Rykodisc.
The digital revolution that had come to music was still in its infancy, and Don saw an opportunity to which the major music companies seemed blind: mining their rich back catalogue of vinyl to re-release as CDs. Rykodisc rode that wave to become an industry leader.
Don had long admired the 300 SL, but it hadn’t been high on his list of must-haves. So how did he end up with this rather special example? Blame both the lure of discovery and the appeal of a unique story.
THIS CAR WAS delivered new in June 1956 to the father of one Philip Lichtman. As a teenager, Philip won first place in the National Science Fair for the telescopes he’d designed and built, before heading to Harvard. He then spent much of his life as a consultant in the
prototyping of robotics, firearms, machinery, metallurgy, hydraulics, pneumatics, surgical instruments... He also indulged enthusiasms for fishing, model aircraft, entomology and restoring oriental rugs.
However, Lichtman’s first business after dropping out of Harvard was his own start-up, a company he called Competition Associates. It serviced ‘foreign’ sports and GT cars, and later built telescopes as well. The genesis of the company was his experience of club-racing events in that 300 SL Gullwing.
Lichtman used his imagination, his skills and a talented working team to modify the Gullwing steadily throughout its racing life, which lasted from 1956 (when Lichtman was 19 years old) to 1965. It was registered for the road, and used until around 1985. Then it was parked in his garage, remaining there until his death in 2017.
When Don bought the Mercedes from the Lichtman family in early 2018, it still had all the modifications and developments carried out by Lichtman in period. They included a sports
camshaft (upping power to 240bhp), front disc brakes as fitted to the late 300 SL roadster, a short diff ratio of 4.11:1, a well-designed and exquisitely executed straight-pipe silencer bypass, and an aluminium-cased, competition- spec, close-ratio four-speed Corvette gearbox.
Lichtman had removed the bumpers and installed a rollbar, complete with a Competition Associates data ID tag that simulates the MB firewall and body tags. Lichtman ran his Gullwing in more than 50 competitive events, at hillclimbs, gymkhanas and on circuits. By 1963 it had earned a 200,000km commemorative badge from the Mercedes-Benz factory.
That such a car had lived its entire life just a few miles away from Don’s home made it even harder to resist. Don then engaged Mark Allin and his Rare Drive company in New Hampshire to coax the Lichtman Gullwing back to life. The challenge was not a small one: while Don didn’t intend to return the Mercedes to the racetrack, he did intend to drive it. Preferably as hard as it could be used on classic rally and tour events.
‘Our route, through open desert and on to the grand canyon, is just sublime’
Inspection revealed the Lichtman car to have been well maintained and its modifications to be of top quality. One example was that exhaust cut-out. Lichtman didn’t just bolt on a sidepipe with a cover cap; he built a parallel exhaust with an insert that filled the straight pipe to avoid aero turbulence from any back pressure due to reverse flow. A real engineer’s solution.
That 80% of the parts for his work on 300 SLs can be sourced directly from Mercedes-Benz
also made the task a bit easier. But there were bound to be surprises lurking in a beauty that had slept as long as this one had. That is where the deep expertise surrounding a single- marque, or indeed single-model, rally or tour can be invaluable.
SOME OF THE MOST desirable vehicles seem, in the US at least, to come with a built-in owners-only experience. Perhaps the most extreme manifestations are the Ferrari 250 GTO tours, for which dollar billionaires have been known to seek out a car just to take part. Another example is the Duesenberg Tour, founded by US collector Sam Mann. Open to all models of the great American marque, tours have been held in the Western, South-Eastern, Upper Midwest and New England regions of the country.
Sam and his wife Emily have entered the 300 SL Classic rally, driving their 1955 Gullwing which shares a garage with their 300 SL roadster. ‘The main benefit [of a single-marque tour] is in exchanging the experience of owning and using the cars,’ reckons Sam. ‘It’s also a great way to bring the cars to a wider public.’
So Don and I, along with official co-driver Andrew Lippman when I haven’t usurped his place, are looking forward to a truly exhilarating week in Don’s SL. ‘It’s a real driver’s car even today, 64 years after its development from a world-beating racing machine,’ Don enthuses.
That said, he realises that its formidable performance capability still requires great respect. ‘Its famous tendency towards trailing- throttle oversteer engenders a bit of caution,’ he adds, doubtless thinking of the many stories
of Gullwings swapping ends. That happens when the high-pivot swing-axle rear suspension jacks up the outside rear wheel under sudden weight transfer; the wheel then tucks under, the tyre’s contact patch suddenly shrinks and it’s goodbye to grip. The only solution is to unwind some steering and accelerate hard, even if you’d rather be braking. It certainly concentrates the mind.
Our route, running from Scottsdale to Sedona though open desert and into the valleys and gorges, then on to the Grand Canyon, is just sublime. This is epic scenery, the perfect backdrop for a car so capable over twisting terrain when you’re attuned to its ways. These are the kind of roads the Gullwings must have encountered as racers in their heyday, especially on the Carrera Panamericana.
There’s surely no better way to feel, viscerally, what a Gullwing is doing and how it’s behaving. Aiming through fast, sweeping curves, on through a sequence of elevation changes and battling just enough tight-radius corners is vastly entertaining. It keeps us on our toes, too.
But piloting the Gullwing isn’t always a challenge. At a 95mph cruise it’s delightful. It feels steady, planted and responsive, so I can relax and enjoy the experience without being concerned that I’m pedalling – rapidly – someone else’s million-dollar ride.
And, to debunk another myth, as far as cabin temperature is concerned, Don’s bellypan- equipped coupé is perfectly comfortable all day long. There’s a steady, cool breeze through the dash vents, and the quarter-windows provide a storm-like gale when they’re rotated fully open.
Bellypan? It’s a vital undertray, which must be fitted, sealed and insulated correctly so air can be directed exactly where the Mercedes engineers planned. A non-pan Gullwing gets much warmer inside as heat from the engine compartment and exhaust system soak through.
Another surprise is the suppleness of the suspension. According to Don: ‘It’s more comfortable over long distances than a fast car of its generation has any right to be.’ The width of the track contributes to a feeling of stability, too, as long as the road is straight and smooth.
SO, IS OUR DRIVE completely uneventful? Alas, no. As the Gullwing is pushed up to 100mph and sometimes stays there a while, Lichtman’s preferred short-geared differential begins to stress the normally bulletproof engine just a little too much. A long hillclimb that might be fine in a new car is less so for a 63-year-old just out of a long slumber. As Don and Andrew discover three days into the four-day rally, a drop in oil pressure as the revs increase indicates internal distress. Finally they choose discretion over valour and retire with grace.
That brings up one of the best aspects of a single-marque or single-model rally. The mechanical back-up is outstanding, as might be expected with the sponsorship and support of Mercedes-Benz itself and the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. With experience, a full van, access to overnight delivery of parts and a single model to service, Classic Center mechanics Nate Lander and Anders Hansen, along with independents Robert Webster and Bill Klienes, manage to keep every car, bar this one, on the road to the end.
Even so, we feel as if we have gone to sleep and awakened as Hermann Lang, John Fitch or even Lewis Hamilton: full works drivers, with every resource at our command. At the rally’s closing dinner Don and Andrew are presented with the ‘Perseverance Award’, a prize chosen by the mechanics to honour ‘The willing owner of a not-so-willing 300 SL’.
AS THIS IS WRITTEN, the Lichtman 300 SL is back at Rare Drive, its tired engine getting a well- deserved rebuild, and Don Rose is already planning his next Gullwing adventure. True to the car’s legacy and his own commitment to using its ample performance, he’ll be aiming for his 300,000km badge as soon as he can.