The high life
Octane has an adventure in the Austrian Alps with a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster. Well, with two 300SLs, in fact…
The flight tickets say Zurich, so I’m a bit confused. Isn’t that Switzerland? And isn’t the Silvretta Classic in Austria? Oh well, it’s all a bit Alpine, so I figure the geography will sort itself when we land. And so it does. The rally takes its name from the Silvretta-Hochalpenstrasse, a high pass through stunning mountain scenery in the Montafon region of western Austria, sandwiched between Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. It is captivatingly beautiful, and the roads promise to be spectacular. As does the weather, too.
All of which is important, because our steed is a 1961 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster. We’ll be travelling roof-down, naturally, all the better to witness the sights, sounds and smells amid these snow-capped peaks, and the breeding of this surefooted Merc will come into its own in these parts. As will the power of its 3.0-litre straight-six. And we wouldn’t want any rain to spoil things, would we?
The ‘we’ is Mark Dixon and myself. We’re veterans of the Mille Miglia together (2013), we have both taken part in road rallies and regularities of this sort on several occasions, and we’ll share the tasks of helmsman and map-man between us. For three days and nearly 400 miles. That’s a fair bit less distance than the Mille Miglia, of course, but there are almost no highway miles on this route. It is 100% Alpine. Fantastic.
There’s a relaxed start to Day 1, a chance to meet up with Team Mercedes-Benz Classic as last-minute preparations are made to ‘our’ 1961 300SL Roadster. Former Le Mans and Touring Car ace Klaus Ludwig is among our number, sharing a hardcore-looking, bewinged, skirted and caged 1990 190E 2.5-16 Evo with Berlin-based Mercedes engineering intern and online influencer ‘ShareenQueen’. Winning the cool award is the flat-grey ex-John Fitch ’55 Gullwing, there’s the V8-powered 1970 C111 coupé that I drove in Octane 146, plus a ’71 280SE 3.5 Cabrio and an ’89 G-class Cabrio, which I remember from the new G63 launch last year (see Octane 181 and 183). Non-museum entries include Alexander Tische’s 1996 SL500 and Jean Wicki’s 1956 Gullwing.
That’s just one cohort from the 200 cars taking part, which are of all eras, from 1920s and 1930s Bentleys and Lagondas, via a charming ’49 Graber-bodied Talbot-Lago, a plucky little 1945 Lancia Ardea Pininfarina Cabriolet, a ’53 Sunbeam Alpine (driven by a pairing in period dress), a subtle yet alluring 1962 Maserati 3500GT, ’72 and ’73 Intermeccanica Indras, a ’71 Renault 15, the odd Beetle (each sounding way more 356 than Beetle) and so many 911s (as you’d expect), to relatively modern ‘youngtimers’ such as a Honda NSX and E30 BMWs. Our favourite is the unlikely sounding yet fabulously evocative 1965 Mercedes-Benz O 319 bus, complete with matching trailer, of Swiss Mercedes collector Daniel Iseli and his wife Petra. That’s got to be fun through the hairpins.
We head for the driver briefing as yet unacquainted with our SL, and leave equally unacquainted with any of the whys and wherefores of what’s to follow. My German ain’t great, so I’ve spent an hour nodding, laughing and applauding where it seemed appropriate, but we leave Partenen’s village hall to hear that the car is ready and waiting, we have our start time (pretty near the front of the pack: we’re car 14), road books, stopwatches, and, er, a couple of cereal bars. What more could we need?
The atmosphere is building as we nose into the queue for the startline. I’m at the wheel, Dixon is on maps, the initial learning curve will be steep: unfamiliar car, unfamiliar territory, and it seems that every regularity will run slightly differently. There’s been zero prep, so that means we have nothing to lose.
We roll up to the ramp, hand in our time card, Dixon makes the calculation so we can arrive at the end of the section on time and we head off on the first stage, Partenen to Schruns, capital of the Montafon region and from where we’d left our hotel earlier: 32km in 51 minutes. First impressions? The 300SL drives nicely, with a gearshift that’s unusually easy for a manual Merc, steering that’s a bit vague around the straight-ahead but doesn’t weight-up unduly, a comfortable ride and a rich soundtrack. Acceleration is brisk enough, but we need to keep speed relatively low for now, or we’ll get to the end of the section too soon. And only nine clicks in, we hit our first ‘special stage’. It’s really a split-second timed section of the navigation run, but with a starting point and a finishing point just over 9km apart, and a 40m warning ahead of the end – and while you can pootle those final 40 metres, you aren’t allowed to come to a halt until you’ve crossed the line.
We maintain our gentle pace, making sure we’re bang-on the road book: that in itself is tricky as we have no Halda, merely the car’s original odometer, and it’s slow to the tune of a tenth every 10km or so. Anyway, we’ve made a foray via a few hairpins up the wooded hillside and we’re getting into the swing. Life is good, we’re counting down towards the end of our allotted 13min 48sec on the stage, and we can see the control, so we pull in, wait a couple of minutes, head back out tentatively, pull up again ahead of the advance warning, gather our wits and then count our way down to the finish. Perfect. Reckon we’ve got this. The second stage continues in similar fashion, with Dixon at the wheel this time so I can reacquaint myself with navigating and, yes, it’s been a couple of years since I did this, but I’m instantly at home and get us through the 36km in the allotted 58 minutes with no wrong turns. And Mr D concurs: the 300SL Roadster is a pleasing mount.
Then it’s time to swap seats for the final stage of the day. At which point it goes wrong: Dixon parks up and kills the ignition. When I turn the key again just a minute later, there’s nothing. Not a click. Dodgy ignition switch? Battery? An iPhone comes out, taking a picture under the dash. Is that a loose wire in the back of the barrel? Some twiddling elicits no churning of the starter motor, so we resort to a bump start. Thankfully the Merc fires and we’re on our way. We’ve lost ten minutes.
Which is all forgotten as we blast through the tollgates and onto the Silvretta-Hochalpenstrasse. We’d seen the twiddly bits in the routebook, but the relentless section of hairpins is truly breathtaking. Thank goodness for that easy shift because I’m often dropping down into first, heaving at the wheel to turn-in, then feeding the gas and feeling the tail help out just enough, getting us round the bend and wringing the straight-six out towards 5000rpm, which seems a natural limit as it fluffs a bit there. It’s very hoch indeed at the top, more than 2km in altitude – the highest point of the whole event, well up with the snow – and some of the slower cars that got ahead of us when we were bump-starting are getting in the way: overtaking opportunities are few and, even when the road gets straighter and wider, suddenly there are cattle. Everywhere. How very Alpine.
There’s another timed stage (5260m in 7.40min: they describe each one differently), which all goes fine, and it’s followed by a curious rolling test, split over two 70m stretches, the first in 12sec and immediately into the second, at 15sec – but with the engine off. Will we have the necessary braking? It’s certainly steep enough that we don’t need the engine, and according to Dixon’s stopwatch we’ve done it – only we then discover the true cost of that bump start. If we nail it, we’ll just make the end of the section on time…
Thus begins a thoroughly inspiring drive, the sort these roads are made for, as I get in stride with the lengthy gearing – it’s a four-speed, though top is so high that you don’t need it as soon as you think you will. We’re climbing towards the timing post as others are piling down the other way, heading for the timed stage, and they’re taking up a lot of road. Suddenly, there it is, with a marshall waiting… only he waves us through. Where’s the timing gear? We were bang-on, according to the book; we’d made up the time. It’s another 2km to the end of the section; if that’s where we break the light beam, we’re going to be late.
Confusion reigns as the gate approaches, but the tension is broken as we hear our names over the tannoy, after which the commentator, er, comments on the car behind us: a TVR. It stands, of course, for ‘Trevor Vilkins Racing’, he assures the crowd. Chortle. Time for dinner: there are three kinds of strudel. Yum, Austrian pudding. Which to choose? All three, please. Well, it’s been a while since breakfast.
Next day dawns beautifully, and we’re up with the sunrise. There had been drama the night before: on the way back to the hotel from the restaurant, we’d pulled over to take some pictures. And then the Merc wouldn’t start. Long story short: we bumped it down the mountain, called the mechanics, and now we begin the day with a new battery on board.
Maybe it’s just a confidence thing but the car feels better as a result. It’s certainly revving harder: that hesitation at 5000rpm is gone. Maybe we limbered it up properly on Day 1. There’s the hint of a sticking brake, but the mechanics assure us that all is well, so we take the start and head out on the first of no fewer than six stages.
Familiar territory lies ahead: we’re leaving the state of Vorarlberg to head for Landeck, in Tirol. The quickest way? Via the Hochalpenstrasse, of course. The confidence is definitely there, I’m driving harder, no need for first in those hairpins this time as I’m taking more momentum into them and scoring a very satisfying slide on a couple of exits. Soon we’ve caught the Lancia Ardea (it was a regular sight on Day 1, chugging up the climbs) and the driver waves us through with a smile.
A mystery overnight text had informed us in German code that we were running 17th in class and 81st overall, with 122 time penalties. It’s not bad, but not great. Did that confusion near the end of the day cost us? We’ll never know and, to be honest, it doesn’t matter. For now, the weather is warming up, the car is in its element, and the scenery is just breathtaking. It’s not simply the height of the mountains but the character in their slopes, the views along the valleys, the variety in the flowers and shrubs, the sheer velvet greenness of the grass. And all those folds in the rock make for matching challenges on the road; you’re never far from a vertiginous drop. There’s a touch of bump-steer over rough sections, and occasionally a whiff of friction materials, but as we head for the driver change at Landeck the car is right at home.
‘We’re running 30th overall! Against all those 911s! And Klaus “935” Ludwig!’
There’s a generous 2½ hours allowed for this next 67km section, Dixon is at the wheel and there are more squiggles beckoning on the map. What a road! It’s a steep climb punctuated by hairpins, then a steady descent through a broad valley along a sweeping road that seems to go on for miles, before yet more hairpins, then a long drop via bend after bend, not unlike the Stelvio Pass’s northern side. It’s utterly thrilling, made all the more so as a text comes through: we’re running 30th overall and are the leading car in Team Mercedes-Benz Classic! Against all those 911s! And Klaus ‘935’ Ludwig!
Yet all is not well. We’ve been aware for a while of an inconsistent feel at the brake pedal, sometimes firm, sometimes soft, and with different lengths of travel, and what had been a hint of drag is making itself more evident with the odour of hot brakes. We make it to the end of the pass, knowing there’s a hotel stop and plenty of time to sort things in just a couple of clicks. And before that is a petrol station. So we stop and fill up, get back in the car, pull out towards the road… and the brake pedal sinks to the floor. Before I even know what’s happened, Dixon has pulled us up on the handbrake – and as his heart rate subsides, I reach for my phone. Seems we’ll be heading back to base in the back of a V-class.
Breakfast, Day 3. We’re disqualified, we know that, but Team Mercedes-Benz Classic has found us a replacement car: a 1958 300SL Roadster, in silver with red trim. It’s outside, already wearing our names and number. One of the mechanics explains that, yesterday, the servo had developed a fault and our brake fluid had boiled only while the car was at rest in the service station – for which, at least, we can be thankful. They’d changed the fluid but then endured a drive back along the motorway with the same inconsistent pedal and dragging brakes.
Onwards and upwards. The new car looks the business, and we have a final 100 miles of gorgeous Austria to play with, all within this western end of the country. The fun begins with a time trial in the car park of the Liebherr crane factory, then we start climbing again and head along a beautifully curvaceous road between the towns of Ludesch and Sonntag. Dixon’s at the wheel, reckoning on more sensitive steering, a keener throttle – and more consistent brakes. Not necessarily more powerful though, as this earlier car runs on drums rather than discs. A further peculiarity is that the indicators are operated by flicking the horn-ring to right or left. Yup, took us a while.
I take my turn on the section towards Dornbirn, whereupon we encounter a timed section on a tiny road that feels exactly like Shelsley Walsh. Yes, the steering is that bit more direct around the straight-ahead, actually making the Merc feel slightly nervous; it has you correcting constantly, moving against the car, while in the red one we had just flowed. Maybe there was vagueness there for a reason. But throttle response is certainly more encouraging, it feels as though there’s more power here, though it could simply be a car that’s been driven more frequently of late – or perhaps it was restored more recently. That would explain the gearbox. It’s a bit more trad Merc in its knuckly nature.
We drop into Au and are funnelled by police into the parking area of a woodyard. An accident? The road is closed. We are stationary for several minutes and the place is soon full with millions of pounds’ worth of classic cars. Hmm. This is time that could be spent on photography, so we head out, back along the way we had come. We’re gone nearly two hours. The road-block has moved with us. We can’t get back. Cows. Yes, they’re operating a moving road-block so the farmer can lead his herd to a different pasture.
We can’t help but laugh. Somewhat hysterically. This event has not been without the odd fraught moment, but we’d run as high as 30th overall, and I’ll take that. They’ll be packing away the time checks before we can even get to them, so we elect to follow the road book and just enjoy the rest of the trip – the car, the scenery, the roads, they are as remarkable as you’ll find anywhere. It isn’t every day you get to tool around the Alps in a glamorous £1m roadster.
Incredibly, we make up some of the time and head back into the closing stages among the competitors. There’s a particularly memorable chase with an Abarth 356 and a lumbering yet extremely well-driven Merc 280SE 3.5 Cabrio as we drop back into the valley from where we’d started. Then, before we know it, there’s the finish line, up ahead, in the middle of Schruns. It’s been an incredible three days. And we never did eat the cereal bars.