Known to be one of his favourite cars, he kept it for the rest of his life before passing it down to his family. ‘El Maestro’, as he was affectionately known, drove the car over 70,000 kilometres while touring Europe and South America. In 1986 the car was put on permanent display at the Juan Manuel Fangio Museum in his hometown of Balcarce, Argentina. It stood there—in pride of place alongside many of the other significant cars that Fangio drove—until last year.
The production model Mercedes-Benz 300SL (‘300’ for size of engine (2,996cc unit; ‘SL’ for ‘Sport-Leicht’ or lightweight sports) emerged from a pure competition racer model of 1952/53, a car of ground-breaking appearance whose design, construction, and performance (0-60 mph in 9.0 seconds, 125-145 mph according to various axle ratios) were of the first order. In place of a conventional chassis came a welded lightweight space-frame of small-diameter tubing which made for an extremely strong structure. The heavy, tall engine of the Mercedes Benz 300S luxury model was used once again but necessarily tilted at 40 degrees for mounting; to reduce weight, closely welded body panels were constructed of aluminium and later steel. The gullwing model came along first (1954-57) with its iconic wing-doors (essential in fact as the cockpit sides had to be deep to provide strength to the centre-section). The gullwing coupe model gave way to the roadster model in 1957, the latter sporting a larger radiator grille, wraparound windscreen, and integral one-piece light units. The roadster model also sported a notably lower frame than the gullwing which enabled conventional doors and an optional detachable hardtop to be fitted. And handling—the gullwing was notorious at high speed—was improved by the ‘compensating’ horizontal coil spring between the swing-axles resulting in tighter suspension.
It’s not fanciful to say that this Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster deserves equal historical footing to any of El Maestro’s racing cars. Even without this 300SL’s unique connection to the legendary driver, it should be regarded as a great survivor with remarkable originality in chassis, engine, body, gearbox, differential, hood-frame and hardtop. Even the original cream leather interior with all the wear and tear caused by the great man himself — including where his knee once collided with the lower dash — is present.
Displayed courtesy of RM Sotheby’s