Wednesday, March 22, 2017


In spring 2017 the Mercedes-AMG GT Roadster (R 190) is launched on the market. It is continuing a strong tradition of open-top high-performance sports cars bearing the star. One highlight in this history was the premiere 60 years ago of the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster (W 198) at the Geneva Motor Show from 14 to 24 March 1957. The open-top sports car superseded the successful "gull-wing" 300 SL Coupé, which was built from 1954. The North American market in particular provided considerable impetus for an open-top version of the 300 SL. In technical terms the roadster differed from the coupé in numerous details, the latter being derived from the successful 300 SL racing car. Today the 300 SL Roadster is one of the most coveted and valuable classics the Mercedes-Benz brand has.
Stuttgart. Readers of the North American "Colliers Magazine" were the first to hear about the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Roadster 60 years ago. For the Stuttgart brand gave top photographer David Douglas Duncan the opportunity to showcase a pre-series roadster for the October issue of the magazine in 1956. It was a media coup, and a well considered one. Because in the United States demand for an open-top variant of the 300 SL was very high. The market was an important one for the segment of luxurious sports cars: since 1954 Mercedes-Benz had already exported a large proportion of its coupés to North America, a good 800 of a total of 1400 vehicles built. Duncan, who had himself driven a 300 SL "gull-wing" for years, shot the roadster from the W 198 model series on the Stelvio Pass and also at the main Mercedes-Benz factory in Sindelfingen for the photo spread. The final series version was then unveiled by Mercedes-Benz in March 1957 at the Geneva Motor Show. By 1963 a total of 1858 units of the roadster were built, and from 1958 it was also available with a hardtop.
The publication "Motor Revue" wrote of the new sports car: "Where the engine and driving characteristics are concerned the 300 SL Roadster is a masterstroke." The magazine characterised the sports car as "a touring vehicle for two people, featuring superior performance and roadholding". It was not just the specialist press that was impressed by the open-top version of the "gull-wing" coupé. Media such as the weekly newspaper "Die Zeit" reported on the premiere of the "300 SL Roadster from Mercedes-Benz with no end of noteworthy improvements" (issue dated 21 March 1957).
Roadster tradition from motor racing
In 1952, the Stuttgart brand's first motorsport season since the end of the Second World War, the SL drove home some brilliant successes. This is why the series version, the 300 SL "gull-wing" (W 198) was derived from it, and presented by Mercedes-Benz in February 1954 in New York at the International Motor Sports Show together with the prototype of the 190 SL (W 121).
It soon became clear that the market was also very interested in an open-top version of the high-performance sports car. So on 20 February 1954 the Head of Body Testing in Sindelfingen, Karl Wilfert, demanded the development of a 300 SL Roadster as a sample car. Friedrich Geiger, the first Head of the Design Department in Sindelfingen, back then referred to as Stylistics, presented the first drafts on 5 May 1954. Later Geiger then also developed the matching hardtop, which took on the silhouette of the coupé.
Green light for the roadster
On 2 June 1954 the Board of Management gave the green light for building two test cars and one presentation car. In November 1954 series production of the vehicle was put back for the time being. On 26 July 1955 the Board then made its decision: "The decision has been taken to build the 300 SL Roadster with an attachable coupé roof and where necessary to take on extra staff for this", is how the Board meeting's minutes recorded it.
Developing the coupé into the roadster was associated with some technical modifications. In particular the engineers had to change the space frame. Due to its high design on the flanks this had once called for the characteristic gull-wing doors of the coupé. The frame was now lavishly redesigned on both sides in order to make classic doors possible without any change in the high torsional stiffness. Modifications were also made at the rear of the frame. On the one hand this created space to install the single-joint swing axle with compensating springs, on the other hand for a practical boot. Lastly, in the tradition of the luxurious Mercedes-Benz 300 S, the roadster was intended to fulfil the role of a sporty touring car much more effectively than the coupé. The changes led to an increase in the vehicle weight of around 120 kilograms.
The roadster's handling was impressive. A test report by Mercedes-Benz engineer Erich Waxenberger stated: "The 300 SL Roadster with a single-joint rear axle and compensating springs boasts much better roadholding with sports springs and dampers than the 300 SL Coupé with a twin-joint rear axle. The strong tendency to oversteer has been changed to slight understeering, so this vehicle can safely be driven to its limits within a short space of time. According to Mr [Rudolf] Uhlenhaut and Mr [Karl] Kling the 300 SL Roadster lies somewhere between the Grand Prix racing cars and the 300 SLR where roadholding is concerned." There could hardly have been a better report for the sports car from the fathers of the Silver Arrows. In March 1961 the chassis was further improved with the introduction of disc brakes on all four wheels.
Initially the engineers adopted the engine from the coupé without changing it. The three-litre six-cylinder M 198 in-line engine featuring petrol injection and an output of  158 kW (215 hp) had a grey-cast-iron block. It was replaced in spring 1962 by a 44 kilogram lighter aluminium cylinder block.
Apart from the omitted roof, various details of the roadster's design also differed from that of the coupé: the open-top sports car has vertical lamp units at the front. These contain the headlamps, fog lamps and indicators under the same lens. In the years that followed, this element would shape the appearance of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars. A soft top, developed by Friedrich Geiger, was necessary due to the construction. It was easy to operate and at the time was the fastest soft top to open and close by hand. After opening it was concealed beneath a sheet metal cover. Eighteen months after the market launch of the roadster, a hardtop which had been planned from the outset became available.
Sportiness in the genes
The tradition of the sporty Mercedes-Benz SL started in 1952 with the 300 SL racing car (W 194) was systematically continued by the 300 SL Roadster: two vehicles known as the 300 SLS were created for the 1957 season on the basis of the open-top sports car, for entering the North American Sports Car Championship. The specially produced models were 337 kilograms lighter respectively than the series version and had an uprated engine with 173 kW (235 hp). Paul O’S hea, who had already won the championship in category D with the "gull-wing" in 1955 and 1956, took the title for the third time in succession with the 300 SLS. In the early 1960s Eberhard Mahle and Gunther Philipp entered sports car races in 300 SL Roadsters.
The series version, which was available in various transmission configurations, also demonstrated sporty performance. In November 1958 a 300 SL Roadster with the longest available ratio of i=3.25 achieved an average speed of 242.5 km/h on the Munich-Ingolstadt motorway with a racing windshield and covered co-driver's seat. The time was measured by the Main Sports Department of the German automobile club the ADAC. On 8 February 1963 the last of 1858 300 SL Roadsters built left the assembly line in the Sindelfingen plant. Today the 300 SL Roadster is one of the most sought-after and valuable Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Cars which are kept in top condition and are above all original achieve market prices significantly north of a million euros. This market situation reflects the popularity and at the same time the rarity of the 300 SL Roadster. Nevertheless, ALL TIME STARS, the Mercedes-Benz Museum's marketplace, does have outstanding specimens to offer from time to time. An alternative is factory restoration of an existing 300 SL Roadster by Mercedes-Benz Classic: exactly in accordance with the original specification – it does not get any better than that.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Briggs Cunningham and the Beginnings of the Sports Car Craze in the US

The source for this post is Roger Butterfield, "Crazy Over Sports Cars," Saturday Evening Post, 226 (November 7, 1953), 34-66.

Between 1949 and 1953 Briggs Cunningham spent over a million dollars in an attempt to win at Le Mans. Described as a "lean and speed-hungry man," Cunningham was a car collector owning such vehicles as a 1911 Underslung, Hispano Suizas, Pierce Arrows, Mercers, Duesenbergs, Buggatis, Alfa Romeos and Rolls Royces. More modern vehicles included Cadillacs, a Lincoln, Chrysler, Dodge, Ford, Willys Jeep, Mercedes, aston Martin, Porsche, M.G. O.S.C.A., and a  Bentley.

Cunningham was originally from old money Cincinnati (pork processing), but by the 1950s his home base was West Palm Beach, Florida during the winter, and Long Island the other half of the year. His interest in automobiles went back to his youth, and in 1929 he dropped out of Yale after two years. He followed a lifestyle of golfing, sailing, and travel, buying a Alfa Romeo after marrying the daughter of a New York industrialist, Lucie Bedford, and going to England

His interest in auto racing was in part the result of a friendship with the Collier Brothers, Miles and Sam. The Colliers sustained interest in sports car road racing in the US during the Interwar years, inviting devotees to a track at their home in Tarrytown, New York There dedicated amateurs tried new gadgets and and a variety of modified cars.

Interest in sports cars -- light, simple agile and small -- was a reaction to American cars of the 1930s and 1940s -- vehicles that were increasingly build like a home. Detroit iron became comfortable, with soft springing, heaters , radios, and plush interiors. The sports car of the post-War era -- typified by the M.G. T-C and T-D was anything like their American counterparts -- crude, made with plenty of wood, drafty, with side curtains instead of roll-up windows, noisy, and underpowered. After WWII and prior to 1954 some 140,000 foreign cars were imported into the US.

One major event that stimulated sports car racing and ownership in the US was the annual Watkins Glen Grand Prix which began in 1948. Initially a road race that included going through the Village of Watkins Glen, NY, it began as a 6.6 mile course with 16 right-angle turns, several abrupt switches from dirt to concrete and a series of uphill and downhill grades. The popularity of the event was simply explosive between 1948 with tis 10,000 spectators and 1952, when over100,000 watched the race. Because of an accident that took the life of a young boy, the race was held on a loser track beginning in 1953.

Another major stimulus to the growth of the sports car hobby was Briggs Cunningham' assault on  the 24 hour race at Le Mans. It captivated the attention of Americans who no longer were satisfied with playing 2nd fiddle to the Europeans in almost anything! Cunningham's first attempt took place in 1950, when he entered a modified Cadillac that French fans named Le Monstre. That bizarre-looking car finished 11th, and the next year Cunningham took to France his Chrysler V-8 Fire-power engine roadsters. In 1952 Cunningham entered his CR-4s, 600 pounds lighter than the 1951 models. Victory would elude the Cunninghams, but what endured was a powerful sports car movement in the US that lasted for two generations, then last now growing old and gray.

Le Monstre

Cunningham C-3

More on this topic later!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The MGA Twin Cam: Sports Car Of The Year (1955-1956)

My first car was a black with red interior 1959 MGA. I got it my senior year jun High school, 1966.  The above film stresses the Twin-Cam variant, a car that I understand was difficult to tune and had other maintenance issues. I paid $600 for that first car, and sold it for almost that much. It was a Western New York Car, meaning it by the time I got it, it was filled with Bondo.  It never failed me, despite all the writing about Lucas electrics.  The mystery for me back then was the SU carburetors and how to tune them. I still have the Unisyn I bought to tune the car. It had wire wheels and knock off hubs, and when the top was down it introduced me to the sheer exhilaration of driving.

I wonder now what attracted me to British cars and the MG in particular? No one in my family had British cars. My older cousins didn't think much of imports at all.  I do remember walking by the sports car dealership on Delaware Avenue in North Buffalo, Mark Motors, and being struck by a light Blue MGA that was for sale for $1300.  There and to be something that made a powerful impression on my 17 year-old mind that said to me "you didn't know about this shape before, but now you must have it."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jaguar Factory Tour - 1961

This is a fascinating video illustrating Jaguar production techniques at the top of their game -- late 1950s and early 1960s.  Not a hand-made car by any measure, but plenty of skilled labor is still involved.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Betsy De Vos and her Connection to the Automobile Industry

Edgar Dale Prince

Betsy DeVos


Love her or hate her, Donald Trump's new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has a strong family connection to the automobile industry.  DeVos' father, Edgar Prince of Holland, Michigan, made his fortune manufacturing auto parts.  But perhaps his greatest innovation was one that women can't do without today:  Prince invented the lighted sun visor mirror.  How often have we seen, at red light stops, women drivers pulling down their sun visors, looking into the lighted mirror, and then quickly putting on make-up?  And then there is the occasional male driver, adjusting his tie in the lighted mirror or making sure he doesn't have a five-o'clock shadow before going into the office.  What would we do without Edgar Prince to light up our faces?

Edgar Dale Prince was born on May 3, 1931 in Holland, Michigan, the son of Edith (De Weert) and Peter Prince and died in 1995 at the young age of 63. His father was a local businessman who died of a stroke when Edgar was 11. His parents belonged to the Reformed Church in America and traced their ancestry back to the Netherlands. He graduated from the University of Michigan, where he received a bachelor of science degree in engineering.
Prince started his career at a company manufacturing die cast machines in Holland, Michigan. He quit in order to start his own manufacturing business with the help of two co-workers. The venture proved very successful and was a leading manufacturer of die-cast machines in Michigan by the 1970s. The Prince Corporation also operated a successful diversification into auto parts by developing sun visors and other interior systems for car manufacturers. After a long period of sustained growth, it employed thousands in the early 1990s at its many plants.
Ownership in the business made Prince one of the wealthiest men in Michigan.  Prince collapsed in an elevator and died in 1995.  Throughout his career he had congenital heart disease. His company was sold the following year for $1.35 billion and is now a unit of Johnson Controls.

A Mazda Sun Visor

Friday, March 17, 2017

20th Anniversary of the Return of the Silver Arrows to F1 GP

Silver Arrow on course for gold: David Coulthard (McLaren-Mercedes MP12-4, car number 10) leads Michael Schumacher (Ferrari F310B, car number 5) at the 1997 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

On 9 March 1997, the Scottish racing driver David Coulthard drove to victory at the Australian Grand Prix in a McLaren-Mercedes. It marked the first win for the Silver Arrows since the Stuttgart brand made its F1 comeback. For at the end of 1955, following two world championship titles for Juan Manuel Fangio, Mercedes-Benz had pulled out of Formula 1 racing while at the height of its success. 40 years later, it teamed up with McLaren for the 1995 season, and in 2010 Mercedes-Benz finally set up its own Formula 1 team, MERCEDES-AMG PETRONAS. Since the triumph in Australia 20 years ago, the Stuttgart brand has racked up countless victories and its drivers have won the Formula 1 world championship on a total of seven occasions: 1998 and 1999 (Mika Häkkinen), 2008 (Lewis Hamilton), 2009 (Jenson Button), 2014 and 2015 (Lewis Hamilton), as well as 2016 (Nico Rosberg).
Stuttgart. The Silver Arrows are back: "Silver evokes memories of times gone by" wrote German motoring magazine "auto motor und sport" in reference to the new colour scheme of the McLaren-Mercedes racing cars before the 1997 Formula 1 season got underway. And reverting to the classic racing colours of Mercedes-Benz did indeed seem to bring the McLaren MP4-12 good fortune: on 9 March 1997, David Coulthard won the opening race of the Formula 1 season in Melbourne ahead of Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) and Mika Häkkinen (McLaren-Mercedes).
The British/German racing team tasted success on several more occasions that season: 3rd at the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim (Häkkinen), victory at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza (Coulthard), 2nd at the Austrian Grand Prix in Spielberg (Coulthard) and a one-two at the European Grand Prix held in Jerez de la Frontera in Spain (Häkkinen followed by Coulthard).
Fans and experts alike were thrilled by the result of the Australian Grand Prix. It was, after all, the first win for McLaren-Mercedes since becoming partners and the first win for McLaren since late 1993. Coulthard's victory also has a symbolic importance as it marks the beginning of the renaissance of Mercedes-Benz and its Silver Arrows in Formula 1: it was the first step on the road to seven Formula 1 world championship titles that have been won by Mercedes-Benz drivers since then – including most recently three in succession between 2014 and 2016.
The future is silver
On 9 March 1997, Coulthard and Häkkinen started from 4th and 6th on the grid respectively in their McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12 cars. Quite a few drivers failed to finish the Australian Grand Prix, with some of them ending up in the run-off area next to the track. This prompted the magazine "auto motor und sport" to run its race report on 21 March 1997 under the heading "The gravel companions". In all, just ten of the 21 starters made it to the finish line. At the head of the field, however, a hard-fought battle ensued that required Coulthard to call on all his driving skills – and both car and engine to deliver unerring performance and reliability.
The Formula 1 Yearbook 1997 actually included a quote from Michael Schumacher, who was breathing down Coulthard's neck in his Ferrari, but eventually had to accept: "I would never have had enough to overtake on this circuit." The duel between the two race leaders closely following each other around the track was described by "auto motor und sport" as the "Coulthard/Schumacher express train" in its race report. And in the special edition containing a review of the 1997 season, the same motoring magazine summed it all up as follows: "David Coulthard controls Michael Schumacher, the man in his rear-view mirror. The Scot demonstrates a new level of self-assurance." The success of McLaren-Mercedes in Australia was also partly down to the superb performance of the pit crew: despite having a one-stop strategy, Coulthard and Häkkinen recorded the fastest pit stop times of the entire field.
The powerplant
The V10 racing engine built by the Mercedes-Benz subsidiary Ilmor had already been a key asset of the McLaren-Mercedes car in the 1996 season. McLaren-Mercedes started the 1997 season with a re-engineered version of the FO 110E. It weighed 124 kilograms, consisted of 6061 individual parts and generated an output of approx. 545 kW (741 hp) at 15,750 rpm from its displacement of 3000 cubic centimetres. Ahead of the French Grand Prix, the FO 110E with its 75-degree cylinder bank angle was superseded by the FO 110F (cylinder bank angle 72 degrees, displacement 2999 cc, 566 kW/770 hp at 16,500 rpm).
McLaren-Mercedes finished the 1997 season placed 3rd (Coulthard) and 6th (Häkkinen) in the drivers' championship and 4th in the constructors' championship. And just one year later, the Silver Arrows once again reigned supreme in motorsport's most elite discipline, when Häkkinen was crowned Formula 1 world champion. McLaren-Mercedes took the constructors' title too. By 2016, Formula 1 racing cars powered by Mercedes engines had notched up six more drivers' championships (Mika Häkkinen 1999, Lewis Hamilton 2008, Jenson Button 2009, Lewis Hamilton 2014 and 2015, as well as Nico Rosberg 2016). There were also three constructors' titles in succession between 2014 and 2016.