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Eight stages take the cars over 3100 kilometres across Mexico


In acht Etappen über 3100 Kilometer quer durch Mexico

50 years ago: Mercedes-Benz celebrates a sensational one-two victory in the Carrera Panamericana rally

  • Course record set at an average speed of 165 km/h
  • Some nerve-shredding moments and a collision with a vulture

photo by daimlerchrysler 12-02November 2002 sees the 50th anniversary of a landmark chapter in the motorsport history of Mercedes-Benz. In 1952 a pair of 300 SL sports cars swept to a one-two finish in the legendary Carrera Panamericana road race having completed the 3100-kilometre route across Mexico from the Guatemalan border in the south to Ciudad Juárez on the country's northern border with the USA. High mountains, thousands of twists and turns and searing heat were only a few of the challenges facing the drivers. The partnership of driver Karl Kling and co-driver Hans Klenk took the win, setting a sensational course record of 18 hours, 51 minutes and 19 seconds - averaging a quite remarkable speed of 165 km/h on hazardous and, for the most part, public roads with few serious safety measures in place. The second-placed SL team of Hermann Lang and Erwin Grupp crossed the finish line 35 minutes after their jubilant Mercedes colleagues. Since 1988, a road race for historic cars - "La Carrera Panamericana" - has again been staged in Mexico to commemorate the spectacular 1952 race. The 2002 edition unfolded over seven stages from 25 to 31 October, taking the international field from southern Mexico northwards to the border with the USA. The unpredictable nature of the 1952 race, which saw the winning car having to overcome a collision with a vulture as well as numerous punctures caused by the rough road surfaces, ensured that the Carrera Panamericana would be remembered as an unforgettable feast of motorsport. The 3113-kilometre-long route that year proved to be a real car breaker and a logistical marathon of service and tyre-change points. Spread over eight stages, some up to 1000 kilometres in length, the "Carrera" took the drivers from Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the tropical south of the country along the edges of plunging gorges and over high mountain passes as far as Ciudad Juárez in the north. Drivers and cars were forced to endure glaring sunshine, temperature swings from 5° to 40° C in the shade, climbs from sea-level to 3300 metres, countless roadside repairs and otherwise "life-threatening" course conditions - and they still managed to notch up speeds which seem unbelievable even half a century on.

SL: two letters secure a place in automotive legend

photo by daimlerchrysler 12-02One condition which made possible Mercedes' glorious victory in this road race was the Daimler-Benz Board of Management's decision in the summer of 1951 to give the green light for the construction of a new racing sports car. On 13 March 1952, only nine months after the Board had made that landmark decision, the first one was ready for action. By the Mille Miglia road race in Italy, the Mercedes sports car was approaching peak condition, taking second place in the overall classification. Rarely has a sequence of letters before or since approached the charisma and glamour inherent in the model designation "SL". Originally conceived as merely an abbreviation for "sporty" and "light", the two letters have come to embody the tradition of the Mercedes brand, attaining the status of a living legend. The 300 introduced itself to the sporting arena in style. Although a lack of time and finances dictated that only the W 186 saloon - the famous Mercedes-Benz 300 - could be used as a technical basis, the sports car was an immediate success. As head of testing Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the driving force behind the development of the 300 SL, later recalled: "We took the series-produced engine from the 300 and built a tubular frame with an aluminium body around it." It was a concept which hit all the right notes - as an enviable record in top-class races testifies. After its second-place finish in the 1952 Mille Miglia, the Mercedes sports car further enhanced its reputation in the Grand Prix at the Bremgarten circuit in Bern by finishing in first, second and third places. Then, in June that year, the Lang/Rieß and Helfrich/Niedermayr driver teams notched up a spectacular one-two finish at Le Mans. Still the 300 SL was not finished, moving on to secure a clean sweep of the top four positions at the Nürburgring in August. This success in European race competition inspired the Stuttgart-based car manufacturer to widen its horizons and seek out ever more exotic challenges, even overseas: next stop Carrera Panamericana.

Carrera Panamericana: an illustrious name for a legendary road race

The Herculean task was complete, but scarcely anyone had noticed. By 1950, the flourishing state of Mexico had become the first country in Latin America to finish its part of the Panamerican Highway, a section of that fabulous road stretching across both North and South America and providing the first continuous land link between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. But this fact alone was not sufficient to focus world attention on Mexico and on the nation's most recent pride and joy. Something had to be done - but what? The answer, as the Mexican Ministry of Transport realised, was be found literally at their feet. The ministers had little difficulty persuading President Miguel Alemán of the merits of staging an international car race. This "Carrera Panamericana", he calculated, would turn the eyes of the world on Mexico. His calculations proved right. "La Carrera Panamericana" - that exotic and auspicious-sounding synonym for motoring thrills and spills - made not just the committed motorsport enthusiast sit up and take notice. The race was an instant hit in America. And in Europe, too, it unleashed an unexpected tide of euphoria. No wonder, given that everybody who was anybody in the world of motor racing was keen to get a slice of the action. That went for the drivers - including the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling, Hermann Lang, Alberto Ascari and Giovanni Bracco - as well as for the manufacturers. Europe was represented by works teams from Ferrari, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Gordini and Porsche. And American representation was no less prominent, with interest shown by the world's largest carmakers Chrysler, Ford and General Motors and their Buick, Cadillac and Oldsmobile brands. Although there could scarcely have been a better time for Mercedes-Benz to get involved in the race, one prominent figure within the company remained sceptical. Director of motorsport Alfred Neubauer was also an experienced racing driver and he was well aware that the regulations for the first race in 1950 only permitted cars which were already in large-scale series production and which had at least five seats. This specification, rather curious from a European perspective and no doubt aimed principally at the vehicles built by Mexico's American neighbours, meant that the race was contested by a field of somewhat large and unwieldy cars, wholly unsuited to racing on such a fast and winding course. The winner of the first race was the American Hershel McGriff, driving an Oldsmobile 88. His time? Over 27 hours - eight hours longer than Kling and Klenk would take two years later in their 300 SL.

The Board decides: Mercedes-Benz joins the line-up for the third Mexico rally

In 1951, the organisers decided to water down the rule, before finally allowing cars which had been prepared specifically for racing the following year. The newly constructed 300 SL from Mercedes-Benz was the perfect answer to the demands of the Mexico race. With a kerb weight of 870 kilograms, a wheelbase of 2.40 metres, state-of-the-art drum brakes, an engine output of 180 hp, a low bonnet line, a quite sensational drag coefficient for the time of 0.25 and a top speed of 240 km/h, this was the right sports car in the right place at the right time. Neubauer overcame all reservations. Galvanised by the brand's notable achievements in European competition, he sensed success on the challenging terrain of Mexico as well. His ambitions were formalised after a Board meeting on 22 September 1952 yielded management resolution 4150, which set the seal on the participation of three cars in the third Carrera Panamericana scheduled for 19 to 23 November that year.

Preparations: altitude testing in the Alps and the voyage to Mexico

With minimal time remaining to complete the preparations essential for a road race this extreme in nature, Mercedes driver Karl Kling set off for the Alps within 24 hours of the Board of Management's decision to participate, in order to carry out the testing necessary to tune the 300 SL's ignition and carburettor jets in preparation for the extreme altitudes of up to 3300 metres - over 800 metres higher than any European mountain pass - that the car would experience in Mexico. In order to arrive in Mexico at the earliest possible date, the vehicles and service team left Hamburg on the "MS Anita" at the beginning of October 1952 for the Atlantic crossing to the Mexican port of Veracruz, which lasted several weeks. They were followed at the end of the month by Alfred Neubauer and his driver teams of Karl Kling/Hans Klenk and Hermann Lang/Erwin Grupp on board a KLM DC 6 aircraft. Their journey - a wearing two-day ordeal - took them to Mexico from Stuttgart-Echterdingen via Amsterdam, Gander, Montreal and Monterey. The driver of the third 300 SL - the young American John Fitch - had already arrived in Mexico to welcome the rest of the Mercedes party. Fitch was to tackle the race in an open-top roadster variant - in contrast to the coupés of Kling and Lang - and he later expressed his delight on coming face-to-face with the 300 SL for the first time: "This was one hell of a racing car! The air in the cockpit was heavy with that unmistakable odour produced by hard brake pads, mixed with a delicate waft of hot oil. The accelerator and brake pedal were arranged perfectly in relation to each other, allowing you to pivot your right foot over to the accelerator pedal at the same time as braking. The transmission was poetry in motion - with extraordinarily light and precise gear-change."

Preparations on the ground called for great speed and concentration. Just three weeks remained for the three-dozen Mercedes motorsport specialists - drivers, assistants and mechanics - to prepare for the long, hard road race in the most exacting of geographical and climatic circumstances. Just enough time to tune the 300 SL to the extreme demands of the racing ahead. The teams had the added challenge of noting and committing to memory the countless corners, narrow bridges and other potential hazards which peppered the 3100-kilometre route and were often impossible to see when approaching at high speed. A single test drive of the mammoth course using a much slower borrowed Mercedes 300 Saloon meant that any such preparations were only partially possible. What caused the team the most concern was the extremely rough asphalt and its capacity for greatly accelerating tyre wear in the course of the thousands of corners which had to be taken during the race.

Under starter's orders: 90 cars line up at the start in Tuxtla Gutiérrez

Wednesday, 19 November 1952, and at last the fun could begin. At 6.30 in the morning the first of the 90 cars (29 sports cars and 61 touring cars) left the starting line in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, with the rest of the field following at one-minute intervals. The road race's immense and impressive supporting cast included around 40,000 soldiers, 3,000 medical personnel and 600 officials. A fleet of 65 aircraft transported men and material from one stage to the next.

Running into trouble: a collision leaves a shattered windscreen and an unconscious co-driver

The Carrera Panamericana soon lived up to its burgeoning reputation as a car-breaker, something the teams' preparatory outings had also indicated. Nobody was more keenly aware of this than Kling and Klenk, who felt the full force of the rally's destructive potential during the opening stage. Kling, thundering towards a long right-hand bend at 200 kilometres per hour, spotted the vultures lurking by the side of the road too late. One of them promptly took off, smacking into the windscreen of the 300 SL on its ascent. Co-driver Hans Klenk sustained an impact to the face and was briefly knocked unconscious. However, he reacted like a true professional: this was no time for peaceful convalescence - there was a race to be won. Klenk's first words on coming to confirmed as much: "Let's get going, Karl!" And Karl Kling duly put his foot back down. Some 70 kilometres down the road, Klenk then used the opportunity presented by a tyre change to wash down his face, willing helpers picked the fragments of glass and bird from the car, and without further ado the pair were back on the road and heading for the stage finish in Oaxaca. After completing the stage, Hans Klenk was given a quick once-over, passed fit and sent on his way with an encouraging "vaya con Dios" ( God be with you). Clearly some form of protection was required in the event of a similar impact, and to this end, Kling and Klenk bolted eight vertical steel bars over the new windscreen. They also discussed the species and size of the dead bird, agreeing that it was a bird with a 115-centimetre wingspan and weighing as much as five fattened geese. If anything, the incident seemed to spur on Kling and Klenk, and with passing years it turned the victory and the Carrera Panamericana itself into the stuff of legend.

A prayer book makes its debut in the Carrera Panamericana

And so the Mercedes 300 SL teams continued their pursuit of victory through the wilds of Mexico: Karl Kling and Hans Klenk, Hermann Lang and Erwin Grupp, John Fitch and Eugen Geiger. The mountain stages took in some of the most hazardous stretches of road to be found anywhere in the world. Precipitous descents, sudden chicanes and vicious hairpins tested to the limit the cars' brakes, chassis and tyres - not to mention the courage and concentration of the drivers. At times the rock face fell sheer away on either side as the road hugged gorges up to three hundred metres deep. However, a play-safe strategy was inevitably going to jeopardise any chance of victory. The 300 SL drivers had their own solution to the race's myriad challenges: Hans Klenk noted down all the significant danger points and their exact location on the road during the exploratory run. Kling overcame initial scepticism as to the effectiveness of this laborious technique after a series of tests: "There's certainly something to be said for this note-taking idea," he admitted. The partnership's success in the race delivered concrete vindication of Klenk's methods. It also identified him as the true inventor of the "prayer book", which continues to provide today's rally drivers with indispensable information about the road ahead. Karl Kling was thus able to rely on these notes to complement his uncanny instinct for driving "by sight" at speed on unknown stretches of road. The punishing surfaces took a heavy toll on man and machines, the drivers and co-drivers making do with minor roadside repairs during the stages. But the unsung heroes of the event were the mechanics, ready to spring into action between stages to change transmission ratios and replace cracked windscreens, tyres, clutches, shock absorbers, doors; often even the sweat-soaked drivers' shirts.

As the final day of the Carrera Panamericana dawned, Karl Kling and Hans Klenk were lying in fourth position. But then Kling and Klenk flew with blistering speed over the last stage to secure a comfortable overall victory in front of thousands of jubilant Mexican and Texan spectators. As Karl Kling put it: "We were so fast on some of the stages that even in a chartered DC 3 our director of motorsport Alfred Neubauer couldn't keep up." The victorious cars were scarred by the torturous ordeal they had been put through: the wind and sand had stripped the paintwork down to the metal and the bodywork had become scratched, dented and chipped by flying stones. However, nothing - not even the disqualification of team colleague John Fitch - could take the gloss off Karl Kling and Hans Klenk's victory and course record or Mercedes' one-two finish. Fitch was disqualified amid scenes of great confusion, despite securing the fastest time over the final stage. It was alleged that at the start of the penultimate stage he had sought outside assistance when he drove back behind the starting line to have his car's wheel alignment readjusted.

The triumphant 1952 Carrera Panamericana road race was an historic event in the history of motorsport and sparked a huge increase in the popularity of both the drivers and Mercedes-Benz. Director of motorsport Alfred Neubauer put the Stuttgart-based manufacturer's success down to "a combination of driving skill, thorough preparation and technical prowess." The one-two victory was more than just the highlight of a highly successful season for Mercedes-Benz: it was an impressive demonstration of the return to competitiveness of the German automotive industry and also triggered the further development of the by now world-famous Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. The prototypes which set the Carrera Panamericana alight can thus rightly be seen as the precursors to the legendary sports car which celebrated its world premiere on 6 February 1954 at the International Motor Sports Show in New York. Unveiling the new model, Mercedes' head of testing Rudolf Uhlenhaut left his audience in no doubt as to its origins: "The SL is a sports car - with the emphasis on sport." It was a message which has stood the test of time. More than four decades later, the gullwing was crowned "Sports Car of the Century".

Technical data for the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing sports car,
the winning car in the 1952 Carrera Panamericana


Cylinders: 6, in line

Bore: 86,5 mm

Stroke: 88 mm

Displacement: 3103 cc

Compression ratio: 1:8.7

Output: 180 hp

Torque: 277 Nm


Length: 4220 mm

Width: 1789 mm

Height: 1265 mm

Wheelbase: 2400 mm

Kerb weight: 870 kg

Gross weight: 1131 kg

Top speed: 240 km/h

DaimlerChrysler Communications, December 2002



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