Racing Retrospective: Sir Stirling Moss’s 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR – The Greatest Car, Driver and Race?

Picking the greatest, or the worst, of anything or any group, be it people, places, events or objects, is always a subjective thing to do. Here at CC, I’ve nominated various cars as the best of this or that – the Jaguar XJ12, the Morris Minor, the Mini, the Citroen DS and some as clunkers too – the Morris Marina is perhaps the prime candidate. I picked some winning people, notably Sir Alec Issigonis, Sir Frank Williams and Dr Fred Lanchester, and some notable aircraft. I may have been right, I may have been wrong, but I said my piece and while you might not have agreed, it is difficult to prove I was actually wrong. Constructive debate can follow and that’s fine.

Here, I’m going to try again, naming what I suggest may be candidates for the greatest racing car ever, the greatest driver of his era and the greatest achievement in a single competitive motor race. Bear with me, and you’ll get the chance to see Sir Stirling Moss in action too, in Mercedes-Benz 300SLR number 722, perhaps the most famous and evocative classic racing car in the world.

Let’s start with the driver. Moss was born in 1929 in London, the son of a successful dentist and had an upbringing and education not inconsistent with that background. The family (his sister was Pat Moss, the leading female rally driver and wife of the larger than life Swedish rally driver Erik Carlsson) lived in Berkshire, west of London, on a farm site and enjoyed the outdoor life when possible, with riding being a major passion. But Moss had a huge competitive spirit, and he participated in most sports, except cricket which was too slow for him. He was not keen or successful academically, and was also held back by illness, but was driving an Austin 7 at the age of 10 in and around the farm.

Alfred Moss, his father, is worthy of note too. Not only was he was present throughout his son’s career, partly funding some of it, partly managing a lot of it, but he was also regular competitor at Brooklands himself in the 1920s and 1930s. He had trained as a dentist in Indianapolis and competed in the Indianapolis 500 himself in 1924, the first British driver to do so.

Fast forward to 1947 and Stirling’s 18th birthday present, by negotiation, was a 500cc Cooper-JAP Formula 3 car. Moss entered at a meeting in Brough, Yorkshire on 4 July 1947; he won his heat and the final. In September 1948, he completed for the first time at Goodwood, then emerging as the new centre for amateur and club British motor sport. He won his first race at Goodwood, in the Cooper-JAP, by 30 seconds. You might not be shocked by that at first glance, but the race was just 3 laps and was all done in 6 minutes.  He was to win another 211 races from a total of 529 starts.

By the summer of 1950, Moss was able to borrow a privately owned Jaguar XK120 and on his first event in such a car, won the RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod in dominant fashion, in pouring rain. That evening, William Lyons signed Moss to lead Jaguar’s sports car team for 1951; the next day was his 21st birthday.

Moss was approached by Enzo Ferrari in 1951 about driving in the British and French Grand Prix that year with a view to a full year’s contract for 1952, and a trial was arranged, after a face to face meeting in Modena, to which Moss drove in his Morris Minor. For whatever reason, probably Enzo’s particular way of managing drivers and politics, the car was already being tested by the more experienced Piero Taruffi and Moss terminated the trial before it had stated. It was a long time before Moss and Ferrari were able to even contemplate working together.

Throughout his career, Moss tried to drive British cars whenever he could. This was often unsuccessful – he was associated with attempts by ERA and BRM to produce that British Grand Prix winner to no avail and at times his career looked to be at risk to stuttering prematurely.

In 1953, at the instigation of Alfred Neubauer, the legendary team manager of Mercedes-Benz, Moss bought a Maserati 250F for the 1954 season. Moss had tried to secure a contract from Neubauer, but at this time got only advice. Ferrari had tried for his services again but Moss declined, Maserati had a full stable and the British teams were not ready. A privately entered Maserati looked the best option, and Moss committed £3,500.00 (£100,000 adjusted) for the car. Moss won the third race he entered with the car, at Aintree in Liverpool, his first win in a Formula One car. Maserati were impressed; Moss and his car would be entered for the second half of the 1954 season by the factory.

Strong performances came at the Swiss Grand Prix and at Monza, both in front of Neubauer and involving leading Fangio, then racing in the Mercedes-Benz W194 and later the W196, until mechanical failures hit. But the point had been made, and Neubauer signed Moss (for £28,000 a year, say £750,000 now and twice what Moss was planning to ask for) for the 1955 season of Grand Prix and sports car racing, alongside Juan Manual Fangio, finishing his arrangements with Jaguar and Maserati. The relationship between Moss and Fangio was strong and mutually respectful – it seems that Fangio respected the younger Moss as an emerging exceptional talent and Moss respected Fangio as someone to learn from and emulate. Moss always declared that Fangio was the greatest of all, though.

In his fifth race in the team and after two second places to Fangio, at Aintree on 16 July 1955 in a nip and tuck race at the front with Fangio, Stirling Moss won his first Grand Prix, becoming the first British winner of the British Grand Prix. Moss always said Fangio could have beaten him, Fangio said Moss was a worthy winner. Both may be right. The season ended with the champion Fangio winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and Mercedes-Benz withdrew from Grand Prix, point made and other priorities found.

In 1957, Moss achieved what British motorsport had been waiting for – a British winner in a British car at the British Grand Prix. Driving for Vanwall, he led after the first lap but the car then started misfiring and he stopped at the pits. Team mate Tony Brooks was called in from sixth place and relinquished his car to Moss, who rejoined, now in ninth, and worked his way to the lead, benefitting from some others’ mechanical failures as he did so.

Still, an all British win went down well.

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