In 2003 Bob Sirna brought a stunning 300 SL to Bonneville to challenge the F/GT record. That would require a run of 170 mph (273 kph) or better. All that from a fuel-injected three liter inline six. Pretty stout requirement.
But more than that, Sirna hired John Fitch to drive the car. For those of you who don’t know who John Fitch is, here is a short CV: born in 1917 in Indianapolis; his stepfather worked for Stutz; he flew a P-51 Mustang for the US Army in WWII when he actually shot down a Messerschmitt Me 262; he too was shot down over Germany and became a prisoner of war. Following the war he hooked up with Briggs Cunningham and raced the 1951 Le Mans 24 Hrs. In 1955 he won the production class in the Mille Miglia driving a factory Mercedes-Benz 300 SL. That year he was teamed with Pierre Levegh at Le Mans on the factory Mercedes team. Levegh drove the first (and last) stint in the race, running into an Austin Healey and launching himself into the crowd, killing himself and 80 spectators. In 1960 Fitch drove a Corvette for Cunningham at Le Mans and won the GT class placing 8th overall.
In spite of impeccable preparation and John Fitch, at the age of 87, the car was not able to break any records in 2003. Bad fuel pump. The car ran again in 2005 with Fitch driving, but again ran into mechanical problems.
John Fitch died on October 31, 2012, at the age of 95.
For those of you desirous of more info on John Fitch, his work in automotive safety, and his 2003 run at Bonneville, check out the PBS documentary entitled “A Gullwing At Twilight” produced and directed by Chris Szwedo.
I have to say, it’s good to see a (high dollar) classic being wrung out the way the designers intended.
So many of these cars reside in the back of a trailer traveling to the next concours or sitting on a riser in a museum…
one needs deep pocket and risk of trashing the 300sdl, which worth a few dollars these days.
One sweet looking race car!
Fuel Injection in 1955 looks a great deal like it does now.
It is good to see two classic racers doing what they were meant to do, and both doing it way, way past their prime. Bravo.
Whenever I see MB’s of this vintage, I think of Sonny Drysdale driving his “imported 190” to court Elly May.
The 300 is quite a machine. However, like the Clampetts, I’ve never been impressed by this genre of car. Give me the Imperials, Devilles, and Marks for courting or anything else.
Having had the privilege of co-driving roughly 2000 miles in a 300sl I can tell you that the build-quality, fit and finish, and overall performance of that particular vintage of Benz was a quarter-centrury ahead of anything built in Detroit… and perhaps even unmatched until today. The 300sl was the Bugatti Veyron of its day – a true super car.
One of my Dad’s med school buddies from Vienna married the daughter of the owners of the famous Swiss Mahle Piston Company (which supplied Mercedes, among many others). For a wedding present, she gave him a Gullwing. He came to visit us in Innsbruck, and I crawled all over it, but got kicked out when the men went off for a drive, which I hear was epic (he was an avid rally competitor).
I actually saw a Gullwing in west Davenport about a dozen years ago. I was on Rockingham Road heading to my aunt and uncle’s house when it passed me going the other way. The sun was setting, but I think it was red. I nearly drove off the road in shock, especially since it was a part of town that is largely blue-collar residential. Not the sort of place you’d expect to see a six- or seven-figure classic car!
I think my focus would be on Fitch, not the car. The car is a classic but so was Fitch. We have a still living uncle who was a POW after being shot down over Germany. Hope to get to visit him in Kalamazoo later this year. Don’t think he gets out much anymore.
Not many people like Fitch or cars like he drove are left anymore. I was a young boy when I got hooked.
Thanks for the under-bonnet shot. I’ve seen a gullwing in a “museum” but wasn’t allowed to pop the lid.
The 300SL was, of course, the first car with direct injection, and like the early German jet engines their design was way ahead of the available materials technology.
It doesn’t seem more than a couple of weeks since I read the obituary for John Fitch. A lot of good racers passed away in 2012.
The Starving one suggested that this posting should have been about Fitch and not the 300SL. I can’t deny that except to say that Sirna’s car came through the inspection line, not John Fitch. Ergo photos of the 300SL. John Fitch would be an apt subject for the in-depth studies that Aaron Severson does on Ate Up With Motor.
Didn’t mean for it to sound that way. That is where my focus is. The story is good and worth reading more than once. I find no fault with your focus. Our uncle makes WW2 POWs high on my list.
My dad was in the South Pacific in WWII as Chief Engineer on LSM 378 (Landing Ship Medium), a favorite target of kamakazis as they were slow, carried four tanks, and had lots of Marines. After the WWII he volunteered for the Guinea Pig Squadron to sweep the inland waters of Japan of mines sown by B-29s. For that he received a Bronze Star. I’m trying to think of a way to link all the great car stuff he drummed into me and his experiences in the South Seas. Got some cool pics. He later marketed Mobil products in Japan and never had any hard feelings against the Japanese. He liked being there and working with them. At the time of his “heroism” he was only 23 years old.
Only 170mph when new this car was designed to compete with the Dtype Jaguar which with the tallest diff ratio could top 200mph on Mulsanne straight. Dude you brought the wrong car.
The latest Hemmings Sports and Exotic has a photo essay of Mr Fitch in it. After the terrible 1955 disaster at LeMans, it was Mr Finch who convinced Mercedes boss Alfred Neubauer to withdrawl the 300 SLR cars from the race. Fitch afterwards lived a life devoted to safety on the track and safety in passenger cars. A rich and rewarding life.
It is fitting that Mr Fitch be reunited with Mercedes in this attempt at Bonneville after living through racing’s most darkest hour with the Mercedes ’55 LeMans team. Nice write up and great photos! It takes great intestinal fortitude to bring an immortal automotive classic like that to the Salt Flats!