What’s the point of owning a car if you don’t drive it? Alex Curtis not only drives his 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL on the street but races it wheel-to-wheel on track as well.
How can someone take such a valuable, historic, legendary, and rare car out of the safety of a garage or museum, much less subject it to danger and damage out on a race track?
From the very start, Alex Curtis’ goal was to own a car that had a racing-pedigree to start and make sure it keeps doing what it was born to do. He not only drives this 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SL in and around his home of Scottsdale, Arizona, but he also takes it racing at events like the Sonoma Speed Festival and the Monterey Historics at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
This W198 300 SL, chassis 198.040.5500730, was destined to run on racetracks since it was built. It ran European circuits before it came to the US, where it continued to drive on track. Alex, though, didn’t purchase it initially. In fact, sixteen years ago he traded an old hot rod that he daily drove for this car. He didn’t really want to sell it but kicked around the idea of getting a different car. A man approached him one day and really wanted that hot rod. So, Alex mentioned he’d do a trade, but the “new” car had to be a classic Mercedes 300SL and one with a real racing pedigree. That guy found this Gullwing in Europe and made the trade happen.
Alex was already a racer and it’s a tradition that runs in his family. His father raced cars and his mother was a car lover, too. She even stated to Alex that the 300SL was the pinnacle of all racing cars when he was a kid. With this being said, there was already an early influence for this car in his life.
It’d be difficult to argue with that logic. Even with how spartan it is, the 300SL is a magnificent vehicle at every angle. If there is one point that makes it a difficult car to live with, it’s the egress. This was necessary due to its tubular frame design, as the sides of the frame reached up above the sill area of a traditionally-designed car. So, the only type of doors that could work were the Gull-wing design that now makes this car iconic and desirable.
This also required Mercedes-Benz engineers to come up with a way to make getting in an out of the Gullwing easier. They did this by allowing the steering wheel to tilt downward by ninety-degrees. On this car, that feature has been removed so that this special wooden steering wheel, bearing his father's name on the left spoke, could be installed. It was the same steering wheel used on the car his father, Edwin Curtis, drove in the 1986 Mille Miglia – a 1950 Frazer Nash Le Mans replica with chassis code 421/100/119.
To make this steering wheel work, the original Mercedes hub was removed, and a custom piece was machined out of aluminum. Any time Alex is behind the wheel, this wheel is a reminder of his father and the family tradition.
Other than that, this car's interior is almost wholly original. A pair of safety harnesses, various components more suited for racing, and a roll bar, are all that differs from the way it left the factory. There hasn’t been any reupholstery or custom work done to it to change the classic lines and looks of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Again, I'd like to reiterate that this car has real racing pedigree, as witnessed by the many plaques and decals that grace this car. This includes the 50th anniversary of the Tulip Rally in the Netherlands. The 1955 running of the rally was won by a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, by the way with Hans Tak behind the wheel. Can’t say if it was or wasn’t this car, but it’s an interesting note to think about. To be fair, it most likely wasn’t as Hans’ car did not have a passenger side exit exhaust installed.
If you take a look inside the cabin, the hand brake of the 300SL is interesting. Rather than route through the center tunnel, it’s sits at the left side of the driver between the seat and the tall sill. The nut and threaded rod are how it is adjusted.
The “racing parts” mentioned earlier rest here. A small heel plate and a dead pedal with grip tape on it.
Since historic racing involves wheel-to-wheel, fender-to-fender competition (despite the racing being very careful and nuanced) a roll cage was required to be installed. However, considering what this car was built for, it’s a welcome addition. Even so, the metal strip surrounding the rear interior is still in place and was used to keep the fitted luggage tied down.
Since the goal of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL was to reduce the frontal area of the car for better aerodynamics, the engine sits at a 45-degree angle. This version of the M198 survives living at this angle thanks to its factory dry sump lubrication system. This also eliminates the oil pan, reducing the overall height of the engine and making the two-valves-per-cylinder engine far more compact than the M186 it was based on. It also featured mechanical direct fuel injection, much like modern cars today.
However, as the name hints to, it uses an engine driven pump and injector system. The lines are threaded directly into the engine block and high-pressure fuel injected into the combustion chamber. This car also features a pair of ignition coils, because race car. Interestingly, the roadster used a better camshaft and made more power and torque–the Gullwing at 220-horsepower and 206-lb-ft of torque, the roadster with 240-horsepower and 217-torque. Alex admits that this engine has been opened and improved along with the rest of the chassis. Nothing drastic, but stuff to make it better and more reliable on track.
This side exit exhaust wasn’t stock from Mercedes-Benz on the 300SL and was added while the car was still racing in Europe. The “91” livery pays homage to Alex’s wife, Carina, as September 1st is her birthday.
What makes this car and story even better is that when Alex isn’t driving this car, Carina will hop in and drive it to get groceries, do errands, and basically anything else you would do in a daily driver. This makes the story of this 300SL interesting because, even versions of the Gullwing that aren’t raced are rarely driven on the street.
To know that both Curtis’ will still drive this beautiful classic without a second thought is amazing. In fact, this is one of the only 300SLs that still sees racetrack duty. Of the three he knew of in 2017, his is the only one still driving and racing.
It fits with the ethos they have with this car. It’s very important to both Alex and Carina that the car is driven and seen by other people. It’s like an art piece and should be treasured and shared for everyone to see. They aren’t afraid to talk about it. It’s hard for them not to stand and talk to people for half an hour just about the car and its history. Whenever they stop, they know that they will be there for a while just talking about it.
That is the part they enjoy the most in owning this 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL.
Story by Justin Banner
Photos by Antonio Alvendia
If you like this Mercedes-Benz 300SL, you can find additional Mercedes-Benz content at mercedes.fcpeuro.com, as well as more build features like this one here. If there's anything specific you would like to see, or if you have any questions/comments, leave them in the comments section below.
Antonio Alvendia is an aficionado of cameras, rare wheels, hip hop, and obscure aftermarket car accessories. He bought his first E39 Touring after seeing M5 Estates on photo trips to Europe, and now has sights set on restoring a classic Mercedes. Antonio was a principal photographer on the limited edition hardcover book on Singer Vehicle Design's Porsche 911 builds, entitled One More Than Ten. Future goals include returning to the Nurburgring to shoot the N24 race and driving the Nordschleife again. ••• Instagram : @MOTORMAVENS