Irvine, California - It’s one thing to restore an old vehicle from a heap of scrap to better-than-new condition. But what if all you have is old photos and factory drawings? Here’s how it happened…
After Pierre Levegh’s horrific crash at Le Mans in 1955, Mercedes-Benz withdrew from motorsport. Nevertheless it was decided, a year later, to build two very special race cars for New Jersey driver Paul O’Shea, to help make him competitive against the all-conquering Jaguars in his bid for a third US Sports Car championship in 1957.
The race cars were to be based on the brand-new 300 SL roadster, which was derived from the iconic Gull Wing, and hadn’t even been released yet.
One of them started life as a development mule, which was stripped, overhauled, and rebuilt, leaving out all the trim and using a lot of special parts to reduce weight. Since one donor car was all the race shop could get, the second one was built from scratch to the same specifications - and the two O’Shea specials were designated SLS, for Super Light Sport.
The cars had stripped chassis with all unnecessary brackets deleted, custom fuel tanks, no bumpers, narrow racing screens, roll bars behind the drivers’ seats and specially shaped cockpit covers with air intake slots.
Each had an aluminium three-litre straight six, tuned for 173kW (15kW more than the standard SL) and weighed just over 900kg - more than 400kg lighter compared to the road car’s 1330kg.
The two cars were tested at Hockenheim and shipped to New York, where they arrived on 12 April, along with a factory technician, Victor Gross, and a mound of spares, including three complete engines. Final running in was done at the Lime Rock circuit in Connecticut, after which Gross was able to report to Mercedes-Benz racing manager Alfred Neubauer that they were able to lap faster than anything else in the D Modified Class, “without being fully driven to the limit”.
O’Shea duly won the 1957 US Sports Car title but after that the cars were no longer competitive. They were apparently raced for some years with a succession of Detroit V8s, but eventually vanished altogether.
Today no trace of them is known to exist, making them the stuff of legend in the truest sense of the word. But, in characteristic German fashion, all the blueprints, records specifications, tools, data, photos and documentation from the original build were neatly filed at Stuttgart
So, when the Mercedes-Benz Classic Centre in Irvine, California decided to build something really special for the 60th anniversary of the SL, they were able to build one from scratch, using a ratty but original 1957 300 SL as a donor car.
And that’s the car that you see in the video - truly a legend reborn, and a fitting tribute to Paul O’Shea, Victor Gross and the iconic 300 SL.