A Drive of a Lifetime, Nearly Ending in Mechanical Mayhem

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Memo to the new owner of the 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 grand prix car after the Goodwood auction: About half a century ago I was privileged to drive your new toy, and it's a hoot. Just be careful about shifting gears, because the pattern is backward from what we think of as normal.

It was the summer of 1960, when I was a reporter and part-time racing driver living in Germany, with some success in the latter pursuit thanks to a few very good cars. Through my work I became friendly with various Daimler-Benz executives, including Artur Keser, head of public relations, and Rudolf Uhlenhaut, chief engineer for passenger cars.

The multilingual Keser was the company's good-will ambassador. Uhlenhaut, who was also responsible for racecar development, was capable of lap times nearly equal to those posted by Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, at the time two of the world's fastest drivers.

A call came from Keser. "Come on down, you can drive Fangio's car and Uhlenhaut's coupe tomorrow," he said,

When I arrived, the cars were sitting at the side of the Stuttgart test track, several veteran Mercedes mechanics standing by with glum expressions, expecting the worst from this unknown American.

Compared with today's Formula One machinery, the Mercedes could almost be called big. It was easy to climb in, and although the transmission tunnel ran between my legs, it was quite comfortable.

The last instruction, from the chief mechanic, was "seven thousand," meaning the r.p.m. limit, and off I went, graduating from tame machines like the BMW 700, Porsche Super 90 and Abarth prototypes to one of 2.5 liters and about 300 horsepower.

Uhlenhaut once said to me, "Driving a Formula One car is much easier than a passenger car. The roadholding is better, the brakes are better, and you can see the front wheels so you can be precise about where you place them."

Then he paused, smiled, and added: "It only gets difficult when you try to go fast."

The opening laps were fantastic. I'd never driven anything so responsive and so powerful. Then it was time to go fast, and it got even better -- until halfway through the second quick lap, when I forgot that the shift pattern was reversed and went down a gear when I wanted to go up.

Before I could push in the clutch, the engine spun up to 10,000 r.p.m. Remember, this was a 1950s engine, when 10,000 r.p.m. was uncharted territory.

I rolled into the pits, the transmission in neutral and my heart in my mouth. When the chief mechanic came over, I could only point to the "telltale" on the tachometer, which had one hand at 10,200.

"How long?" he asked.

"About a second," I said.

He shrugged. "Five minutes, it doesn't like."

I started breathing again.

It was time to change cars. Uhlenhaut's coupe was one of two he had built from the all-conquering 300 SLRs that won the sports car manufacturers' championship in 1955. They were, in a sense, enlarged versions of the Formula One cars, with the tube frame revised to make room for a second seat, though the transmission tunnel still ran between the driver's legs. With an engine half a liter larger, they had all the acceleration of their Formula One cousins, and at the time were by far the world's fastest road-legal vehicles.

They were also the greatest -- and there were no botched shifts this time.

Among other things, the day was a graphic reminder that there is a difference between a racing driver and a driver of racing cars, something you, proud owner, should remember when you first climb into Fangio's old seat.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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