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Mercedes-Benz SLR has 50 years of racing lore

Sterling Moss stands next to a Mercedes-Benz SLR.

Sterling Moss stands next to a Mercedes-Benz SLR. One might ask the question: did Sir Stirling Moss make the SLR famous, or did the SLR help make Moss famous? Credit: Mercedes-Benz USA

The two sports cars parked side by side that September morning nearly 10 years ago in Brescia, Italy, must have been a stirring sight. One was a legend, the other a thoroughly modern, high-tech namesake with aspirations of becoming a legend.

Just as he had done 48 years earlier, former Grand Prix driver Sir Stirling Moss climbed into his now classic Mercedes-Benz Sporty Light Racer (SLR), flipped a switch and brought the ancient beast to life.

Moss was an honored guest at the 2003 Mille Miglia, an historic reenactment of the fabled 800-kilometer (500-mile) Italian road race that had been an annual tradition from 1927-'57.

Quietly sitting next to Moss was the brand-new Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren street car . . . with Formula One driver Kimi Räikkönen at the wheel.

Two vehicles and two drivers from different eras caught in a converging time warp, all because of one name - the same name - given to both machines.

Moss's steed was the actual race car that he and British journalist/navigator Denis Jenkinson had careened around the twisty two-lanes of Northern Italy back in 1955. By contrast, Räikkönen's ride was Mercedes' newest flagship sports car, designed and hand-built in England by McLaren Cars, which at the time was partly owned by Mercedes.

Back in 1955, Mercedes-Benz was riding high on victory after racing victory. In early May, Moss's roofless roadster-bodied SLR, one of only 10 built, won the Mille Miglia road race in stunning fashion.

Substituting a 310-horsepower 3.0-liter inline eight-cylinder racing engine for the SL's milder 240-horse six-cylinder powerplant, deleting the hard top and installing the latest (for the era) in streamlined body panels allowed Moss to press his car to a top speed of more than 160 mph. After 10 hours, the Moss/Jenkinson team crossed the finish line . . . 30 minutes ahead of the second-place finisher.

And then it all came crashing down. Barely a month later, disaster struck at the French 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race when an SLR driven by Pierre Levegh, travelling at top speed, hit the rear of a much-slower Austin Healey and vaulted into a crowd of spectators. Levegh and 80 others were killed.

Mercedes-Benz ended its racing program shortly thereafter and calls for an outright ban on auto racing were given serious consideration in many countries around the world.

Two years later, when a dozen people were killed in an incident during the running of the 1957 Mille Miglia, that event was cancelled entirely.

For the 2003 historical race, the same McLaren folks who painstakingly produce mega-million-dollar race cars for their Formula One team showed up with what amounted to the ultimate Mercedes-Benz sports car and a machine worthy enough to wear the SLR badge. In this case, "ultimate" meant a supercharged 617-horsepower 5.4-liter V8 tucked far behind the front wheels under the car's long snout. The engine was built by AMG, Mercedes-Benz's in-house performance division.

The accompanying five-speed automatic transmission had three distinct shift stages : Sport; SuperSport; and Race.

The engine was claimed to be capable of propelling the 3,550-pound carbon-fiber-bodied coupe to 60 mph in a mere 3.8 seconds. Top speed: close to 215 mph.

Additional racing-style content was seen in the carbon-fiber-reinforced ceramic brakes designed to provide fade-free stopping power while drastically cutting the weight of the rotors, which would normally be made from cast iron.

The modern SLR featured two gullwing-style doors, but not like the roof-hinged openings of the original SL coupe. The SLR's portals swung upward like insect wings, using hinges placed below the windshield pillar.

An adaptive rear spoiler acted like an air brake and increased its angle to 65 degrees when a fast stop was desired.

On sale in North America in August 2004, the SLR's base price was about $425,000, which as slightly less than the Porsche Carrera GT, the only other new car in the M-B's speed league. The SLR was and is a price-no-object benchmark road car for the fortunate few, just as the original was a half-century earlier.

Separated by 50 years of technology, the old and new cars are as similar as night and day, except for their glimmering silver bodies and their M-B badges.

That day in Italy, the two cars were united, the new paying homage to the old and no matter how good, likely never following in its footsteps.

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