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Mercedes 190SL Race Car

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In 1956, a Mercedes-Benz 190SL sports car scored a rare competition win in the Macau Grand Prix - and its driver was a British serviceman.

Today we tend to think of the 190 as something of a boulevardier, forever in the shadow of its mighty 300SL relation. Mercedes-Benz itself never did much with the 190 in races or rallies, hamstrung by the limited potential of its Ponton saloon-derived engine and the car’s typically Mercedes heft, but Doug proved that in the right circumstances it could be a bit of a giant killer. Doug’s victory in the 1956 Macau Grand Prix followed an epic duel with a Ferrari Mondial, and he also beat a well-driven Austin-Healey 100M, the handsome Warrior-Bristol racer and a race-proven Jaguar XK140 special. OK, there were no D-types or Porsches on the grid, but it was still a superb result in an event that attracted entrants from all over the Far East.

It was also the high point of Doug’s career. He could, and probably would, have gone on to greater things – Colin Chapman offered him a works drive for Lotus when he returned to England – but the recently married Doug put family security ahead of racing uncertainty, and decided to stay in the Army. The rootless nature of an Army career meant that opportunities for motor sport tended to be rare and fleeting after his Hong Kong posting came to an end.

The 190 that Doug drove has long since disappeared, but a close copy has just been built by Brian Gunney Motor Restorations (+44 (0)2920 810001) on behalf of enthusiast Adrian Timothy. Already the owner of a 190SL road car before he found out about Doug’s exploits, Adrian was inspired to seek out another right-hand-drive 190 to turn into a race replica, which he hopes will be out racing in historics later this year. Naturally, Adrian has stayed in close contact with Doug throughout the project and he invited Octane to join them during the car’s first track outing at Llandow circuit last autumn.

It was only fitting that Doug should be the first to try it out and he came back beaming from ear to ear: ‘It feels just as I remember from 50 years ago – the way it handles has come back really quickly to me. The lads have done a fantastic job of preparing it and when it’s run in, that engine is going to be a beaut. We’re probably not even exploring two-thirds of its potential at the moment.’

Octane’s man was generously invited to put in a few laps and was very impressed with the benign way the 190 handles; the phrase ‘swing-axle suspension’ may conjure up images of snap oversteer but Mercedes had learnt from experience with the 300SL Gullwing and the 190 had the 220 saloon’s low-pivot system to reduce wheel camber changes. Even sticking to a 4000rpm limit, the Merc would drift beautifully in Llandow’s tighter corners and an experienced racer would be able to ‘showboat’ in this car to his heart’s content. Or hers – it’s likely that Gillian Goldsmith will be racing it in 2009.

This user-friendliness would go a long way to compensate for the 190’s modest power output. Frustratingly, although the Macau car was put through Mercedes’ competition workshop before it was shipped out, the archives have not yet revealed what was done to the engine. Possibly not a lot, for reliability would be a key factor in a race as long as the 308-mile Macau Grand Prix.

To save you having to log on to Google Earth, Macau is a peninsula on the southern coast of China which was Portuguese territory until 1999 – in fact, it was both the earliest and the last European colony in China. Today Macau hosts a Formula Three Grand Prix as well as Touring Car and motorbike races, but in 1956 it had only seen two previous GPs and was still being developed. Even so, Autosport’s write-up of the ’56 race said that Macau ‘ranks with Europe’s better venues’ and went on to describe the 3.9-mile course like this:

‘The Guia circuit comprises two distinctly separate parts: first the promenade stretch, made up of four broad straights linked by fast curves, which brings the cars rapidly past the start and finish area before leading them up a hill to the Monaco-style section of the course, passing between the snow-white villas of the prosperous Portuguese merchants; it includes the notorious hairpin around which 20mph is fast motoring. This excellent circuit surprises the visitor…’

So, even in 1956 Macau was a well-respected circuit, and while Doug’s 190SL was not an official works entry – the car belonged to Walter Sulke, the Mercedes agent in Hong Kong – the Untertürkheim factory took its responsibility seriously; not least because Doug had very nearly won the 1955 Macau GP too, driving an early 190SL that was fresh out of Sulke’s showroom. A mix-up over pit signalling meant that Doug took second place behind his friend Bob Ritchie’s Austin-Healey 100M – for 1956, Alfred Neubauer and Karl Kling suggested improvements to the signalling system…

Driving a works-backed Mercedes was heady stuff for the young sergeant Steane, part of a REME unit based in Kowloon. Until now his racing had been in nothing more exciting than a Hillman Minx, which was all he’d been able to prise out of the local Rootes and Jaguar importer. Back in England he’d done very little racing, having grown up with motorcycles instead – like his friend Mike Hawthorn, who was a fellow apprentice at lorry firm Dennis in the late ’40s.

But even driving the humble Minx, Doug accumulated a fair amount of silverware in saloon car races around Hong Kong and other Far Eastern territories. He and his mate Bob Ritchie, who had blagged a
Fiat 1100 for himself, did so well that they were invited to take part in the first 1954 Macau Grand Prix, which was then a Formule Libre event. Bob finished sixth and Doug seventh; more importantly, Doug struck up a friendship with Walter Sulke, which led to an invitation to pilot a DKW saloon and be number two driver for the 190SL in 1955’s Macau races.

At the time it seemed pretty unlikely that Doug would get to drive the 190, but when its principal driver Paul du Toit started feeling unwell during practice he was called in to help get the car up the grid a little. Five minutes before practice ended, Doug succeeded in putting the Mercedes on pole.

‘If anything, the 1955 Grand Prix was more exciting than when I won in ’56!’ recalls Doug as we shelter from Llandow’s biting autumn wind. ‘That was a ding-dong battle between myself and my best buddy Bob Ritchie in his Healey 100.’ A battle that, on this occasion, Ritchie won after Doug pitted to take on extra fuel, not realising that he was in the lead due to badly situated pit signals.

For 1956, Walter Sulke and Doug both knew they had to be more professional in their approach. A new 190SL was prepared by Mercedes’ competition department with special alloy brake drums and a reserve fuel tank, and shipped out in plenty of time for shake-down testing before the Grand Prix.

Doug wasn’t happy with the effects of fuel surge in the main tank, so a team of Chinese mechanics rebuilt the tank with new baffles and also relocated the reserve tank to prevent changes in fuel level affecting the car’s roll centre. The car now handled beautifully whether on a full or a light fuel load, and the result was another pole position for Doug at the start of the 1956 Grand Prix.

Doug knew that his main opposition would come from a 2-litre Ferrari Mondial driven by ML Da Costa, which practice had shown was faster on the straights but not so quick through the corners. When the cars were flagged away, the Ferrari sprinted into the lead.

‘As long as I could keep him in sight, I wasn’t worried,’ says Doug, ‘and I didn’t want to get slammed by anybody at the first right-hander, which was a two-car bottleneck. So I stayed out of trouble and eventually caught the Ferrari, and we had a bloody good battle for about 15-20 laps. However, it then started to rain, which made the surface very slippery. This was where the 190 was superior and I took him going up the hill.

‘Then, I think, I just went away from him – until on one lap, at the end of the straight before the bottleneck, I braked and changed down to third, and suddenly found myself going backwards at 65-70mph. There were sentry boxes along that part of the sea wall and the sentries were jumping into the water, convinced I was going to hit them.

‘I did actually swipe one of the boxes, which caused plenty of damage to the side of the car, and I found the gearbox was jammed in third gear, but I managed to drive back to the pits. Walter said, “You are in the lead by one lap – can you manage it in third?” Well, third was quite close to top, and the rain was slowing people down, so I said “yes”.

‘From then on it was pretty boring, trying not to over-rev the engine. The Ferrari was catching me but he had a massive spin and at the chequered flag was still a lap adrift. After five-and-a-bit hours it was all over.’

Doug came away with a huge silver trophy (presented to the car’s entrant Walter Sulke, who generously donated it to Doug), a letter of congratulation from Mercedes-Benz, and the offer to drive a 300SL… But it was not to be.

At least now, thanks to Adrian Timothy, a few more people may become aware of what Adrian calls a ‘forgotten hero’.

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