1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing „Sportabteilung“

Chassis no. 198.040.5500640 / Engine no. 198.040.5500659 / Body no. 198.040.5500619

The „Sportabteilung“ is the racing department of Mercedes-Benz run by Alfred Neubauer, and located on the factory site of Unterturkheim in West Germany. In 1955, few 300 SL are taken out the production line to be sent to this „Laboratory“ dedicated to racing, in order to be modified and supplied to train the best drivers of the Mercedes team: Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Karl Kling in famous races like the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Nürburgring or Le Mans.

After a long research done at the archives department of the Mercedes Classic Center and in compliance with the main registries like Gullwing group, Anthony Pritchard’s Palawan book, Hans Hurlimann and Eric Lemoine, only 4 chassis are clearly identified as being from the „Sportabteilung“:

  • #5500640 delivered to the Sportabteilung on the 27th of August 1955 and then sold on the 14th of September 1956 as a 1956 model to Bernard Hans Hommel, Zurich, Switzerland.
  • #5500819 delivered to the Sportabteilung on the 31st of October 1955 and then sold on the 20th of december  1956 as a 1956 model to Franz Maheineke company, Hildescheim, West Germany.
  • #5500839 delivered to the Sportabteilung on the 14th of November 1955 and then sold on the 24th of March 1956 to an unknown individual in Aachen, West Germany.
  • #5500841 delivered to the Sportabteilung on the 7th of december 1955 and then sold on the 9th of March 1956 to an unknown individual in Braunschweig, West Germany.

The 300 SL „Sportabteilung“ have benefitted from huge technical enhancements (see list here under) compared to the customer 300 SL, and amongst them is a racing engine good for more than 240 HP:

– NSL competition engine
– Competition Bosch R3 type injection pump
– Competition F3 Venturi
– Competition exhaust system
– Special axle ratio (3.48)
– Larger oil tank
– Lower ride height thanks to special suspension
– Rudge wheels
– Special ventilated drum brakes

HISTORY OF #5500640

#5500640 is the first 300 SL Gullwing of the „Sportabteilung“ and it still retains today all his special competition equipment. It is matching numbers as per its factory production sheet.

#5500640 is used for more than a year by the racing department before being delivered to Bernard Hans Hommel in Switzerland.

Guy Bourbilieres, the father of the last owner, purchased #5500640 in 1966 from Mercedes Archambeaud, a branch office of the French Mercedes importer, Mercedes CH Delecroix, rue de la Croix-Nivert in Paris 15eme.

The car was in the storage of Mercedes Archambeaud, unused for years, left by its owner, Mr.Besnies. It was then registered on French plates with number 571 LL 77.

Guy Bourbilieres fell in love with the 300 SL Gullwing during the 1954 Paris auto show, where the first Gullwing shown in Europe was on display in its superb Silver livery with red leather interior. This day he swore he would own a Gullwing one day. It took him 12 years.

He became a proud owner in 1966 buying the car at Mercedes Archambeaud, and drove the car around one year before deciding to carry out a major overhaul. It has to be pointed out that many 300 SL owners entrusted their cars to Mr. Bourbilieres as he had been trained at the factory in Germany, and was one of the very few French mechanics able to maintain these cars. He was so busy that he would never finished the restoration of his cars (he also owned a 300 SL roadster since 1970) and would passed away without seeing them running again. His two sons, Laurent and Pascal, would eventually restore the car as an homage to their father.

In 1967, Guy Bourbilieres started to dismantle his Gullwing in order to restore it. When taking the Belly Pans off, he discovered a written inscription on one of them :“1956 Frances Britain Moss“.

This car was fitted with very special equipment he had not seen before on any other 300 SL, so he was convinced to have a very special 300 SL Gullwing, and really thought he had the ex. Moss and Georges Houel 300 SL that competed in the 1956 Tour de France.

1956 Tour de France Auto (testimony of Daniel Houel)

The Tour de France Auto is the oldest race in the world. The first instance took place in 1899 between Nice and Paris.

In 1956, Jean Behra was the French Porsche importer and already registered to race the Tour de France auto. He managed to convince his friend Georges Houel to enter the Tour de France with his friend Stirling Moss. He told him that a 300 SL Gullwing modified for racing was available at the factory.

In september 1956, few days before the start of the race, Georges Houel was back from Switzerland with the famous 300 SL Gullwing, in the classic color combination of silver with Blue Scottish cloth. A period picture is available showing Georges Houel on the Champs-Elysees in Paris next to the car which still carried the German export plates.

The rest is history as the 1956 Tour Auto is written in the records of the racing history. Stirling Moss agreed to enter the race, the only condition being he would drive the car instead of Georges Houel. The 300 SL with number 149 became a must see and the magazines and newspapers did write a lot about it because of its Star driver, who won the Mille Miglia the year before driving the Mercedes SLR.

After a difficult start, the factory car did not behave as planned, it did not work well and Moss was not happy with it. He was about to quit the race. But during the stages in the area of Lyon, a mechanics running a small garage managed to set the car up right, and make it what it was built for: being a front runner. Then Moss and Houel won all the remaining stages of the race, finishing second overall just behind the De Portago Ferrari.

There is a lot of documentation on the 1956 Tour de France, including this stunning period video form the french TV archives : http://www.ina.fr/video/AFE85006955/tour-de-france-automobile-video.html

After the Tour de France, Georges Houel did race the car in the „10.000 turns“ of the Tour de Corse rally, as well as in the Andorre-Monaco rally with his son, Daniel. During this rally they damaged the car in an accident near Beziers with unfortunately few injuries and a front right damage to the car. Houel decided to leave the car as is where is. Then nobody heard about the car again …

#5500640 : the 1956 Tour de France Auto 300 SL

We have determined that #5500640 is the 1956 Tour Auto 300 SL based on several elements. The first one is of course the hand written inscription Guy Bourbilieres discovered on the belly pans when he dismantled his car: „1956 Frances Britain Moss“. This is the starting point.

We were lucky enough to find one of the other „Sportabteilung“, #5500819. It was then easy to compare the unique features of the „Sportabteilung“ on both cars. They did have the same specifications.

The second step was to get a copy of the factory sheet to confirm #5500640 was a „Sportabteilung“ as told by the registries. We did receive the copies from the factory, but we were much surprised to discover 3 sheets for this chassis, including one in color that we had not seen before for any 300 SL. The sheets did confirm the „Sportabteilung“ provenance and a delivery date of 14th September 1956.

The color is stated as Silver DB180 with L1Stoff interior (Blue Scottish cloth) like the car of the 1956 Tour de France. What’s more, #5500640 is the only „Sportabteilung“ 300 SL delivered in September 1956, one week before the start of the race.

We already knew that the 1956 Tour Auto 300 SL was a car modified in group B trim as stated by a period article that Guy Bourbilieres kept in his files.

We have been able to ask Bernard Consten (5 time winner of the Tour de France Auto, and organizer of the race for 11 years) about his friend Georges Houel. According to Bernard, the 300 SL used by Moss and Houel in the 1956 Tour de France had been ordered directly at the factory in a special racing trim. Yet the only car modified for racing delivered in September, one week before the race, is #5500640.

A period picture showing Georges Houel on the Champs-Elysees next to the 300 SL has a caption saying „Houel just arrived from Switzerland with his 300 SL“. #5500640 was delivered to Bernard Hans Hommel in Zurich, Switzerland on the 14th of September 1956. The connection became obvious when Laurent Bourbillieres, the son of Guy who owned the car from 1966, got in touch with Daniel Houel, the son of Georges Houel, and learned from him that Bernard Hans Hommel was one of his father’s best friend.

Daniel Houel recalls stories of the 1956 Tour de France Auto and confirms the car had entered the Tour de Corse rally and the Andorre-Monaco rally during which his dad and him had an accident with the 300 SL, damaging the front right side of the car and leaving the car as is. Incidentally #5500640 has traces of a front right damage.

#5500640 is one of only 4 Sportabteilung 300 SL ever produced by the factory, the rarest of all 300 SL ever built. It is the first of the 4 units built by the racing department. It is the only one to have an official racing history.

bthinx

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