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Mercedes-Benz's Big Yank

Jim McCraw
Nov 20, 2002

John Cooper Fitch was the first, last and only American racing driver ever to drive for the factory Mercedes-Benz team, racing the W194 and 300SL between 1952 and 1955. He went back to the Mille Miglia this year at age 84 to drive another gullwing, relive the experience and celebrate the 50th anniversary of his affiliation with Mercedes-Benz, and it was there we caught up with him.

The lanky John Fitch, P-51 Mustang pilot, ex-POW and grandson of the inventor of the steamboat, won the SCCA championship in 1951 and raced at Le Mans for sportsman racer Briggs Cunningham in June of 1952. Mercedes-Benz won Le Mans in 1952 with the then-new W194 coupe, the forerunner of the 300 SL, and Mercedes racing boss Rudy Uhlenhaut offered Fitch a test drive of the car at the Nuerburgring later that season.

At the Nuerburgring Fitch turned some very creditable lap times on a track he had driven only once, and took that opportunity to mention the Mexican Carrera Panamericana event to racing manager Alfred Neubauer and Uhlenhaut, telling them that such strong cars as the W194s could win it against faster Ferraris.

The factory agreed and brought a trio of cars and drivers Hermann Lang, and Karl Kling, two coupes for the Germans and a new and untried roadster for John Fitch. Fitch's roadster kept throwing the treads off its Continental tires and experienced a high-speed blowout that took out one of the shock absorber mounts and misaligned the front suspension. Fitch pleaded with officials to let him get the front end properly aligned and then go on to the next checkpoint.

The officials agreed. The next day, the Mercedes-Benz rookie driver finished fourth overall, while Kling and Lang finished first and second, putting Mercedes-Benz squarely back on the racing map in North America. BUnfortunately, the finish-line officials claimed that Fitch's repairs at the checkpoint were illegal, and he was disqualified. Fitch nevertheless got a trophy for running the fastest leg of the entire event, averaging 135 mph in a car that would only go 160 mph flat-out.

In 1955, Fitch had his best season with Mercedes-Benz, running the Mille Miglia in a production 300SL gullwing with rookie navigator/journalist Kurt Gesell and coming in fifth overall and first in the GT class. Fitch won a victory of his own by finishing well ahead of the great Olivier Gendebien in yet another 300SL gullwing.

Fitch doesn't exactly love the gullwing, remembering that the race car was built off the 300 sedan. "It was a passenger car built for royalty and big business people. Rudy Uhlenhaut took this big sedan with no sporting pretensions, and he made a race car out of it. When Neubauer was presented with this new race car, he though it was a joke at first. He didn't see how he could win anything with it. It was low powered, it was primitive, and the rear axle was like a VW's. Camber change was such that the suspension was not allowed to work. The high-pivot swing axle rear suspension had to be strapped down on every one of the race cars to keep it from going into positive camber. You lost half your wheel travel. You had jounce but no rebound. It was like driving a go-kart."

Nevertheless, Fitch beat all but the first four of more than 400 cars, including Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio in Mercedes-Benz 300SLRs, a Ferrari and a Maserati, all full-on race cars, with a stock gullwing in 1955, the greatest performance by an American driver in the entire history of the Mille Miglia.

By Jim McCraw
12 Articles

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