Back in March 2020, just mere days before the world shut down, I was touring Mercedes-Benz’s secret Holy Halls. These unmarked warehouses in an undisclosed location in Stuttgart, Germany, hold hundreds of treasures, the rarest and coolest cars in the brand’s collection that are either too special for or just won’t fit in the massive public. Among the dozens of Formula 1 cars, irreplaceable prototypes, Popemobiles and other jaw-dropping automobiles sat one of the only two 1955 300SLR Uhlenhaut Coupes ever to exist, with the other residing in the museum. (The only reason I got the above photo is because I smartly brought my film camera, as modern tech isn’t allowed inside due to geotagging.) In an unprecedented turn of events, that exact car may have just been sold for a record-breaking $142 million.
The news comes from Hagerty Insider, which reported this week that Mercedes held a secret auction for the car in Germany earlier this month. If this is true, it would not only be the most expensive car ever sold at auction by a long shot, but likely the most expensive car ever sold, period. The previous priciest car at auction was a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold in 2018 for around $48,405,000, while a different 250 GTO was privately sold to the CEO WeatherTech in 2018 for around $80 million. So why would this Mercedes go for so much more money? Quite simply, it’s a lot more special.
The Uhlenhaut Coupe was named after Daimler-Benz’s motorsport chief Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who ordered two of the nine W196S 300SLR Silver Arrow Formula 1-derived race car chassis to be set aside and turned into road-going coupes that would compete in the Carrera Panamericana. (Ferrari, meanwhile, produced 36 250 GTOs.) These coupes looked way different than the existing W194 300SL Gullwing, with a wider body and unique styling, and the SLR’s straight-8 engine put out 305 horsepower, 90 hp more than the 300SL’s straight-six. The brakes, suspension and chassis were improved too.
But before the Uhlenhaut Coupes could be raced, Mercedes pulled out of all motor racing completely following the 1955 Le Mans disaster in which a 300SLR roadster crashed into an Austin-Healey at high speed and threw debris into the crowd, killing 84 people including driver Pierre Levegh and injuring 120 more. Mercedes wouldn’t return to racing for decades. The 300SLR Coupe program was then abandonded, but Uhlenhaut kept one of the cars and used it as a personal vehicle after fitting large mufflers. The car could hit 180 mph, making it by far the fastest road car of the time and nearly 20 mph faster than the 300SL. One iconic story recounts Uhlenhaut being late for a meeting, ripping up the Autobahn from Munich to Stuttgart in just over an hour — that’s a 137-mile journey that today would take 2.5 hours.
The two Uhlenhaut Coupes are basically identical and survive in original condition. The car on display in the Mercedes Museum has a lovely blue and plaid interior, while the vault-kept car has a red cabin. The latter SLR, chassis number 0008/55, is the one that has apparently been sold. Hagerty reports that Mercedes hand-picked 10 (or maybe even fewer) collectors to be offered the chance to bid on the car. Mercedes apparently wanted whoever bought the car to properly use and care for it, making sure they would continue to display the car at events and historic races. Mercedes also didn’t want the new owner to just turn around and resell it. Each prospective buyer allegedly flew to Stuttgart on private jets for a lunch at the Mercedes Museum last week, which has been closed to the public until May 15.
That potential $142 million sale price not only destroys the previous records set by the 250 GTOs, but it massively eclipses sales prices for “normal” Silver Arrow race cars. In 2013 the W196R piloted by Juan Manuel Fangio to victory in multiple Grands Prix sold at auction in Goodwood for $29,600,000, and it remains the most expensive German car ever sold at auction. That’s also the only W196R that isn’t owned by Mercedes or another museum, and out of the 14 ever built only 10 remain.
While my initial shock has worn off a little, I’m still going to remain skeptical until the news is officially confirmed or denied, for a few different reasons. The main one being that one of the custodians of the Holy Halls told me Mercedes never planned on selling either of the Uhlenhaut coupes — and he also said that their estimation of a price if Mercedes were to ever sell one was closer to the mid-nine-figure range. But that was before a global pandemic devastated the world, which surely could have changed things. It’s a lot of work to keep a car like this visible, so if Mercedes thinks it would be better served in the hands of a collector that will show it off more often, I’m all for it and can understand the sale. I also think that Mercedes would have wanted to be more public about letting this extraordinarily special car go, and maybe a larger announcement was planned that got undermined by this leak.
Regardless of whether or not this sale really did happen, just the mere fact that I’m talking about a car potentially selling for over $100 million is a big deal. I’ve long believed that collector cars can and should be treated with the same regard as art, and with more incredible cars that aren’t 250 GTO or McLaren F1s continuing to draw major crowds and set records, it seems like that sentiment is becoming more mainstream. Now let’s see if one of the six remaining Bugatti Royales or three surviving Atlantics will pop up for sale in the near future.