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Before World War II, Mercedes-Benz built what is perhaps one of the world's first supercars.
If you've ever wondered what a supercar looked like in 1929, this is it. Mercedes-Benz sold the SSK with the self-applied title of "Fastest Sports Car in the World". It very well might have been, although records for this sort of thing weren't quite so rigorously kept eighty years ago. The SSK could also be called a sort of homologation car from a time before those really existed, since about half of those produced would end up as race cars and half would be proper road cars.
SSK stands for "Super Sport Kurs", the first two words translate pretty easy, and "kurs" is the German word for short. This is because the SSK was based on the S sedan chassis, but was shortened by 19 inches. It should come as no surprise that the engineering design work for this chassis came from Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, as his last project before leaving Mercedes to work on the Volkswagen Beetle. The SSK's engine is an impressive piece of machinery. The inline-six displaces 7 liters, and just as the telltale external exhaust pipes suggest, it is supercharged.
Interestingly, this supercharger was clutch-operated, and was disengaged most of the time. It was only at wide open throttle that the clutch would engage and the engine would receive the benefits of forced induction. Different states of tuning existed, and the engine would put out somewhere between 200 and 300 horsepower, and always more than 500lb-ft or torque. It's not difficult to see how this could be the fastest car in the world in 1929. Top speed was said to be somewhere in excess of 130mph, quite a speed on those skinny little tires.
Motorsports have always been important to Mercedes, and in the Twenties, the link between road cars and race cars was a much more direct one. Since Mercedes was still only selling the chassis in those days, while the coachwork was handled by third parties, there was no distinction at the factory between road and racing models. How similar an individual road car was to the race models was entirely the decision of the customers. SSK race cars (or Rennwagens, if you prefer the German) were highly successful for the entire duration of their production.
This first big win was the 1929 500 Miles of Argentina, and the culmination of the SSK's racing success came at the 1931 Mille Miglia, at the hands of racing legend Rudolf Caracciola. The car achieved legendary status in just a few short years, earning it the nickname "Mighty Mercedes", but by 1932 it was outclassed by the more sophisticated, and purpose-built racer from Alfa Romeo, the 8C 2300. With the SSK no longer competitive on the track, Mercedes saw no reason to continue road car production either, and shut the whole thing down. Some cars served as both racing and road cars.
One chassis, which Mercedes has unsuccessfully tried to sell in Tokyo in 1930, found its way into the hands of the Italian Count Carlo Felice Trossi, who raced the car for two years before deciding that it would serve him better as a road car. The Count sketched out a new body himself, but who it was that actually built it is a bit less clear. Credit is usually given to a man name "Willy White"; it is unclear who this man was, although it is a safe bet that he wasn't Italian. The car now belongs to Ralph Lauren, who bought it long enough ago that it didn't command a record-setting price.
The SSK that set the record was originally sold to Major John Coates, of the UK. Coachwork was handled by Carlton Carriage Company of London, who gave it a much more utilitarian body than Count Trossi's car, something more closely resembling the racing bodies. It is still an attractive design, and the combination of purposeful and elegant in the bodywork is something still reflected in supercar design today. The car changed hands ten or more times before being sold for the almost unbelievably low sum of £400 in 1941 to George Milligan, who wisely hung onto it for 60 years, when he was able to sell it for slightly more.
It's no longer known how many copies of the SSK were produced, but it is know that this number is less than 40. With half of these being used as race cars, a large number were crashed and totaled. Their parts are said to have ended up on other cars, but there is a lot about the SSK that is lost to history, unsurprising for a prewar German car. Either four or five fully original SSK's are known to exist today, and given this scarcity, as well as the significance for Mercedes-Benz as a company, it's almost surprising that that it didn't fetch an even higher price. Although you can bet that If Ralph Lauren even decides to sell the Trossi car, that one will set a new record for the SSK.