The Colorado Grand

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"Mercedes 300SL"

I was beginning to regret my decision.
As is typical with picnics, the skies that once were blue were growing ominous. I had just finished a buff alo burger on the front lawn of the courthouse in Walden, Colorado, as a sturdy-looking woman yodeled country songs with an acoustic guitar and a voice as piercing as the blue sky had been. She broke into some Elvis tunes as the sky grew darker. Was this Mother Nature’s judgment of her talent? I didn’t wait to find out. I dashed for the car with my co-pilot.

As the skies turned black, I climbed in and buckled the racing harness. The car, a 1962 Mercedes-Benz 300SL, lacked the modern conveniences that drivers today take for granted. It had no air conditioning, power windows, power seats or power locks. It had no radio. Most important at this moment, it had no roof. This car had been reworked for rallying, so the convertible top had been swapped for a pair of roll bars, which keep the occupants alive in case of a rollover.

The skies proved to be no idle threat, and soon the deluge was on as we hit the open road and poured on the horsepower. Our theory was simple.  Maybe if we drove fast enough, we would stay drier. No such luck. Getting wet was bad enough, until the hail started. Hail hurts at 75 mph. But bad weather comes with the good when you’re driving The Colorado Grand, an annual 1,000-mile trek through Colorado. Founded in 1989 by automotive enthusiast Bob Sutherland, this legendary event isn’t advertised, yet it sells out every year. Held the second week of September, this year’s run attracted 150 applicants; 95 were chosen.

Once accepted, drivers pony up $5,000 to spend a week driving their pre-1960 sports cars through breathtakingly beautiful countryside. And with some roads being 10,800 feet above sea level, breathtaking seems to be the case. But this is more than just millionaires driving million-dollar wheels through thin air. It’s a charity ride that raises money for the many small towns that The Grand passes through, ones with little tax base to build better communities. The tour also benefits the Colorado State Patrol Family Foundation, which assists the families of patrol officers who have died. So it’s little surprise that the Colorado State Police escorts the tour around the state.

That helped reaffirm my decision to participate in the tour, especially once the clouds had parted.

How I ended up here was simple. Mercedes-Benz, a sponsor, had asked if I wanted to experience the event. They even offered a steed: a 1962 300SL pulled from the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center. They didn’t have to ask twice. For this is the final iteration of one of automotive history’s most iconic cars, with a bloodline stretching back to the legendary 1954 Mercedes-Benz Gullwing. Its mere presence makes grown men stare longingly, their knees buckling. And they should.

The 300SL started life in 1952 as a racecar, appearing in that year’s Mille Miglia. OK, it didn’t win. But it did win at other legendary racing venues: the Nürburgring, Le Mans and the Carrera Panamericana. Having nothing more to prove, Mercedes-Benz stopped racing. But rather than let the car fade into history, American Mercedes-Benz importer Max Hoffman had the German automaker transform the SL into a sports car for the American market. It debuted in 1954. But the 300SL’s racecar structure proved to be a problem. Both driver and passenger had to climb over a wide, high sill to get in. Since traditional doors wouldn’t work, engineers designed its trademark feature: doors hinged at the roof. The famous Gullwing Coupe became a classic.

With the introduction of a roadster model in 1957, the coupe’s production ceased. The roadster lasted through 1962, with a fuel-injected 3.0-liter, aluminum block, six-cylinder engine producing 240 horsepower. A four-speed manual transmission and four-wheel disc brakes were standard. So was dual climate control.

This was the car I found myself in along with Mike Kunz, who started and runs the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Irvine, California.

Mike was the reason we were getting wet. He and his crew had modified our 300SL by removing the front and rear bumpers, opening the exhaust system and fitting the two roll bars where the top should have been. The rest of the car was stock. But it sounded mean, it looked fast, and it weighed 300 pounds less than a stock SL.

Aside from wondering why Mercedes-Benz would bother to have such a car on hand – it’s not the kind of car you usually see automakers trot out – I wondered why the company would bother to have the Classic Center at all. “It’s really about brand and to show what we’re willing to do to support the cars and the customers who own them,” he explained. The Classic Center’s staff can restore a car or evaluate a car for a potential buyer. “We act as the authority to make sure that things are put back on the way they were when the cars were new.” Mike, who has been with Mercedes-Benz for 26 years, bought his first Mercedes-Benz 230SL while a student in Germany. “It was quite a ratty one,” he recalls.

You wouldn’t call our SL ratty, even though it had obviously been used and enjoyed. Its leather interior was intact; the metal trim showed some patina. The clock doesn’t work. Thankfully, the gauges do. Th e speedometer was calibrated in Germany, so we knew just how fast we were going. In kilometers. Nothing can prepare you for the thrill of high-speed driving through Colorado in one of the world’s great sports cars. As the roads emptied of traffic, we came around a mountain pass, the road opening up before us, undulating over the countryside. Without a car in sight, we had the opportunity to test the car’s full potential.

Just then, Mike spotted a car up ahead that he had wanted to pass: a red Ferrari. He had made a bet with the driver that he could do it, despite the Ferrari’s 100 extra horses under the hood.

Mike poured on the heat. He drove the car with the familiarity of an old friend, wringing every ounce of performance that this strong old road warrior had to give. Taking charge in corners, roaring down the straightaways, the car responded with the fury of a Wagner opera.

The revs climbed, the engine snarled louder as if to goad us on. As the scenery blurred, we had one focus: the redhead in front of us. Time seemed to slow down, even as we gained speed. By now, Mike was using all that the 300SL had to offer and it was performing like a star athlete: giving its all, brooking no opposition. With a bit of patience, we had closed in.

He looked down at the road. The center line was dotted. Without a second thought, he pulled out.

We chuckled, walked outside and slowly sipped our water, basking in the sun and talking about what had made our last stretch possible. It was the engineering, along with an inherent feel you get from any Mercedes-Benz of any era.

The car’s unique tubular chassis gives it a solidity lacking in many modern convertibles. Traversing bumps never elicited a shudder. What other car in 1962 was that true of, except for another Mercedes? “These cars are so robust; they were overbuilt. It’s a very solid car and something to feel very confident in,” Mike said.

Obviously.

While the 300SL has the expected German hunkered-down feel, you can get in over your head when it comes to handling, thanks to the car’s swing-axle rear suspension.

“You need to know how to drive it,” Mike said. “You can make a mistake and end up in trouble. You never let off the gas in a turn. Don’t do it. Keep your foot into it. And if you get into trouble, the way to correct it is counter-intuitive. Don’t go on the brakes, step on the gas. If you know that, you can go fast up to a turn, brake before the turn and then accelerate through the turn.”

Our runs weren’t all about speed; safety was always our first concern. Besides, there were times when you’d want to slow down, cruise gently and take in the sights — especially in small towns where we’d stop for lunch. Th ere was plenty of home cooking, salads with mayonnaise and more than a few grilled hot dogs washed down with iced tea.

That evening, as we pulled into the garage in Steamboat Springs, we noticed a red light was illuminated on the dashboard. At some point during the day, the 300SL’s generator had died. There was no replacement on hand. We didn’t want to think about it; we headed to the evening cocktail reception.

Thursday morning we awoke to gloomy skies, which matched our mood. Sitting in the garage, it seemed that it was the driest we would be all day. And a dead generator meant that, despite the rain, we couldn’t risk using the lights, windshield wipers or turn signals. We got the car push started, wondering how far we would progress on just a battery.

We knew if we got stuck there’d be help. The Colorado State Police would stop, as would the roving mechanics provided by The Colorado Grand. But Mercedes brings two mechanics of its own, along with a fleet of new AMG performance models to drive in case these classic sports cars break down. Driving any of these cars, the C63, E63, SL63 or the SLS AMG, would soothe the wound inflicted by a breakdown. Five-hundred-plus horsepower does that to a driver.

We love AMG models, but neither Mike nor I wanted to drive one. Our heads were in 1962.

So we tried to keep our minds on other matters. Like the one car in the tour we never seemed to permanently pass: a red 1956 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spyder. It didn’t matter how fast we drove, or how many times we passed the car, it always seemed to be in front of us, in a no-passing zone, playing the tortoise to our hare. That evening, we pulled into Grand Junction. Mike had his mechanics check the battery’s charge. We had used a mere 8 percent of its power despite the lack of a generator. We had expected worse. We relaxed.

The final day’s journey went off without a hitch. The sun shone on the eroded cliffs of McClure Pass, the final one we would drive through. The end of the tour was in sight. The breathtaking scenery and a car whose mighty snarl refuses to be silenced would soon be memories.

After crossing the finish line, we pulled into the parking deck of the Vail Cascade Lodge, the place where the tour began. The 300SL had run flawlessly. Getting out of the car, Mike turned to me. “Not bad for not having a generator,” he said with a laugh. “They’re so over-rated.”

The Colorado Grand is not about top speed or comfort. It’s about true sports car performance and the camaraderie of fellow drivers.

And it’s the way these classic sports cars perform that makes them so alluring for enthusiasts. There are no computers, no traction control, no anti-lock brakes. If you make a wrong move and the car goes into a skid, you correct it or you become a statistic.

It’s a true test of driving skill.

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Comments

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