This is a developing story that includes informed speculation—details may prove inaccurate. We will be updating it as we learn more.
Update, May 19: This rumor has now been confirmed by RM Sotheby’s and Mercedes.
Reset the search engines and reset your memory – the record for the most expensive car ever sold is believed to have been smashed, without a Ferrari in sight.
Mercedes-Benz, working with RM Sotheby’s, has sold its treasured 300 SLR coupes—one of two ever built—for 135 million euros (£115 million; $142m). The proceeds will go to a new Mercedes charity that will, according to a press release, “provide educational and research scholarships in the areas of environmental science and decarbonization for young people.”
The allure of one of the German marque’s most significant racing cars has powered nearly three times the value of the Ferrari 250 GTO that sold at Monterey in 2018, and more than twice the rumored $80M (£65m) paid for another GTO in a 2018 private sale.
RM Sotheby’s, on behalf of Mercedes-Benz, presented around 10 (possibly fewer) carefully selected car collectors who were not only wealthy enough to bid but would satisfy the strict criteria laid down by the German car manufacturer. The company wanted to ensure that any custodian of the Silver Arrows racing car would lavish it with the same care and attention as Mercedes, as well as continue to share the car at events and not sell it on to a third party.
Potential buyers are believed to have been hosted over lunch at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, in Stuttgart with key collectors flying in on private jets on May 5. The grand venue was closed that day for “an event,” of which RM has now released snippets.
The car in question is a 300 SLR coupe built in 1955. Don’t confuse this with a 300SL (which is worth “just” $7.5M even in ultra-rare alloy-body form). We’re talking about a hardtop version of a mighty Silver Arrow, one of the most significant racing machines in the history of the German brand. Bankrolled by the Third Reich prior to World War II, Mercedes Silver Arrows dominated both Grand Prix racing and speed record attempts alongside their Auto Union compatriots. Following the war, in 1954 the team returned to what was now Formula 1 racing with the streamline-bodied W196. It was a sensation, winning 9 of the 12 races entered and propelling star driver Juan Manuel Fangio to driver World Championship wins in both 1954 and ’55.
At the same time, Mercedes-Benz totally dominated the Sports Car World Championship in the 300 SLR (W196S) model including arguably the most famous road race win of all time: Stirling Moss’s Mille Miglia success with Denis Jenkinson in the passenger seat in May 1955. One month later, with two 300 SLRs leading in the Le Mans 24 Hours, the team car of Pierre Levegh hit the back of Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey as they entered the start/finish straight, propelling it into the crowd, killing 84 spectators and leading to Mercedes immediately withdrawing their racing team for the next three decades.
Mercedes built just two of the hardtops (known as Uhlenhaut Coupes after the head of the test department, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who drove one as a company car).
Any 300 SLR would be significant and worthy of a record price. "The reason for a high price would simply be that they are never sold,” said Karl Ludvigsen, one of the most respected automotive historians in the field and author of Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix W196 : Spectacular Silver Arrows, 1954-1955.
“The cars in that band have never been officially sold by M-B. Some have found private owners, like the W154 that ran at Indy after the war and stayed in the USA. It had been rescued from Eastern Europe by private parties. A similar rescue car was a 1937 W125. A W196 was controversially sold after it had been loaned by Mercedes-Benz to a museum.”
As Ludvigsen alludes, this sale is very special but isn’t without precedent. In 2004, Daimler AG agreed to sell a W196S Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR to Seattle-based collector Bruce McCaw on behalf of his company, Vintage Racing Motors, Inc for $12,500,000 plus a rare six-wheeled Mercedes-Benz G4 that was owned by VRM, although this deal ended with VRM taking Daimler to court for breach of contract when the G4’s valuation was not as expected. Then, in July 2013, Bonhams sold W196R chassis number 00006/54, the car that Fangio piloted to F1 glory in 1954, for a then-world record of $29,650,095 (£19,601,500).
This sale could push values of other apex cars like the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic over the nine-figure mark. This most recent sale emphasizes how much the collector car market has matured over the past ten years, and that the best examples of these cars now rival the prices of some of the best pieces of art from the 20th century.
Rumors abound as to the identity of the buyer, with some suggesting it is a well-known figure from Britain’s automotive industry and a long-standing collector of specialist cars. With interest rates rising rapidly, this purchase could be seen as a wise investment for someone with the means. The fact that the proceeds will go to charity likely means that at least some of the massive price can possibly be written off against the buyer's personal tax liability.
The 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO it will have brushed aside had won the Tour de France the year after it was built and was particularly noteworthy as it was reportedly never crashed in its (then) 55-year lifespan.
It was bought by David MacNeil, an American businessman and prominent Ferrari collector who founded WeatherTech, a vehicle accessories company. MacNeil reportedly bought the car from German racing driver Christian Glaesel, who had owned the 250 GTO for 15 years.