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Why the world's most expensive car cost so much money

 


On 5 May 2022, a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Stuttgart, Germany, and sold for $142 million (£115 million; €135 million).


It became the most expensive car ever sold, doubling the previous record of $70 million (£52 million; €60 million) paid for a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO (4153 GT) in 2018.


It also claimed the title of most expensive car sold at auction, tripling the previous record of $48 million (£37 million; €41 million) paid for a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO in 2018.


Let’s take a look at why this car is so special and why it commanded such a princely sum.


Only two Uhlenhaut Coupés were ever made. Its extreme rarity, unique design and rich history all factor in to the record-breaking price.


Prior to World War II, Mercedes-Benz’s race cars were bankrolled by the Nazi regime and dominated the motorsports scene throughout the '30s. Nicknamed the Silver Arrows, these cars won multiple Grands Prix.


After the war, in 1954, Mercedes-Benz made their return to motor racing and picked up where they left off, winning the 1954 and 1955 Formula One World Championships with Juan Manuel Fangio (Argentina) behind the wheel of their newest Silver Arrow - the W196R.


Derived from the W196R was the open-top 300 SLR, which achieved similar success in the 1955 World Sportscar Championship, winning the Mille Miglia race with Stirling Moss (UK) in the driver's seat.



However, one month later, with two 300 SLRs leading the 24 Hours of Le Mans race, Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh rear-ended the car in front of him at high speed, which sent Levegh’s car hurtling into the crowd. A fuel fire ensued, resulting in Levegh and 84 spectators losing their lives.


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Following the catastrophic incident, Mercedes ended their motorsport programme and remained withdrawn for the next thirty years.


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Fangio moved on to Ferrari to win his fourth Formula One title in 1956 and won his fifth with Maserati in 1957. In doing so, he became the oldest Formula One world champion at the age of 46, a record which he holds to this day. Fangio passed away in 1995, aged 84.


His record for the most Formula One World Championships remained unbroken until 2003, when Michael Schumacher (Germany) won his sixth championship. The record is currently shared between Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton (UK), with seven wins each.


Black and white photo of Mercedes Uhlenhaut Coupe with gullwing doors open


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Prior to the accident at Le Mans, Mercedes’ chief motorsport engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut, ordered two of the nine W196 chassis to be set aside for modification into a hybrid of the open-top 300 SLR race car and the 300 SL production car.


Complete with gull-wing doors, coupé styling and an enlarged 3.0-litre engine, the resulting car – the Uhlenhaut Coupé as it came to be known – was effectively a road-legal version of the 300 SLR.


However, following Mercedes’ withdrawal from motorsports – which had been in the works even before the Le Mans disaster – the hard-top 300 SLR project was shut down, leaving just two prototypes in existence.


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Rudolf Uhlenhaut claimed one of these leftover 'development mules' and used it as a company car. With a top speed of around 180 mph (290 km/h) it was the fastest road car of its time.



The special circumstances behind its creation, along with its high-power performance and distinctive design, cemented the Uhlenhaut Coupé in sports car mythology. 


"The reason for a high price would simply be that they are never sold," automotive historian Karl Ludvigsen told Hagerty.


Ludvigsen explained that cars "in that band" have never been officially sold by Mercedes-Benz.


It is believed that potential buyers were screened by RM Sotheby’s to ensure they satisfied Mercedes-Benz’s strict criteria of being wealthy enough to purchase the car and, more importantly, willing to display the car at special events.


Side view of the mercedes uhlenhaut coupe


The record-breaking sale of the Uhlenhaut Coupé could now push the values of other rare, highly-sought-after cars to new highs.


It highlights the rapid growth of the classic car market over recent years, with exemplary models now rivalling the prices paid for iconic 20th century artworks.


"The private buyer has agreed that the 300 SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé will remain accessible for public display on special occasions," said Marcus Breitschwerdt, Head of Mercedes-Benz Heritage.


The second Uhlenhaut Coupé is still owned by Mercedes-Benz and is on display at their museum in Stuttgart.


The proceeds of the sale will go towards the creation of a worldwide “Mercedes-Benz Fund” which will provide scholarships for young people studying environmental science and decarbonisation.

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