Mercedes-Benz SSK is First Produced
The Mercedes-Benz SSK is a roadster built by German automobile manufacturer Mercedes-Benz between 1928 and 1932.
Its name is an acronym of Super Sport Kurz, with the last word being the German for "short", a reference to the fact that the car was based on the earlier Mercedes-Benz S, but with 19 inches (480 mm) chopped from the chassis to make the car lighter and more agile for racing. It was the last and greatest car designed for the company by the brilliant engineer Ferdinand Porsche, before he left to pursue the foundation of his own company. The SSK's extreme performance—with a top speed of up to 120 miles per hour (190 km/h), it was the fastest car of its day—and numerous competitive successes made it one of the most highly regarded sports cars of its era. The S/SS/SSK line was one of the nominees in the penultimate round of voting for the Car of the Century award in 1999, as chosen by a panel of 132 motoring journalists and a public internet vote.
Fewer than 40 SSKs were built during its production span, of which about half were sold as Rennwagen (racing cars). Fitted with a supercharged seven litre straight-6 engine producing 200–300 metric horsepower (150–220 kW) and over 500 lb·ft (680 N·m) of torque (depending on the state of tune), it was driven to victory in numerous races, including the 1929 500 Miles of Argentina, the 1929 and 1930 Cordoba Grands Prix, the 1931 Argentine Grand Prix, and, in the hands of legendary Grand Prix racing driver Rudolf Caracciola, the 1929 British Tourist Trophy race, the 1930 Irish Grand Prix, the 1931 German Grand Prix, and the 1931 Mille Miglia.
Many were crashed while racing and subsequently cannibalised for parts, and as a result there are now almost 100 replicas using components donated from original vehicles. Only four or five entirely original models remain, and their scarcity and rich heritage make them among the most sought after cars in the world; a 1929 model was auctioned at Bonhams in Chichester in September 2004 for UK£4.17 million (US$7.4 million), making it the second most expensive automobile ever sold. Another SSK, a streamlined "Count Trossi"-bodied version owned and restored by fashion designer Ralph Lauren, has won best of show at both the 1993 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance and the 2007 Concorso D’Eleganza Villa d’Este.
Known in period as simply, “the mighty Mercedes,” advertisements for the SSK justifiably screamed, “the fastest sports car in the world.” George Edward Milligen became this great car’s 11th owner in 1941, and had it registered in his name on June 10. He paid £400 for the privilege of ownership, a considerable sum in those dark and uncertain times, with bombs falling every night as the wartime “Blitz” gathered pace. The SSK was a product of an enemy industry, one whose technological ascendancy was threatening the very survival of the United Kingdom itself. Yet Milligen had high regard for Mercedes-Benz engineering and manufacturing standards, and he was delighted with the driving challenge and prodigious performance of his SSK. The long, empty straights and fast, open curves of his local Norfolk roads provided the ideal stage upon which he could enjoy the performance of its 7.1-liter engine. This car was originally supplied unbodied from Germany. The coachwork it has worn all its life was fitted by the Carlton Carriage Company Ltd., of Willesden, London, a specialist concern which carried out much bespoke work at the time. The car has never been stripped and restored in the currently accepted meaning of that phrase, but Milligan did encounter difficulty with the car in the early 1950s. At that time, the block, pistons and cylinder liners were replaced with those from another car. The Milligen Mercedes-Benz SSK is a celebrity in British motoring circles, the most compellingly preserved, perfect provenance example to have survived anywhere in the world.
This 1929 Mercedes-Benz Type 38/250 Model SSK Review and Buyer's Guide appeared in the January, 2005 Issue of Sports Car Market Magazine.
This car sold for $7,425,989 at the Bonhams Goodwood sale, held Sept. 3, 2004. The Mercedes-Benz Type 38/250 Model SSK is rightly considered to be one of the Holy Grails of collecting. Unfortunately, like many of its rarefied ilk, the catch is making sure that you’ve got a real one. There is arguably no other important car that has had more questionable and outright fake examples passed off as the real thing, in part because even the factory can’t say for sure if it built 31 or 35 originals. Today, the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center is currently aware of 98 cars that have some claim to authenticity. So what’s the big deal with the SSK, anyway? Well, like so many of the most desirable collectible cars, it starts with racing. In the hands of drivers like Rudolph Caracciola, the SSK was the dominant race car of its era, and came to symbolize all that was wonderful and scary about racing during the “Roaring Twenties.” SSKs were brutal, in-your-face race cars driven by larger-than-life characters that guys envied and women swooned over. Hence, the legend. It started in 1926, when Mercedes (no Benz yet) introduced the “K” series cars, powered by a new, supercharged SOHC 6.3-liter six-cylinder engine designed by Ferdinand Porsche. The chassis was pretty awful, but the engine was dynamite, so in late ’26 the 6.8-liter S was introduced, which used a lower chassis. For 1928, Mercedes-Benz introduced the 7.1-liter, 225-horsepower SS and SSK models (which were later pumped up to 250 hp) and the legends began to develop. Most races in the era, such as Le Mans, were for open, four-seat “touring” cars like the SS. Grand Prix racing, however, was for smaller, lighter, two-seaters like the SSK (“K” standing for “kurz,” or short). It was mechanically identical to the SS, but about 19 inches shorter, with room for two people, a fuel tank, some spare tires, and absolutely nothing else. In other words, the SSK was the no-holds-barred race car, while the SS was more of a production car. About half of the SSKs were actively raced, while the others were used on the street. The last of the series was the SSKL, with 300 hp and a chassis lightened by drilling holes everywhere in an attempt to keep the old design competitive. These were successful in 1931, but struggled a year later when lighter, more agile cars like the Alfa 8C 2300 came to prominence. Like an aging heavyweight trying to stay in the ring too long, the SSKLs all suffered broken frames, a byproduct of the lightening process. By the early ’30s, all the racing SSKs were just old beat-up cars, so most were broken up for parts, while some got shipped to Argentina where they were campaigned for a while before meeting the same fate. Experts agree that neither an SSKL nor any SSKs with serious competition history have survived intact. Fast forward a few decades and car collecting had become not only fashionable, but downright profitable. With this icon car of the ’20s virtually nonexistent but still extremely desirable, thus began the cottage industry of creating SSKs from whatever pieces people could get their greedy hands on. Since the mechanicals are the same as the relatively common S and SS models, it wasn’t that tough to shorten the frame, build a body, and invent a history. This was made easier by the suggestion (since denied) that the factory had actually shortened a few frames for legitimate SSKs. As careful inspection and X-rays can find welds, the next step for the fabricators was to construct a series of “replacement” frames (these are known as “Thyssen” frames). While almost perfect, the modern steel alloys in these pieces made them still detectable. So the pinnacle of deception was reached when a wrecked ship was raised from the Baltic and its hull, made of steel the correct age to pass as original, was made into one or more SSK frames. What all this means is that the reputation of this iconic sports car has become so diluted by a combination of cars recreated around original parts, cars created from less important S and SS models, and some outright fakes, that virtually no car is completely above suspicion. Thus we see a huge range in sale prices for SSKs—from $350,000 to astronomical—and an intense demand for those few cars that are unquestioned. Current understanding is that there are four, maybe five, really honest SSKs in the world, and only one or two perfect ones. The car pictured here is one of the five, but not the best. It has its original body, but it was from an English coachbuilder rather than the factory, which is a strike against it. Its provenance is known from new and it has never been restored, so all the bits are original, which is good. Though its engine is not original, which is not good, it is correct—and the original engine sits in Mercedes’ museum car, so it’s not going to show up in somebody else’s pretender to the throne, which is good. All in all, this was the best SSK that has actually been for sale in the past five or more years—and likely for the next five. A good but clearly compromised car sold for $3.2 million at auction a bit more than a year ago, and rumor has it that the owner of the “best” SSK has refused offers over $10 million. The $7.2 million paid here is right in the middle, and though it is a lot of money, even in the netherworlds of big-money collectors, it was probably worth it. In this market, if you want the best, you have to step up to the plate. (Historical and descriptive information courtesy of the auction company.)