This unique 1938 Mercedes-Benz Gelandesport 170VS is the only remaining example of 10 specially built by the factory to compete in the 1938 Duetsche Alpenfahrt, an arduous three-day race spanning 38 mountain passes through the Alps and 1,600 kilometers beginning in Munich, Germany, and finishing in Vienna, Austria.
The 1920s had been glory years for Mercedes-Benz in international racing, but as the German economy began to falter under the growing weight of post-war reparations and the looming worldwide depression, more localized motorsport events began to proliferate. Interest grew in racing events, requiring competitors to traverse not just a single hill but entire series of mountain passes through the Alps, often spanning several days of competition.
By 1930, the factory’s participation in motor racing was on the wane, its attentions turning to an affordable passenger car for everyday German life. Already renowned for their advanced engine designs, Daimler and Benz turned to their Technical Director, Hans Nibel—a master engineer and one of the most important figures in the company’s early history—to design an economical yet refined platform. The result was the revolutionary new 170 range of road vehicles. Conceived as an advanced entrant in the growing medium-size, medium-price market segment, the 170 utilized a lightweight, all-independently suspended chassis first displayed at the 1931 Paris Auto Salon. Its pressed steel box section frame featured a deeply arched rear section allowing for considerable suspension travel, a necessity for navigating Europe’s still-rudimentary mountain passes. Designed with double rear coil springs bracketing swing axles and dual transverse parallel front leaf springs, it was the first all-independent suspension in a passenger car, and was the foundation on which Mercedes-Benz built its reputation for refined handling and ride comfort.
Because the basic 170 chassis was also perfectly suited to the increasingly popular Alpine racing marathons of the period, in 1938, the factory produced 10 two-seat open roadster specials, dubbed the Gelandesport (Ground Sport) 170VS, designed for the aforementioned Duetsche Alpenfahrt and other premier Alpine events. Also known as the “Alpine Racer,” the 170VS sported attractive aluminum and magnesium coachwork with low-cut doors, minimalist fenders and a sloping trunk designed to accommodate two spare tires and a tool roll; rope, cable, hooks and pulleys in case of off-road excursions, and wooden wheel chocks. A twin-Solex version of the faithful 1.9L/65 HP inline-4 engine and a ZF 4-speed gearbox were central to the 170VS Alpine Racer’s incredibly reliable performance over the unforgiving Alpine terrain.
The first of the 10-car series and the only one left today, Alpine Racer No. 840801 scored many medals during its brief career before disappearing at the onset of war in 1939.
In 1950, Dr. William Kitto of New York City was doing humanitarian work in post-war Germany when he discovered the 170VS in storage. The car was authenticated by the serial number on the frame, and Dr. Kitto imported it from Germany to the U.S. He then gave the 170VS to his son to drive while attending medical school. It later developed mechanical troubles and was stored in a friend’s barn for 20 years. In 1971, the car was purchased by Calvin Grosscup. After passing through different owners, 840801 was acquired in 1990 by Rochester, New York, resident Warren Riter, who began the painstaking process of documenting the car in preparation for a full restoration. Riter was already restoring several other significant Mercedes-Benz models, including a 220 CAB A, two 330SL Convertibles, two 300SL Gullwings and a 300 Adenaur. Among his first discoveries was that the car was originally painted black, a rare feature for a German racer of that period (or any other, for that matter).
Armed with the documentation he had gathered from around the world, in 1995, Riter completely dismantled the car and began searching for the necessary parts to complete the restoration. In 2018, 840801 was delivered to the renowned Horsepower Motorworks in Victor, New York, which completed the award-winning concours restoration of this unique Mercedes-Benz racer.
The car was refinished in the original black, and the interior work was completed with correct leather upholstery and cloth top, correct new gauges replicated by a German company, and a new wiring harness complete with correct cloth wrapping. The first 170VS Alpine Racer built, it contains all of the original stamped body parts, is the only one painted gloss black and is the only known example remaining.
The completed 840801 is simply sensational, showing uncanny attention to detail befitting both the Mercedes-Benz automobiles of the period and this car’s Chairman’s Choice award at the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, as well as the International Journalist Award at 2019 Greenwich Concours d’Elegance. This truly unique Mercedes-Benz racer will be offered for sale at Mecum Auctions’ Monterey Sale, August 15–17. For more information visit www.mecum.com