The name “Gazelle” may bring to mind 1930s-styled kit cars, but the origins of the design come from a time when Mercedes dominated the motorsports world. The nickname refers to four S-chassis models built between 1927 and 1932: the “S,” “SS,” “SSK” and “SSKL.” Designed by Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Nibel, these lightweight cars helped Mercedes secure numerous race wins in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Unlike its predecessor, the “K,” these Gazelles were offered for sale as road cars as well as race cars, letting anyone with enough cash experience the best performance available.
S and SS
Power is provided by an overhead cam straight 6 equipped with a gear-driven supercharger. To save owners money on registration taxes, the supercharger only engages at high RPM; this lets the cars be classified under their naturally aspirated output.
The S was a success from its launch in 1927, securing several race wins and setting the German passenger car speed record at 110.3 mph. It was replaced two years later by the “SS,” which increased engine displacement from 6.8 to 7 liters and boosted the compression ratio, bringing output from 180 to 200 hp. Although the SS was technically in production until 1932, few were built after 1929.
Ferdinand Porsche’s last design for Mercedes was the “Super Sport Kurz,” also called the “SSK.” “Kurz” means “short” in German: The S chassis has been shortened by 19 inches to reduce weight and improve handling. Boost pressure was increased, bringing output to 220 hp. Half of the cars produced were racing models.
In 1931, Mercedes built SSKL models for their factory race team. By cutting holes into the SSK’s frame rails and components, weight was trimmed down to just under 3,000 lbs for a complete car, less than the S chassis and engine alone. A 12 psi supercharger brought output up to a whopping 300 hp; during the 1931 Avus race, driver Manfred von Brauchitsch reached speeds exceeding 150 mph in his streamlined SSKL, averaging over 120 mph in the race.
The Mercedes Gazelle Today
A total of 300 Gazelles were produced. Only five or six original SSK’s still exist with the rest of the 33 car run either destroyed or used to repair S and SS models. The last unrestored SSK sold for $7.4 million in 2004, making it one of the most expensive cars in the world. There are only two surviving SSKL’s, both of which are owned by Mercedes-Benz.
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