WRC fanatics eager to experience the view through the windshield, or at times the side window, of today's high-tech rally cars can rely on a joystick and an ultra-quick video card, plus a pit crew of software geeks, to put them in the driver's seat. Fine and dandy for the Richard Burns and Marcus Gronholm wannabes, but what about us old-school types who prefer to have our driving thrills supplied by horsepower as opposed to gigahertz. How do we find out what it would be like to be someone who drove rally cars when special stages were measured by the borders of countries, not a few kilometers? For example, someone like Eugen Bohringer.

Bohringer was the 1962 European rally champion and driving ace for the Mercedes-Benz competition department during the 1960s and '70s. Among his significant accomplishments was beating the likes of Paddy Hopkirk, Eric Carlsson and Timo Makinen in the 6,600-km Spa-Sofia-Liege (Belgium to Bulgaria) marathon rally. His mount was a modified 1963 230SL.

The Mercedes-Benz Classic Center in Germany, with significant input from Bohringer himself, built a replica of this historic vehicle a couple of years ago. Thanks to an invitation from Peter Spieth, general manager of the Classic Center operations in the U.S., I was able to sample this 1960s world-class rally car over some of the world's best driving roads.

The red 230SL rally car, bearing Bohringer's #39, was one of seven cars the Mercedes Classic Center in Fellbach, Germany, entered in last July's Silvretta Classic, the sixth edition of this prestigious vintage rally for cars built prior to 1975, which takes place on the challenging and scenic roads through the Alps of western Austria.

Another of Bohringer's cars, a 1963 300SE rally car, was also entered in the three-day, 450-km romp through the ski country surrounding the Montafon valley, about 90 miles southwest of Innsbruck. This big blue bomber, despite being a four-door sedan with minimal modifications from its street brethren, took Bohringer to successive wins in the Argentine Grand Prix (when it was a cross-country road, and off-road, race covering over 4,000 km). For the Silvretta Classic, Stefan Roehrig, senior manager of the Classic Center, was behind the wheel. His boss, Max-Gerrit von Pein, was also participating, driving an alloy-bodied clone of the 300 SLS roadsters campaigned by Paul O'Shea in the United States during 1957. This car was built by the Classic Center from a chassis and an engine, brakes and other parts discovered in the test department and which are believed to have been never-used spares built as part of that racing effort.

The remainder of the cars entered by the Classic Center were immaculately restored or preserved street cars: a 1955 300SL Gullwing, a 1957 300SL Roadster, a 1958 220S Cabriolet and a 1964 230SL. These were joined by privately entered cars, including a majestic silver 1937 540K. Mercedes numbered 20 of the 156-car field.

Mercedes-Benz is joined by the other German automakers in supporting the Silvretta Classic. Chief among them is Klaus Bischof, the former chief mechanic and race engineer for drivers like Rolf Stommelen, Stefan Bellof and Jacky Ickx during some of Porsche's greatest endurance racing achievements. He has been the curator of the company's historic car collection and museum since 1993 but still enjoys the opportunity to wrench on a few of Zuffenhausen's classics during the Silvretta weekend. This year, Bischof's charges included a rare coupe version of a 1960 718 RS Spyder and a 1963 356 B 2000 GS. The gregarious Bischof also brought along the Porsche race team's chef and plenty of beer, steaks, shrimp, Cayenne sausage, and a couple cases of "Cayenne"-labeled (vintage 2001) Argentine vino rojo. Von Pein and Bischof are close buddies, so besides access to some of Stuttgart's finest machinery, I also got a large dose of down-home Swabian-style hospitality.

As for the rest of the German automakers, Volkswagen took from its Autostadt museum a 1937 VW prototype with louvered rear window and suicide doors. Opel brought a bulging-fendered duo of yellow 1970s-style competition machinery in the form of a 1973 Ascona rally car and a 1974 Manta road racer. Current touring car racer (Smokin') Jo Winkelhock piloted the former. Not to be outdone, the ever-competitive BMW contingent not only brought a Mille Miglia 328 Roadster but also hired Giuliano Cane, the same guy they pay to regularly win the Mille Miglia Storica, to go for the overall win in the Silvretta Classic. Cane is one of a corps of play-for-pay vintage rally drivers in Europe who spend hours getting their timing perfect for the special stages that put an emphasis on precise timing rather than speed. As I discovered, driving 100 meters in 10 sec. (a common special stage) requires patience and some rather delicate treading on the gas pedal.

Of course, besides the German marques there was also an international assortment of classic cars. These included rare examples of the usual suspects: Alfa (6C 2500, Montreal), Aston Martin (DB2, DB6), Bentley (a pair of 1928 Le Mans), Ferrari (250 TdF, 275 GTS, 365 GTB/4), Jaguar (SS 100, trio of C-Types, D-Type), Maserati (3500GT and Spider), MG (Mk II 1600 Deluxe A and a PB) and a Riley 9 HP Brooklands. In addition were a number of weird and wonderful cars like a Bizzarini Stradale, Daimler SP 250, Lamborghini 350 GT, a Steyr-Puch 650cc version of the Fiat Nuevo 500 and a Toyota 2000 GT. Personal favorites were a pair of Lancia Aurelia B20 GTs and a Renault Alpine A 110. Best imitation of a "Banshee with an Italian Accent" award went to the high-rev wail of a 1.6-liter Lancia Fulvia 1600 HF rally car. Best droptop had to be the aptly named 1938 Peugeot 402 Eclipse. The metal roof of this massive French convertible manually retracted en masse to drop in place below the equally expansive, sloping rear deck.

Not quite as weird, but interesting for their variety, were a number of U.S.-made cars: a pair of Corvettes, a Ford Model A, a 1964 Mustang, a Cobra 427 and even a GT 40. There was also a 1970 Dodge Challenger clothed in bodywork by Frua. My favorite, however, was a 1954 Plymouth Belvedere, replete with a plastic Elvis doll on the dash, which was purchased by its proud German hepcat owner at the Hershey swapmeet. By the way, none of these cars was piloted by an American. The three U.S. teams, including Peter Spieth and me, consisted of our Mercedes 230 SL, a Porsche 356 and an Elva Courier.

Each day's route began and ended in Partenen, the postcard-perfect example of an Alpine mountain village. The cars, in alphabetical order according to marque, rolled up and over a start/finish stand erected on the town's main street, then rumbled past waving spectators lining both sides of the street. Sure, it's cliched, but after driving in L.A., you do get warm and fuzzy feelings fielding hand gestures involving more than one finger.

We were billeted a few miles down the road from Partenen in the village of Gaschurn at the Posthotel Rossle. Besides looking like a set from the "Sound of Music," the hotel was notable for hosting a young Ernest Hemingway on more than one occasion in 1922 when he was learning to ski on the nearby slopes. About those slopes: The Silvretta Mountain range is roughly 2,200- to 3,200m high; the Piz Buin is the tallest peak at 3,312m (10,866 ft). Despite its early July date, the Silvretta Classic has been snowed on in the past. Fortunately, this year Mutter Natur dished up only occasional rain showers for us.

The Silvretta Classic, a TSD affair that covers roughly 450 km (280 miles), has 22 special stages, which normally required driving a fairly short distance, usually about 100m (328 ft) in an exact amount of time, generally 10 sec. Sometimes this also involved negotiating cones; once you had to cut the engine and roll down a steep and twisty path. Stopping before the finish line was verboten, and you were penalized for every .01 sec. under or over the prescribed time. Then there were the usual penalties involving missing or arriving too early or late at checkpoints along the route, as well as hidden radar guns to discourage speeders. And you thought only certain car clubs could be that anal-retentive.

The good news was that our 230SL was equipped with state of the art tools for calculating all of this. The bad news was that this equipment, Halda Twin Master odometers and Speed Pilot timers, was state of the art circa 1963. The instructions, in German, were a photocopy of a page from the original operating manual. Thus Peter, born and raised in Stuttgart, primarily assumed the role of navigator. This meant that I got to drive first, over what turned out to be not only one of the best roads of the rally but easily one of the best in the world.

The Hochalpenstrasse is a 14-mile stretch of Austria highway 188 just south of Partenen. It consists of a tightly coiled series of switchbacks (the route book claims 32 hairpins, but I was too busy working the steering wheel to count) that climb a 14% grade perched high above green valleys, surrounded, in the distance, by the iced serrations of snow-coated mountain peaks. When you dare flick your eyes away from the road, the view is spectacular. The downhill run unravels in a much straighter, 10% decline, but its negotiation is complicated by herds of contented cows that leisurely stroll, or even snooze, on the road.

It was at this point that our rally strategy took a sharp turn. Driving up the Hochalpenstrasse provided a tremendous insight into the popularity of Bohringer and his 230SL. Spectators were perched along the edges of the hairpins. As soon as they saw the approach of the little red SL, they rose in recognition and urged us onward and upward. Despite the fact that the road was open to traffic in both directions, I couldn't resist playing to the crowd by slinging the tail-happy SL around a corner and giving them a blast of the deep growl from its exhaust. Heading downhill, we decided that we had enough time in hand to the next checkpoint to stop for a bovine photo shoot.

Jumping back into the car, in my zeal to make up the lost time, I blew past a left turn, and then tried to convince Peter that we were still obviously okay because of all the rally cars streaming past us in the opposite direction. Wrong. By the time we doubled back, we had amassed enough penalty points to redirect our goal from being in the top 20 overall to being the best USA team. But we did make two new friends at a toll gate, who seemed bemused that our car would pass their station four times while all the others only passed by once.

Later, we discovered that we were doomed from the start, as the Halda Twin Master had been calibrated for 13-in.-diameter wheels rather than the 15-inchers we were running. There were also a couple hundred penalty points accumulated during a few rounds of the great "Rolex vs. Timex" debate while waiting for the exact minute to cross the line at checkpoints. One of us could not believe that his expensive Swiss chronometer could possibly lose a minute a day and doubted the unerring accuracy of his colleague's ever faithful, albeit plastic, Ironman.

Day two, which happened to be the Fourth of July, took us north from Partenen. Our first checkpoint was in a tiny mountain village where, at 10 a.m., we were offered a shot of schnapps. We declined, preferring to get an energy, and ego, boost from the kids who stopped us demanding autographs that also had to include our car number. I got pretty good at dashing off "#107, USA" with the appropriate NASCAR-style flourish.

Peter got his turn behind the wheel and made the most of it on the twisting uphill climb through the Bregenz forest toward Lech. The road works it way through a number of tunnels and along rocky canyon walls that amplified the wonderful sounds emanating from the SL's booming exhaust. Cool stuff even from the navigator's seat.

Lech is the "Aspen" of these parts, expensive condos and restaurants dotting the lower portions of the ski runs on either side of town. Eberhard Mahle, son of the founder of the piston manufacturer, has a place in the area and came out to see the cars. He raced for a number of manufacturers during the 1950s and '60s, including Porsche and Mercedes-Benz. Eberhard regaled us with stories of his Targa Florio drive in a 550 Porsche and a class win driving a Mercedes 220 SE in the 1963 6-hour endurance race at the Nuerburgring. He boasted of having raced over 40,000km at the 'Ring in all sorts of weather and at night.

The day ended with a welcoming party in the town of Schruns, where participants got to sample the local beer while the locals got to check out the cars. There were also more autograph seekers and a number of people who homed in on the SL as "the Bohringer car."

By day three, Peter and I had become a well-oiled rally machine. Too late to erase our early deficit, but we saw no shame in boasting about our best of the U.S. status. We were welcomed on the finish stand with a glass of champagne and the hearty appreciation of the organizers, who were truly happy that they had Americans in their event. And, other than the Austrian penchant for the worst of American oldies music (the polka band's rendition of Volare was much preferred), this American enjoyed the chance to experience the Austrian hospitality, scenery and, of course, the fabulous roads.

Peter suggested we skip the awards banquet to take the SL and the 300SE out for one last blast over the Hochalpenstrasse. I agreed. After all, it is not every day you get to be Eugen Bohringer.

SIDEBAR: Bohringer's Rides: Anything but Boring--1963 230SL and 1963 300SE

Forty years ago, the 1963 230SL made its debut as the second generation of the Mercedes-Benz SL (Sport Licht) sports car series. It replaced both the 190SL and the legendary 300SL. Because of the distinctive curve of its roof that bowed downward in the middle, the 230SL was nicknamed the "Pagoda."

Today we tend to think of any SL after the Gullwing and its Roadster sibling as more boulevard cruiser than serious sports car. That was not the impression held by world champion rally driver Eugen Bohringer, who pressured Mercedes racing manager Karl Kling into building a rally version of the new Pagoda almost before the paint was dry on the first batch of 230SL production cars. Bohringer had decided, rightly so as it turned out, that the lightweight two-seater would be the perfect vehicle to handle both the rocky, mountain trails and the paved highways that accounted for the 6,600km (4,092-mile) Spa-Sofia-Liege marathon rally.

Modifications to the stock 2.3-liter 150-bhp six cylinder were limited by the regulations to fine-tuning the fuel injection, a slight overbore to 2.5 liters, a bit of porting and polishing, and the addition of a freer breathing exhaust that upped the power output to 165 hp. The chassis was beefed up and further stiffened by bolting on a hardtop. Changes underneath included stiffer shocks, shortened springs and protective skidplates. The gearing was also changed to deliver more low-end power. Eschewing the stock 14-in. wheels, Bohringer used 15-in. wheels for added clearance off-road, changing to 13-in. wheels for better acceleration on pavement. One of the new features on the production 230SL was power steering, which Bohringer had recalibrated to his liking. He cited this as a major advantage during the 52-hour event. Racing seats, a set of driving lamps and the requisite Halda Twin Master and Speed Pilot completed the 230SL's transition into a world-class rally car. Bohringer's faith in the Pagoda paid off with a surprise win over the Saab and Austin-Healey teams that dominated rallying at the time. Despite its win, the 230SL had few competition outings after the Spa-Sofia-Liege event. The 300SE sedan remained the Mercedes-Benz mainstay for rally- and road racing.

The car I drove in the Silvretta Classic is not the original rally car. This particular 230SL had been imported from the USA and sent to the Classic Center in 1997 for what its new owner thought would be minor bodywork. Rust had eaten away more of the car than expected. Rather than pay for an expensive total restoration, the owner opted to sell the car to the Classic Center. Coincidentally, about this time Eugen Bohringer was a frequent visitor to the Classic Center's workshop. He often lamented about the absence of his Pagoda rally car from the company museum. There was very little technical documentation on file regarding the modifications carried out to produce the original Pagoda rally car, so Bohringer's memory became the principal source for the recreation of this tribute to his successful rally driving career for Mercedes-Benz.

The first impression you get after sliding into the plaid-lined bucket of the driver's seat is how many stock components were retained in a car intended for such serious competition. The sun visors, instruments, ashtray, even the wood trim on the dash, are all intact. So is the bus-sized plastic steering wheel. Besides the add-on rally instrumentation, the only other changes to the dash are the switches for the three, large driving lights and a switch marked "fanfare" that changes the horn mode to louder air horns.

The 230SL was a delight to drive over the twisting mountain roads in both dry and wet conditions. The overall sensation is that of lightness and excellent road holding. It displayed plenty of low-end torque and a playful tail-out cornering attitude not unlike a Porsche 356. The huge steering wheel and power steering made for easy, albeit busy, negotiation of the Hochalpenstrasse's hairpins whether going up- or downhill. The disc/drum brakes stopped straight and true, although my last downhill run on the 14% grade of the Hochalpenstrasse did require a bit of extra pedal pumping near the bottom. It was a good reminder of how drivers in the "good old days" often talked about their brakes "going away" during a race.

Although not as nimble as the Pagoda, the 300SE was also impressive in its own way. Again, the stock nature of this big four-door sedan is amazing considering its aplomb over the paved and unpaved surfaces in racing across Argentina, where it reached speeds as high as 125 mph. Powered by the fuel-injected 3.0-liter six as used in the 300SL, the 300SE has 230 bhp. The 300SE is also notable for being the first competition car to employ an air suspension.

The big blue sedan was fun to drive in a straight line. It has a prehistoric muscle-car feel. Unfortunately, trying to catch the 230SL racing up the twisting Hochalpenstrasse turned out to a nose-heavy, frustrating experience. There is just too much weight up front, and you feel it turning and braking. But, look out once the road irons itself out. The big machine easily sprinted up to 90 mph on a straight, uphill pull. Although a bit too softly sprung for the twisties, I can understand how Bohringer must have appreciated both the suspension and the big six while charging across the pampas.

The 230SL is the much more preferable car to drive on events like vintage rallies, but both cars demonstrated how almost a half century later they maintain a satisfying level of high performance without being fussy or uncomfortable. Even more so, they provide hands-on enlightenment into what skillful drivers Bohringer and his racing peers had to be to achieve the results they did given the tools they had. More so than any virtual reality show.

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