The motor sport history of Mercedes-Benz
Stuttgart
Nov 10, 2011
New beginnings after the Second World War
  • 1951: Focus on research and the quest for a new strategy
  • 1952: Successes with the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194)
  • 1954 and 1955: Triumphs for the W 196 R and 300 SLR

The immediate priorities for Daimler-Benz AG in the initial post-war period were reconstruction and the resumption of production of passenger cars and commercial vehicles. A return to racing was not high on the agenda and had to be a gradual process. Some post-war Mercedes-Benz 170 V passenger cars were already being made in 1946, but this model, which had already been in production from 1936 to 1942, had achieved nothing in the way of racing success. So in the first few years after the War, the former works drivers and design engineers from the racing department were spending their time repairing ordinary passenger cars – no easy task in the immediate post-war environment, and one which called on the considerable improvisatory skills developed from their years of manning the pits at racing events.
The company’s debut in post-war motor racing came in September 1950, when Karl Kling entered the ADAC Six Hour race for sports and touring cars at the Nürburgring circuit in a Mercedes-Benz 170 S. A total of one hundred cars took to the track, after a Le Mans-style start. Kling described the race as follows: ‘On hearing the starter’s signal, I sprinted to my car as if I was Jesse Owens, tore the car door open, sat behind the wheel, started the engine, and was soon on the track, in a pack surrounded by all the other cars.’ In spite of these efforts at the start, KIing could finish only seventh for the up to 2000 cc class. He did however succeed in posting the fastest lap time for touring cars.
Only after his success at the Eifel race did Kling receive his long-coveted invitation to join the racing department re-established by Mercedes-Benz in 1950 under the proven leadership of Alfred Neubauer. Approval for the return to motor sport was given by Wilhelm Haspel, managing director at Daimler-Benz AG. Neubauer’s first attempt to return to the elite discipline of motor sport was not far away and he pinned his hopes on Grand Prix cars from the 1930s that were in good operational condition. Four W 154 vehicles and six racing engines provided enough components for the engineers to build three viable racing cars and four engines.
These cars were first put to the test in 1951, in two races in Argentina. Hermann Lang, Karl Kling and Argentinean driver Juan Manuel Fangio performed valiantly in Buenos Aires, with Lang and Kling both achieving second places on 18 and 24 February 1951 respectively. However these fast, yet heavy cars were unable to secure a win. Fangio himself was partly to blame. He had initially expected to be driving for Alfa Romeo, in the car in which he had finished runner-up world champion in the previous season. He had therefore suggested a track with plenty of curves to make life more difficult for the Silver Arrows, which were primarily designed for fast tracks – but then found himself driving for Mercedes-Benz!
These races in Argentina clearly demonstrated that the W 154 now had its best years behind it, and Neubauer’s plans for the Daimler-Benz racing department to enter the Indianapolis 500 mile event were shelved.
1951 also saw the launch of the first new post-war passenger car models, the 220
(W 187) and 300 (W 186 I). The 300 became the nucleus of the company’s motor sport successes over the next few years, as the basis for the 300 SL (W 194) sports car designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut, followed by two production models: the ‘Gullwing’ coupé (W 198 I, 1954) and roadster (W 198 II, 1957). Before the War, Uhlenhaut had been technical manager of the racing department; from 1949 he headed the research and development department of the passenger car development operation.
Return of the Silver Arrows
On 15 June 1951, Daimler-Benz management announced its plans for involvement in motor sport, with a focus on racing and sports cars. However, the Grand Prix vehicles had to wait until 1954, when the new Formula One rules came into effect. The first Mercedes-Benz project was a new sports car. A design period of just nine months was enough to create the legendary 300 SL (standing for ‘sports light’). The new car’s chassis was largely based on the Mercedes-Benz 300, with the brake linings extended to 90 millimetres. The main enhancements were to the six-cylinder inline engine, including three Solex down-draught carburettors and a more acute camshaft angle, boosting output to 129 kW at 5200 rpm. The engine was inclined 50 degrees to the left in its support structure, a lightweight spaceframe.
This light yet robust tubular frame extended well up the sides, for stability reasons. This was the origin of the 300 SL’s legendary ‘ ‘Gullwing ’’ doors, since side-hinged doors would have made it difficult to climb into the car over the high sill structures. The doors initially came down to waist level, but for the Le Mans race in June 1952 they had to be lowered still further. The smooth contours of the body of the 300 SL and the narrow roof were a brilliant achievement, as demonstrated by the low cd value of 0.25. A maximum speed of 240 km/h offered favourable prospects for victories in international competition.
On 3 May 1952, two 300 SLs were entered in the Mille Miglia race. Karl Kling and Hans Klenk were second across the line in the 1000-mile event, with Rudolf Caracciola in fourth place. Not quite a victory, but Mercedes-Benz was the only brand to have two vehicles among the first five places. For racing manager Alfred Neubauer, a dream was coming true. ‘That day, I started to feel young again,’ he later recollected.
Then on 18 May, the 300 SLs scooped the pool in the Bern Prize for sports cars with a triple victory, with Karl Kling winning the race ahead of Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess. However, the race was overshadowed by a serious accident involving Rudolf Caracciola. The crash, caused by brake failure, ended his racing career. Caracciola was an exceptional driver in the history of Mercedes-Benz, dominating the eras of the supercharged family of models from S to SSKL and the pre-war Silver Arrows, and playing an active part in the return of the Stuttgart brand to motor racing in 1952.
A one-two victory in the famous Le Mans 24-Hour race soon afterwards showed that the power of the ‘‘Gullwing’’ car was matched by its stamina. The team of Hermann Lang and Fritz Riess crossed the finish line ahead of Theo Helfrich and Helmut Niedermayr.
The Jubiläum Grand Prix for sports cars at the Nürburgring in August saw the appearance of the 300 SL in a new format: four coupés modified as roadsters, with one also having a slightly shorter wheelbase and narrower track. The four cars duly took the first four places – against rather modest competition – in the following order: Hermann Lang, Karl Kling, Fritz Riess and Theo Helfrich. In contrast, the double victory in November 1952 of Karl Kling/Hans Klenk and Hermann Lang/Erwin Grupp in the Carrera Panamericana – an eight-stage race covering a total distance of 3,130 kilometres in far-off Mexico – caused a worldwide sensation. The exotic aura associated with long-distance racing was highlighted by the Kling/Klenk team’s legendary collision with a vulture, which smashed the windscreen. From then on the 300 SL windscreen was protected by a mesh outside the screen.
A comprehensively reworked version of the 300 SL for the 1953 season was quickly developed but never used, since in 1953 all efforts were focused on preparing for the return to Grand Prix racing in 1954.
1954: Formula One racing with the W 196 R
While the 300 SL was winning races, the Stuttgart team was already working on the return to Grand Prix racing, on the basis of major changes to Formula One specifications announced by the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) for the 1954 season. This was an ideal time for the re-entry of Mercedes-Benz, since other manufacturers would also have to develop new cars. The displacement restrictions were now a maximum of 750 cc for supercharged engines and 2.5 litres for naturally-aspirated engines.
The objectives announced at the beginning of 1953 by Fritz Könecke, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG, were ambitious indeed: twin world championship titles for Mercedes-Benz works drivers, in Formula One and the sports cars racing season. This programme was to be coordinated by Hans Scherenberg as the head of design. The men responsible for achieving these demanding targets were Fritz Nallinger as chief engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut as head of the research and development department and Alfred Neubauer as racing manager. The new racing department had its capacity boosted accordingly, eventually employing a total of over 200 staff. They were also able to call on the expertise of a further 300 specialists in other departments of Daimler-Benz AG.
1953 was dominated by the development of the new Grand Prix car, and for this reason the racing department did not participate in other competitions that season. The fruit of their labours was a new racing car, the W 196 R. The vehicle originally had streamlined fairings, and at the start of the season a maximum output of 188 kW from the 2496 cc naturally-aspirated engine with desmodromic (forcible) valve control, and a maximum speed of around 260 km/h. The new Silver Arrows made their debut at the second European race of the year, the French Grand Prix. The fully streamlined W 196 R posted the fastest times in training, and at this debut at Reims on 4 July the vehicle surpassed the expectations of the public and their competitors alike – with a dual victory for the recently recruited Argentinean driver Juan Manuel Fangio – the 1951 world champion – and Karl Kling.
This sensational result had a truly historical resonance, since 40 years earlier to the day, on 4 July 1914, the French Grand Prix in Lyon had also been won by Mercedes cars, with Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer filling the first three places in that order.
The focus was now on securing the 1954 world championship title for Juan Manuel Fangio. He had to be content with fourth place in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on 17 July, where there were some problems with the car in its initial, rather unprepossessing streamlined format. But Uhlenhaut had already fast-tracked the construction of the second variant of the W 196 R, this time with exposed wheels and also new tyres, developed for Daimler-Benz by Continental.
For the remainder of the 1954 season there was always at least one Silver Arrow driver on the Grand Prix winners’ podium. Fangio took the German, Swiss and Italian events. Hans Hermann secured a third place in Switzerland. When he won the Swiss Grand Prix at Bern-Bremgarten on 22 August, Fangio had built up an unbeatable lead in the standings for the 1954 Formula One world championship. The fact that he could manage only third place in the final race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix, did nothing to diminish the clear superiority of both car and driver that year.
1955: Twin championships and ‘auf Wiedersehen’
In 1955, armed with the improved Grand Prix car and 300 SLR (W 196 S) racing sports car derived from it, the racing department set about the quest for the double title, seeking a repeat of the Grand Prix title, plus the sports car championship. With this aim in mind, Neubauer had recruited British ace driver Stirling Moss to complement the skills of Juan Manuel Fangio. In addition to Fangio and Moss, Mercedes-Benz drivers during the 1955 season also included Karl Kling, Hans Herrmann, Piero Taruffi, Peter Collins, John Fitch, André Simon, Desmond Titterington, Pierre Levegh, and Wolfgang Count Berghe von Trips.
The W 196 R raced in 1955 had been thoroughly reworked, in terms of both the engine and the chassis. Along with the long wheelbase model (2350 mm), there was now also a medium version with a 140-mm shorter wheelbase, and the ultra-short ‘Monaco’ model with a wheelbase of just 2150 mm. The car was now around 70 kilograms lighter, and also had 22 kW more power: at 8400 rpm, the engine of the W 196 R now developed 213 kW, ultimately giving the car a maximum speed of around 300 km/h. The distinctive visual feature of the W 196 R in its second year was the air scoop on the bonnet, required because of the modified intake manifold.
The 1955 racing season opened with the Argentinean Grand Prix, won by Fangio in extremely hot conditions. And just 14 days later, on 30 January 1955, Fangio also took first place in the Buenos Aires Grand Prix. The race featured four Silver Arrow cars, powered with the 3-litre engine that was to be fitted in the new 300 SLR racing sports car. Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss recorded a dual victory in what was in essence an extremely demanding road test for the new engine, with Karl Kling in fourth place.
The 300 SLR made its racing debut on 1 May 1955 in the Mille Miglia. The name and the body of the new car were reminiscent of the 300 SL from 1952, but in engineering terms the vehicle was clearly derived from the current Silver Arrow Grand Prix racing car, and quite different from its similarly named predecessor. Four of the new cars lined up at the start: Fangio and Kling drove alone, Moss and Herrmann with co-drivers. In addition, the starting line-up included several Mercedes-Benz 300 SLs and even three Mercedes-Benz 180 D diesel saloons. Juan Manuel Fangio was generally regarded as the favourite, but it was the young Englishman, Stirling Moss, with co-driver Denis Jenkinson, who took the event as the first non-Italian winner since Rudolf Caracciola (who had won in 1931 in a Mercedes-Benz SSKL). Moss also recorded the best-ever time for the Mille Miglia: 10:07:48 hours, at an average speed of 157.65 km/h. Fangio took second place, and Mercedes-Benz won both the overall title and two categories: GT cars with displacement greater than 1300 cc, and the diesel class.
The short-wheelbase version of the W 196 R started in the Monaco Grand Prix, but Mercedes-Benz was not successful on this occasion. Fangio and then Moss held the lead for much of the race, but eventually all three vehicles were forced to retire on account of minor technical problems. The various wheelbase and body versions of the W 196 R provided a wide range of options, yet the bodies were actually interchangeable with just a few simple adjustments. Chassis No. 10, for example, now displayed in a new aluminium body, raced in 1955 with exposed wheels in the Argentinean and Dutch Grand Prix events and was used for training at Monza with a fully streamlined body. The variant used on a given occasion depended on the characteristics of the track and the individual preferences of the driver.
Technical features common to all versions included the swing axle with low pivot point and an eight-cylinder 2496 cc engine. The desmodromic operation of the valves, with cam lobes and rocker arms, provided higher revolutions along with improved safety and power ratings. Fuel supply to the cylinders was via an injection pump jointly developed with Bosch, operating at a pressure of 100 kilograms per cubic centimetre.
Following the disappointing results at Monaco, both the racing and sports cars were back at the top of their form in May and June. Fangio took the Eifel race in his 300 SLR, with Moss in second place, and won the Belgian Grand Prix in the W 196 R. This triumph was followed by a tragic accident at the Le Mans race of 1955, in which three 300 SLRs were entered. When Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn braked to go into the pits after a hard-fought duel with Fangio, he obstructed Lance Macklin (Austin Healey). Macklin veered to the left, straight into the path of Pierre Levegh’s 300 SLR, who collided with the rear of the Austin, launching the vehicle into the air. The engine and front axle came away from the rest of the car and flew into the crowd of spectators. The result was the worst accident in motor sports history, claiming 82 lives and injuring another 91 spectators. The race was continued in spite of the accident, to ensure access for the rescue services was not blocked by the departing public. After midnight, Daimler-Benz made the decision to withdraw the 300 SLRs from the event as a sign of respect for the victims. Accordingly, Moss and fellow-team member Simon were recalled to the pits.
The memory of the disaster cast a shadow over the rest of the season. Numerous races were cancelled, including the Grand Prix events in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain. But the Grand Prix of the Netherlands in June brought another double victory for Fangio and Moss in their W 196 Rs. Moss then won the British Grand Prix at Aintree in a short-wheelbase W 196 R, followed by Fangio, Kling, and Taruffi. This was an absolute sensation for the local public, since the young British star was the first English driver ever to win his home Grand Prix.
The Swedish Grand Prix for sports cars was won by Fangio, ahead of Moss, both in 300 SLRs, and Karl Kling complemented their double victory by winning the sports cars category in his 300 SL. One of the two racing sports coupés designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut was also on hand in Sweden, and used during training for the race. The 300 SLR coupés were originally intended to start in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, but this race had been discontinued, and did not take place in 1955. The ‘Gullwing’ coupé was seen on the track during training on several occasions, but never actually raced. One of the two vehicles was later used by Rudolf Uhlenhaut as a company car.
The final performance of W 196 R cars on the racing scene was in the Italian Grand Prix on 11 September. And because four events had been removed from the season calendar, this was also the one and only appearance of the streamlined version of the car in 1955. All other races had been contested with open-wheeled cars. The Monza track had been extensively modified, and was now very much a high-speed course, with each lap tantamount to two straight drives past the grandstands. This meant high average speeds for the race, so Neubauer decided that Fangio and Moss would race in the faired monoposto design with a long wheelbase. Kling was to drive an open-bodied medium-wheelbase variant, and Taruffi a short-wheelbase ‘Monaco’ car, also with an open body. Fangio was a clear winner for Mercedes-Benz – his last victory for the marque – followed by Piero Taruffi just 0.7 seconds behind. The Argentinean master driver ended the season with 40 points, and a third Formula One world championship. Stirling Moss was the runner-up with 23 points.
However, the racing department’s second goal for the 1955 season seemed now to be out of reach. As Alfred Neubauer later recalled: ‘The only disappointment was the likely failure to win the racing sports car championship, the Constructors’ Prize. This championship, introduced only in 1953, is awarded not to the winning drivers but to the manufacturer that makes their cars. Ferrari was well ahead in the standings, and it was going to take a miracle to overtake them.’
The 300 SLR had shown that it was extremely competitive in several races already, but neither the Eifel race nor the Swedish Grand Prix counted for the world championship. Everything now hinged on the Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland and the Targa Florio on Sicily. On 17 September, three 300 SLRs lined up at the start of the race in Northern Ireland, and the miracle Neubauer dreamed of duly came to pass: Stirling Moss and John Fitch won the race, ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling’s 300 SLR, and third place went to Wolfgang Count Berghe von Trips (racing for the first time in the 300 SLR, although he did have competition experience in the 300 SL), with co-driver André Simon.
But to take the world constructors’ championship, Mercedes-Benz still had to achieve the desired result in the Targa Florio in Sicily mid-October. They needed to win the race, with arch-rivals Ferrari doing no better than third – and so a strike force of unparalleled proportions headed south. Eight racing cars, eight heavy-duty trucks and 15 passenger cars were unloaded from the ferry from Naples, along with a support team of 45 mechanics. Stirling Moss said that he had never seen such a level of preparation and attention to detail, and such a huge logistical effort.
Neubauer had pondered long and hard on his tactics for the race: ‘I had never planned a race so carefully and thoroughly. For that 1955 Targa Florio, I drew one last time on all my knowledge and experience, all my tricks and my love of the game.’ The most important part of the plan may have been his strategy for the change of driver: rather than handing over after three laps, as was the normal practice, this time the Mercedes drivers were to change only after four laps. Uhlenhaut also strengthened the 300 SLR for this tough circuit.
The first car started at 7.00 a.m. on 16 October 1955. Stirling Moss was in the lead before falling back to third place after his 300 SLR left the road. The damage to the car was clearly visible, but the mechanical systems were still fully intact. Peter Collins took over at the wheel, and promptly set a new lap record in the dented Mercedes-Benz. He was back in the lead when he handed the wheel back to Stirling Moss, who won the event, almost five minutes ahead of Juan Manuel Fangio. The third 300 SLR of John Fitch and Desmond Titterington came in fourth, behind Eugenio Castellotti and Robert Manzon (Ferrari 860 Monza). Mercedes-Benz had the double victory it needed to take the brand constructors’ championship – their goal had been achieved.
This marked the end of the triumphant Silver Arrow era: already before the tragic accident at Le Mans, Mercedes-Benz had decided to end the activities of the racing department at the end of the 1955 season. The commitment of effort and resources to the development and construction of the racing vehicles and supporting the campaign was huge. Daimler-Benz AG now felt that the talents of these outstanding engineers and mechanics were more urgently needed for the development of new passenger cars. Technical Director Fritz Nallinger confirmed this decision at the function held to celebrate the successful drivers’ achievement on 22 October 1955: ‘Given the growth in our product range, we believe the right approach now is to relieve some of the load placed on these highly skilled specialists and allow them to focus all their efforts on the area that is most important for our customers all around the world – production car construction. The skills and experience my staff have gained from making racing vehicles will be put to good use in this capacity.’
This departure from the racing scene was the perfect example of ‘retiring at the top’: in 1955, the W 196 R racing cars had taken part in seven races, winning six first places, five seconds and one third. The 300 SLR racing sports car had started in six races, recording five victories, five second places and one third place. Mercedes-Benz’s domination of the season’s racing could scarcely have been more complete.
Mercedes-Benz cars also picked up a third international title in the same year, when the Hamburg driver Werner Engel became European touring car champion in a 300 SL ‘Gullwing’ vehicle. This model in the W 198 series was developed on the initiative of USA importer Maximilian Hoffman from the highly successful racing car of 1952. It immediately made its mark at its launch at the New York Show in 1954, and went into production at the Sindelfingen plant in August that year. The 3-litre petrol injection engine delivered an output of between 200 hp (147 kW) and 215 hp (158 kW). In contrast to various Ferrari models, it was designed as a sporty but comfortable touring car rather than as a racing vehicle. Yet its outstanding all-round characteristics and reliability also made it a highly successful performer in long-distance races in particular.
These qualities can be illustrated with a long list of examples. In the Mille Miglia 1955 the car won the Gran Turismo class for John Fitch (USA), and took places 5, 7 and 10 overall. At the same event the following year, in the pouring rain, it finished in places 6, 7, 8 and 10 overall. Europe’s most demanding road race of the day was the Liège–Rome–Liège event, a non-stop race over five days and a total distance of around 5000 kilometres. In 1955, the Belgian team of Gendebien/Stasse won the race in their 300 SL, an achievement replicated the following year by Mairesse/Genin, another Belgian combination. That same year Walter Schock and Rolf Moll won the European Rally Championship (as it was now known), as Werner Engel’s successors. The vehicle also had some national championships to its credit, in Italy (Armando Zampiero, 1955) and the USA (Paul O’Shea, 1955, 1956 and 1957). Stirling Moss also took the wheel of a ‘Gullwing’, finishing second in the Tour de France Automobile 1956.
But for the moment, the Silver Arrow era on the race track was over. It would only be many years later that Mercedes-Benz would return to the sports car championship and Formula One racing. Alfred Neubauer recalls a sombre leave-taking at the end of the season that had brought such outstanding success. The drivers pulled white cloth covers over the cars, and said their goodbyes. ‘We shook hands one last time – then they all went their separate ways – Fangio and Moss, Collins, Kling, Taruffi, and Count von Trips. The adventure was over.’
Mid-1954 to 1955: Racing car transporter – a unique product of the test workshop
The Silver Arrows were not the only hot topic on the racing scene in the early 1950s. Mercedes-Benz also caused a stir off the circuit with the ‘world’s fastest racing car transporter’. As part of the return to top-level motor sport, the Stuttgart team also had to set up the required service and repair operations at racing circuits, with workshop vehicles and transporters. Alfred Neubauer’s thoughts went back to 1924, when, at his suggestion, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft had converted a large Mercedes touring car into a racing car transporter.
Neubauer’s idea was realised in the research and development department by master designer Hägele, the leader of a team of chassis fitters, engine specialists and bodybuilders responsible for creating prototypes from drawings. The specified requirements for the racing car transporter were brief and uncomplicated: it had to be fast, very fast – even with its load on board, i.e. a Grand Prix racer or SLR racing sports car. That meant plenty of power, with brakes to match.
The one-off design was built with tried and proven components: the 300 S contributed its X-section tubular frame as the basis for the structure, the powerful engine was taken from the 300 SL and the designers used components from the 180 model. The result was a visually and technically unique vehicle with a 3050 mm wheelbase. This was truly a ‘racing’ transporter, capable of speeds up to 160 to 170 km/h, depending on the cargo.
The remarkable high-speed transporter was ready for use by 1955, painted in characteristic Mercedes-Benz blue. The racing department used it mainly for special assignments, for example for getting a car to the racetrack quickly after last-minute changes and adjustments. Or it might be called on to take a damaged or faulty car back to the factory as quickly as possible, to leave more time for repairs. The racing car transporter became a favourite beside the race track and a sensation on Europe’s roads and motorways. After autumn 1955, it was even borrowed for a tour through the USA and was featured in a number of exhibitions.
The intention was to place it in the Mercedes-Benz Museum of the day, along with the 300 SLR already on display there. However, the combination of the two vehicles would have exceeded the load-bearing capacity of the building, so the vehicle did valiant service for testing purposes, before being scrapped in December 1967 on instructions from Uhlenhaut.
In 1993, it was decided to rebuild the unique vehicle – a project involving almost 6000 hours of work. Experts spent seven years mulling over the details, designing the steering and transmission geometry and cable harness, building the rear window of the cab and finalising panelwork details. By 2001 the transporter was back, restored to its former glory. For some years now it has resided in its home at the new
Mercedes-Benz Museum – with a 300 SLR on board.
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