A new beginning after Second World War

Mar 10, 2014
  • 1951: experiment and a new direction
  • 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 after the end of the Second World War were reconstruction and resumption of the production of passenger cars and commercial vehicles. In light of this, a return to motor sport was not high on the agenda. In the first few years after the war the former works drivers, mechanics and engineers from the racing department spent their time repairing ordinary passenger cars – no easy task in the immediate post-war environment, and one which called for considerable talent for improvisation, which the motor sport employees had developed in their years of working in the pits at racing events.
The company’s first excursion into post-war motor sport came in September 1950, when Karl Kling entered a Mercedes-Benz 170 S in the ADAC Six-Hour Race for sports and touring cars at the Nürburgring. A total of one hundred cars took to the track after a Le Mans-style start. As Kling recalled: “On hearing the starter’s signal, I sprinted to my car like Jesse Owens, tore the door of my S open, sat behind the wheel, started the engine, and was soon on the track, in a pack surrounded by all the other cars.” He posted the fastest lap for touring cars, and finished seventh in the class up to 2,000 cc.
His success in the Eifel Race finally earned Kling his long-coveted place in the racing department, which Mercedes-Benz rebuilt in 1950 under the proven leadership of Alfred Neubauer. Neubauer’s first attempt to return to the elite discipline of motor sport involved him pinning his hopes on Grand Prix cars from the 1930s that were in operating condition. Four W 154 vehicles and six racing engines provided enough parts for the engineers to build three operational racing cars and four engines. Their competitiveness was tested in two races in Argentina in 1951. Hermann Lang, Karl Kling and Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fangio performed valiantly in Buenos Aires: Lang and Kling both won second places on 18 and 24 February 1951. However, these fast but heavy cars were unable to secure a win. The test showed that the best years of the W 154 were now behind it.
1951 saw the launch of the first new post-war passenger car models, 220 (W 187) and 300 (W 186). The 300 model became the nucleus of the company’s motor sport successes: it was the basis for the 300 SL racing sports car (W 194) developed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut. The “Gullwing” Coupé (1954) and the Roadster (1957) production models would later be derived from it. Uhlenhaut, already technical director of the racing department before the war, had been heading the test department of passenger car engineering since 1949.
Return of the Silver Arrows
On 15 June 1951, Daimler-Benz management announced its plans for a future involvement in motor sports, with a commitment to racing and sports cars. However, the Grand Prix vehicles had to wait until 1954, when the new Formula One rules went into effect. At first, Mercedes-Benz relied on the new 300 SL racing sports car. The legendary coupé (the “SL” stood for “Super Light”) was created in just nine months. Its chassis was largely based on the Mercedes-Benz 300, with the brake pads widened to 90 millimetres. The main enhancements were to the six-cylinder in-line engine, which was fitted with three Solex down-draught carburettors and a high-performance camshaft, boosting power output to 125 kW (170 hp) at 5,200 rpm.
The engine was slanted 50 degrees to the left in the load-bearing structure, a lightweight tubular frame. For stability reasons the tubular frame had very high sides. This was the origin of the 300 SL’s famous “Gullwing” doors, since side-hinged doors would have made it difficult to climb into the car over the wide sill structures. The doors initially came down to waist level, but for the Le Mans race in June 1952 they had to be lowered further. The body design of the 300 SL was a brilliant achievement, as demonstrated by the low cd value of 0.25. A top speed of 240 km/h for the new sports car offered favourable prospects for victories.
On 3 May 1952, the 300 SL racing sports car started in the Mille Miglia. Karl Kling and Hans Klenk were second across the line in the 1000-mile event, with Rudolf Caracciola in fourth place – Mercedes-Benz was the only brand to have two vehicles among the top five places. For racing manager Alfred Neubauer a dream was coming true. “That day, I started to feel young again,” the racing director later recalled.
In the Bern Prize for sports cars on 18 May the 300 SL racing sports cars achieved a triple victory: Karl Kling won the race ahead of Hermann Lang and Fritz Rieß. The race was overshadowed by a serious accident involving Rudolf Caracciola. The crash, caused by brake failure, ended the racing career of the exceptional driver who dominated the eras of the supercharged models and the pre-war Silver Arrows, and played an active part in the return of the Stuttgart-based brand to motor sport in 1952.
A one-two victory in the famous Le Mans 24-Hour Race soon afterwards showed that the power of the gullwing cars was matched by their stamina: the team of Hermann Lang and Fritz Rieß crossed the finish line ahead of Theo Helfrich and Helmut Niedermayr in a 300 SL racing sports car. The Anniversary Grand Prix for sports cars at the Nürburgring in August saw the appearance of the 300 SL in a new form: four coupés were converted to roadsters, with one also having a slightly shorter wheelbase and narrower track. The four cars took the first four places in the following order: Hermann Lang, Karl Kling, Fritz Rieß and Theo Helfrich.
The double victory in November 1952 by Karl Kling/Hans Klenk and Hermann Lang/Erwin Grupp in the gruelling Carrera Panamericana caused a worldwide sensation. The race through Mexico covered a total distance of 3,130 kilometres in eight stages. A comprehensively revised version of the 300 SL racing sports car for the 1953 season was completed but never used. This was because in 1953 Mercedes-Benz’s efforts were already fully focused on preparing for the return to Grand Prix racing in 1954.
1954: entry into Formula 1 with the W 196 R
While the 300 SL was winning races, the team from Stuttgart was already working on the return to Grand Prix racing: the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) had decided on major changes to Formula 1 specifications. This was an ideal time for the return of Mercedes-Benz, since other manufacturers also had to develop new cars. Displacement was now limited to 750 cc for supercharged engines and 2.5 litres for naturally aspirated engines. Fritz Könecke, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG, established the ambitious programme to win dual world championship titles for Mercedes-Benz works drivers in Formula 1 and sports car racing in 1953. The project was coordinated by Hans Scherenberg as head of design. The men responsible for realising the ambitious objectives were Fritz Nallinger as chief engineer, Rudolf Uhlenhaut as head of the test department and Alfred Neubauer as racing director. The capacity of the new racing department was boosted accordingly, eventually employing a staff of over 200. The motor sports team was also able to call on the expertise of a further 300 specialists from 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 completely new and innovative Formula 1 racing car, the W 196 R. The vehicle originally had avant-garde streamlined fairings, and at the start of the season a maximum power output of 188 kW (256 hp) from the 2,496 cc eight-cylinder naturally aspirated engine with desmodromic (positive) valve control. The top speed was initially around 275 km/h. Just as innovative was the single-joint swing axle, an advanced rear-axle design at the time.
The new Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrows made their début in the second European race of the year, the French Grand Prix. The fully streamlined W 196 R posted the fastest times already in practice, and in their racing début on 4 July in Reims they exceeded the expectations of public and competitors alike. The recently signed Argentinian driver Juan Manuel Fangio, the 1951 world champion, and Karl Kling scored a double victory in their streamlined cars. This sensational result had historical relevance. 40 years earlier to the day, on 4 July 1914, the French Grand Prix in Lyon had also been won by Mercedes racing cars. That day Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner, and Otto Salzer had taken the first three places in that order. The victory in Reims was also special because the German national football team was crowned world champions in Bern the same day. These two outstanding achievements in sport for the first time restored some of the German people’s self-confidence that had been shaken by the Second World War. For this reason some historians regard 4 July 1954 as the end of the immediate post-war era.
Mercedes-Benz now focused on securing the 1954 world championship title for Juan Manuel Fangio. In the Grand Prix of Great Britain on 17 July at the airfield course in Silverstone there were problems with the driver’s sight lines in the streamlined cars, which is why Fangio finished only in fourth place. Uhlenhaut had already fast-tracked the construction of the second variant of the W 196 R, however – this time with open wheels. The car also had new tyres, developed for Daimler-Benz by Continental. The better sight lines which the body with open wheels provided allowed the drivers to enter tight turns with more precision on tracks such as the Nürburgring or in Monaco.
For the remainder of the 1954 season there was always at least one Silver Arrow driver on the podium. Fangio took the German, Swiss and Italian Grands Prix. Hans Hermann secured a third place in Switzerland. By the time he won the Swiss Grand Prix on 22 August in Bern-Bremgarten, Fangio had already secured the Formula 1 world championship title. The fact that he managed only third place in the final race of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix, did nothing to diminish the superiority of both car and driver.
1955: dual championships and farewell
Racing 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 in 1955: Mercedes-Benz sought to repeat winning the title in Grand Prix racing and also win the sports car championship. Alongside world champion Fangio, Neubauer recruited British driver Stirling Moss as the team’s second ace. In addition to Fangio and Moss, Mercedes-Benz drivers during the 1955 season included Karl Kling, Hans Herrmann, Piero Taruffi, Peter Collins, John Fitch, André Simon, Desmond Titterington, Pierre Levegh, and Wolfgang Graf Berghe von Trips.
The W 196 R for 1955 had been thoroughly revised, both in terms of engine and chassis. Along with the chassis with a long wheelbase of 2350 millimetres, a medium chassis shortened by 140 millimetres and the ultra-short “ Monaco” model with a wheelbase of just 2,150 millimetres were built for 1955. The W 196 R was some 70 kilograms lighter in its second season and also had more power: at 8,400 rpm, the engine now developed 213 kW (290 hp), ultimately giving the car a top speed of around 300 km/h. The distinctive visual feature of the second edition of the W 196 R was the air scoop on the bonnet, required because of the modified intake manifold.
The 1955 racing season opened with the Argentinian Grand Prix, won by Fangio in extremely hot conditions. Two weeks later he also won the Grand Prix of Buenos Aires. On 30 January 1955, four Silver Arrows powered by the three-litre engine lined up at the start. This engine was to be installed in the new 300 SLR racing sports cars. Fangio and Moss recorded a dual victory in the high-speed test run, with Karl Kling finishing in fourth place.
The 300 SLR racing sports car made its racing début on 1 May 1955 in the Mille Miglia. While the name and the body of the new car were reminiscent of the 300 SL from 1952, in engineering terms there were few traits it shared with the 300 SL. It was derived from the current Silver Arrow Grand Prix racing car. 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 in 1955. But it was the young Englishman Stirling Moss, together with his co-driver Denis Jenkinson, who took the event as the first non-Italian winner since Rudolf Caracciola (winner in 1931 in a Mercedes-Benz SSK). Moss also recorded the best-ever time for the Mille Miglia: 10:07:48 hours. This translated into an average speed of 157.65 km/h – driven on public roads. Fangio finished in second place. Mercedes-Benz won both the overall title, the category of GT cars with displacement greater than 1,300 cc, and the diesel class.
The short-wheelbase version of the W 196 R started for the first time in the Monaco Grand Prix but all three vehicles were forced to retire due to minor technical problems. The various wheelbase and body versions of the W 196 R provided a wide range of options. The bodies were interchangeable and the process required relatively few simple steps: Chassis No. 10, for example, today displayed in a new aluminium body, raced in 1955 with open wheels in the Argentinian and Dutch Grands Prix and was used for training in Monza with a fully streamlined body. Which variant was used depended on the characteristics of the track, the strategy and the individual likes and dislikes of the driver.
Technical features common to all versions included the swing axle with low pivot point and the eight-cylinder 2,497-cc engine. Its valves were opened and closed by cam lobes and cam followers. The desmodromic positive valve control allowed higher rpm along with improved safety and more power. The fuel was supplied to the cylinders by an injection pump jointly developed with Bosch.
After the disappointing race at Monaco, both vehicles were back in top form in May and June: Fangio took the Eifel Race in his 300 SLR ahead of Moss, and won the Belgian Grand Prix in the W 196 R. This was followed by a serious accident at the Le Mans race of 1955, in which three 300 SLRs were at the starting line. After a hard-fought duel with Fangio, Jaguar driver Mike Hawthorn braked hard in front of Lance Macklin (Austin Healey) on the way to the pits. His line was blocked and he veered left into the path of Pierre Levegh, whose 300 SLR rode up on the rear of the Austin and was catapulted into the air. The impact tore off the engine and front axle. They landed in the crowd and caused the worst disaster in the history of motor sport. Despite the terrible accident, the race was continued to prevent departing spectators from blocking the access of the emergency services. After midnight, Daimler-Benz made the decision to withdraw the 300 SLRs from the race in light of the large number of casualties. Moss – in the lead – and his fellow team-member André Simon were recalled to the pits.
The accident cast a shadow over the rest of the season. Numerous races were cancelled, including the Grands Prix in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain. But the Grand Prix of the Netherlands in June brought another double victory for Fangio and Moss and the W 196 R. Stirling 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 English crowd: for the first time an Englishman had won this important race in his home country.
The Swedish Grand Prix was won by Fangio, again ahead of Moss, both in a 300 SLR, and Karl Kling complemented their double victory by winning the sports cars category in his 300 SL. One of the two 300 SLR Coupés designed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut was also on hand in Sweden, and used during practice. The coupés were originally supposed to start in the Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, but by 1955 the event had already been discontinued. As a result, the gullwings never did race. One of the vehicles was later used by Uhlenhaut as a company car.
The Grand Prix of Italy on 11 September saw the farewell performance of the W 196 R Silver Arrows. And because no less than four events had been removed from the race calendar, this was also the one and only appearance of the streamlined version in 1955. The Monza track had been redesigned extensively and was now a high-speed course that took the field past the grandstands twice each lap. Due to the high average speeds, Neubauer decided that Fangio and Moss would race in the streamlined cars with long wheelbase. Kling was to drive an open-wheel car with medium wheelbase, and Taruffi the short-wheelbase “Monaco” car, also with an open wheels. Fangio secured his last victory for Mercedes-Benz in superior fashion, followed by Piero Taruffi just 0.7 seconds behind. The Argentinian champion won his third Formula 1 world championship that season, finishing with 40 points. Stirling Moss was the runner-up with 23 points.
However, the racing department’s second goal for the 1955 season now seemed out of reach. As Neubauer recalled: “ There is only one minor blemish: we are unlikely to get our hands on the world championship title for racing sports cars, also called the ‘Constructors’ Prize’.” Ferrari was well ahead in the standings, and for Mercedes-Benz everything now depended on the Tourist Trophy in Northern Ireland and the Targa Florio in Sicily.
On 17 September, three 300 SLRs lined up in Northern Ireland, and the miracle Neubauer dreamed of came to pass: Stirling Moss and John Fitch won the race, ahead of the 300 SLR of Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling. Third place went to Wolfgang Berghe von Trips, who after gathering racing experience in the 300 SL, raced a 300 SLR for the first time. His co-driver was André Simon.
But for Mercedes-Benz winning the constructors’ world championship now hinged on the Sicilian adventure of the Targa Florio in mid-October. It was imperative that arch rival Ferrari did not finish in better than third place. And so an unprecedented strike force headed south. Eight racing cars, eight heavy-duty trucks and 15 passenger cars were unloaded from the ferry in Palermo, joined by 45 mechanics. SLR driver Sterling Moss swore he had never before seen such a level of preparation, precision and logistics effort in his entire long career.
Neubauer pondered the tactics: “I had never planned and prepared a race more carefully and thoroughly before. For that 1955 Targa Florio I drew one last time on all my knowledge and experience, all my tricks and my love of the sport.” The race strategist also altered the driver changes: rather than handing the wheel over after three laps, as was the normal practice, this time the Mercedes drivers were not to change until after four laps. Uhlenhaut also had the 300 SLR racing cars reinforced for this tough circuit.
On 16 October, the first car started at 7.00 a.m. Moss took the lead but then left the track and fell back to third place. His 300 SLR clearly showed traces of the slip up, but the mechanical systems were still intact. Peter Collins took over at the wheel, and promptly set a new lap record in the dented 300 SLR. Collins was back in the lead when he handed the wheel back to Moss, who won the event, almost five minutes ahead of Fangio. The third 300 SLR manned by 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 constructors’ championship – their grand goal had been achieved.
This marked the end of the great Silver Arrow era: already before the tragic accident at Le Mans, Mercedes-Benz had decided to cease the activities of the racing department after the 1955 season. The effort and resources required for the development and construction of the racing vehicles and supporting the races was huge. Daimler-Benz needed the talents of the engineers and mechanics for the development of new passenger cars. Technical Director Fritz Nallinger confirmed this decision at the awards ceremony for the successful drivers on 24 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, namely the construction of production cars. My employees will benefit from the skills and experience they have gained from building racing vehicles.”
This departure from motor sport was an honourable retreat at the height of success: 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 cars had started in six races, recording five victories, five second places and one third place. Mercedes-Benz’s domination of the season could scarcely have been more complete.
The cars bearing the three-pointed star also picked up a third international title that same year: Hamburg driver Werner Engel became European touring car champion in a 300 SL (W 198) production sports car. This vehicle was developed on the suggestion of USA importer Maximilian Hoffman from the highly successful racing sports car of 1952. It immediately created a stir at its launch at the New York Motor Show in 1954, and went into production at the Sindelfingen plant in August that year. Its 3-litre engine with petrol injection produced a power output of 158 kW (215 hp). it was designed as a sporty but comfortable touring car, yet its balanced all-round characteristics and reliability made it a highly successful performer in long-distance races. In the 1955 Mille Miglia John Fitch (USA) won the Gran Turismo class in a 300 SL. At the same event the following year, in the pouring rain, the sports cars finished 6th, 7th, 8th, and 10th 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 Olivier Gendebien/Pierre Stasse won the race in their 300 SL, an achievement repeated by their fellow countrymen Willy Mairesse/Willy Génin in 1956. That same year Walter Schock and Rolf Moll won the European Rally Championship (as it was now known) as successors to Werner Engel. The vehicle also had some national championships to its credit: Italy (Armando Zampiero 1955) and the USA (Paul O’Shea 1955, 1956, and 1957). Stirling Moss also took the wheel of a “Gullwing”, as the 300 SL was known in English, finishing second in the 1956 Tour de France Automobile.
The Silver Arrow era on the major racetracks was over. It would take many years before Mercedes-Benz would return to the sports car championship and Formula 1 racing. Alfred Neubauer recalled a melancholic farewell at the end of a terrific season: the drivers pulled white cloths 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 Trips. It was over.”
Mid-1954 to 1955: the racing car transporter – a one-off product of the test workshop
The Silver Arrows were not the only hot topic in the early 1950s. Mercedes-Benz also caused a stir off the circuit with the “world’s fastest racing car transporter”. Alfred Neubauer’s mind was cast back to 1924, when, at his suggestion, Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft had converted a large Mercedes touring car into a racing car transporter. A unique new racing car transporter was built following this model. The 300 S model contributed its X-section tubular frame as the basis for the structure, the powerful engine was taken from the 300 SL and some components were used from the 180 model. The result was a visually and technically unique vehicle with a wheelbase of 3,050 millimetres capable of speeds up to 170 km/h, depending on the payload. The extravagant high-speed transporter was ready for use by 1955, painted in hallmark Mercedes-Benz blue. The racing department used it mainly for special transports between the factory and the racetrack. The racing car transporter was dubbed the “Blue Wonder” and became a popular fixture. The original, scrapped in 1967, was recreated from 1993 to 2001 in an elaborate process. Today the racing car transporter is on display in the Mercedes-Benz Museum – with a 300 SLR on the truck bed.
British Grand Prix in Aintree on 16 July 1955: Stirling Moss won the race in a Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 racing car W 196 R. It was the first victory for a British racing driver at this Grand Prix.
Sweep of the first four places in the Nürburgring Anniversary Grand Prix for Sports Cars, 3 August 1952. No. 21: winner Hermann Lang ahead of No. 24: Karl Kling; No. 22: Fritz Riess (and No. 23, on the left in the background: Theo Helfrich), all in Mercedes-Benz 300 SL racing sports cars (W 194, 1952)
Third Carrera Panamericana in Mexico, 1952. The winning team: Karl Kling and Hans Klenk in their Mercedes-Benz 300 SL (W 194, 1952) after the legendary run-in with a vulture
Grand Prix of Belgium in Spa-Francorchamps, 5 June 1955. Later winner Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 racing car (W 196 R) with free-standing wheels (start number 10).
Grand Prix of Buenos Aires 1955: Juan Manuel Fangio at the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz W 196. In this race, the Grand Prix car was powered by the engine from the 300 SLR.
Tourist Trophy Race, Dundrod Circuit in Northern Ireland, September 17, 1955. The race was won by the team of Stirling Moss/John Fitch (start number 10) driving a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR (W 196 S). The photo shows Stirling Moss crossing the finishing line.
Swiss Grand Prix in Bremgarten, August 22, 1954. Juan Manuel Fangio (start number 4), who was to emerge victorious from this race, driving a Mercedes-Benz W 196 R open-wheel racer.
MB_Rennfahrer_Fangio 2
Start of the French Grand Prix in Reims, July 4, 1954. Karl Kling (start number 20) and Juan Manuel Fangio (start number 18), both driving Mercedes-Benz W 196 R Formula One racing cars with streamlined bodywork, took the lead right from the start.