The Editor Pens an Appreciation of the Dr. Ferdinand Porsche Cars in the 100th Anniversary Year of this Great Engineer
There can be no IFs or BUTs in motor racing. It may be said that Bugatti, or Lotus, or some other make, has won more races than any other. This does not necessarily prove that make to be superior, only that it has had a greater opportunity of winning. Agreed, if make “A” and make “B” both start in, say, 20 races and one of these finishes first in more than half of these, it is permissible to say that superiority has been established— without any excuses for freak accidents, retirernents, or whatever. Would you, however, say that Woolf Barnato was a better driver than Tazio Nuvolari because he scored three Le Mans victories to one by the Italian?—for Nuvolari drove only once at the Sarthe circuit, winning for Alfa Romeo in 1932, partnered by Sommer.
I have been thinking along these lines about the races contested by the 36/220 and 38/250 Mercedes-Benz and 4½-litre/6½-litre Bentley cars in the 1920s and 1930s. Inevitably the two great rivals were watched and compared closely. Bentley fanatics tended to declare that the great Mercedes cars were splendid while they were going but were notoriously unreliable, especially if their siren-sounding superchargers were kept in engagement for other than judiciously-brief periods. Since driving Peter Hampton’s magnificently rebuilt 1928 36/220S Mercedes-Benz (MOTOR SPORT, September 1975), I am aware that, for all their might and avoirdupois, these German sports cars handle extremely well and are not of that “fast-lorry” connotation sometimes handed out to the massive green Bentleys. Were the latter really more reliable, and faster, in the classic sports-car races of the late 1920s and early 1930s?
Naturally, and rightly, the Bentley camp was jubilant when the lone 36/220SS Mercedes-Benz of Caracciola/Werner retired at Le Mans in 1930, hounded first by Sir Henry Birkin’s blower-4½ Bentley that made fastest lap at nearly 90 m.p.h. and then by the victorious Speed Six Bentley of Woolf Barnato and Glen Kidston, which went on to win, covering 1,821.02 miles, an average speed of 75.876 m.p.h. The Bentley entry that year consisted of three “works” Speed Sixes and three Paget-team blower-4s; one of the latter could not be converted to a pure-benzole-burner in time and was withdrawn. All five Bentleys were, in effect, factory-entered cars, whereas the lone 7.1-litre Mercedes-Benz was entered more under the auspices of Rudolf Caracciola, than the Daimler-Benz organisation, and long after designer Dr. Ferdinand Porsche had resigned therefrom. But as I have observed, there should he no IFs or BUTs in motor racing, and it is only fair to concede that Bentley convincingly won at Le Mans that year, and that Mercedes retired. Some said the latter’s dynamo burnt out and so the engine could not be re-started after a pit-stop (Neubauer)—others that a lap with continual use of the blower when Caracciola had to catch the Speed Six Bentley caused the head-gasket to blow, others (including W. O. Bentley) that this wrecked the engine. The fact remains that the Mercedes retired, after racing for 842 miles, although proving as fast as the biggest of the cars from Cricklewood. Bentley started five cars, of which three retired, the others finishing 1st and 2nd.
However, if this was acclaimed, rightly, as a great Bentley victory, it is only fair to recall that Caracciola had won the 1929 TT at Ards in a 38/250-engined 36/220 four-seater Mercedes-Benz, against an entry of five Bentleys, three of them Paget blower-4½s, led by Sir Henry, “Rudi” being supported by Otto Merz’s Mercedes-Benz and two privately-entered Mercedes, one a 36/220, the other with a 38/250 engine. Rain made the course treacherous for the fastest and heaviest cars. Nevertheless, “Rudi” won at an average speed of 72.82 m.p.h. for the 410 miles. Birkin finished 11 th, all the other Bentleys and two of the Mercedes retiring. Caracciola also established fastest lap time, equal to 77.81 m.p.h.
No IFs and BUTs, gentlemen! But I think this comparison must be made, even though many arguments can be advanced relating to retirements from driver-error or disqualification instead of mechanical maladies, relative engine sizes, etc. The Speed Six Bentley had proved reliable at Le Mans over 1,800 miles at approximately 76 m.p.h.; the Mercedes-Benz was equally so on this occasion, but for only 410 miles at approximately 73 m.p.h., although over a wet, more sinuous course. It is a thousand pities that Caracciola’s elephant-blower 38/250 wasn’t permitted to start in the 1930 TT’, because we shall never know how it would have fared against four Bentleys, three of them Paget-team blower-4½s, two of which finished, but in 11th and 12th places behind Campbell’s privately-entered 38/250 Mercedes-Benz, while Earl Howe made fastest lap in his 38/250.
The reliability of these Dr. Porsche-designed Mercedes-Benz cannot be in doubt when we remember the remarkable successes of what were essentially vintage sports/racing cars. There was Caracciola’s third place in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1929, when his stripped SSK led for half the race, was delayed by a long refuelling stop, but finished third behind two genuine GP Bugattis, over a course entirely unsuited to it, finishing on the same lap. There was the success of the SSKL, road-equipped and driven by Caracciola, in the 1931 Mille Miglia, against the pick of the World’s sports cars, which it won at a speed of 62.85 m.p.h. for the 1,016 miles, the fastest average in this gruelling race up to that time. And there was the victory of regenmeister Caracciola in that year’s wet German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, when his SSKL, spare tyre on the tail of this car as if to emphasise it was merely a sports car, averaged 67.29 m.p.h., beating the best of the Bugatti and Alfa Romeo opposition, with other Mercedes-Benz cars in 5th, 6th and 9th places.
We cannot compare these Mercedes’ performances with those of the Bentleys because the British cars did not compete in such races. But let us not forget that at Le Mans in 1931 a privately-entered SSK Mercedes-Benz, driven by Ivanowski and Stoffel, finished second, at an average speed of 75.21 m.p.h. for 1,805 miles, which on a speed/mileage reliability basis about equals the performance of the winning “works” Speed Six Bentley in 1930. The Mercedes couldn’t beat the Howe/Birkin 2.3 Alfa Romeo but it did set fastest lap, at 86.516 m.p.h., when Ivanowski was presumably driving to finish, which compares with Birkin’s fastest lap of 89.696 m.p.h. the previous year, when he was deliberately flat-out wearing down Caracciola, and burst a rear tyre in the process. Another privately-entered Mercedes beat the Alfa Romeo opposition in the 1931 Spa 24-hour race, winning at 65.8 m.p.h. The SSK, in an extreme stage of development, went on to win at Avus at some 120 m.p.h. These big but not ungainly Mercedes-Benz also managed fastest-time in speed hill-climbs of the calibre of Gabelbach, Semmering, Freiburg and Shelsley Walsh.
Even the original S-type 36/220 Mercedes Benz, with four-seater bodywork and before the design was developed, had finished 1st and 2nd at the opening race at the Nurburgring in 1927, and had come home 1, 2, 3 in that year’s German Grand Prix against opposition from Mme. Junek’s GP Bugatti, a Talbot, another Bugatti and a Steyr. Merz’s winning S-type averaged 63.38 m.p.h. for 316½ miles. The 1928 German Grand Prix saw another 1,2,3 victory for the white Mercedes touring cars, Caracciola/Werner winning at 64½ m.p.h. for the 316½ miles. And these early versions also scored sprint successes, at Freiburg. Semmering and at Antwerp, etc. From which I deduce that the unreliability of these big German cars is a myth.
The Bentleys met a Mercedes-Benz again at the Irish Grand Prix at Phoenix Park in 1930. It was a 70-lap handicap race in which three blower-4½s gave three 38/250s a start of two laps. Two of the Bentleys retired early on but, once again showing his superiority in the rain, Caracciola in an SSK set a remarkable lap-record of 91.3 m.p.h. and won at 85.88 m.p.h. for the 300 miles, beating Campari’s Alfa Romeo, Howe’s Mercedes-Benz and Birkin’s Bentley. Campbell’s Mercedes-Benz had joined the two other Bentleys in the dead-car park. In the Irish Grand Prix of 1931 Howe’s Mercedes finished 5th and made fastest lap at 91.8 m.p.h., fractionally quicker than “Rudi’s” lap-record of 1930; the highest race-average and lap speed in the 1930 TT were those of the Mercedes of Sir Malcolm Campbell and Earl Howe, respectively. There had been earlier clashes between the Cricklewood and Stuttgart cars, but as the latter were private-owner efforts facing the full weight of either Cricklewood or Welwyn Garden City, perhaps we may ignore them?
The extremely impressive record of German racing might at this time must have sold cars in the UK, in spite of the prevailing serious financial slump. I do not profess to have any figures for the sales achieved by British Mercedes-Benz Ltd. but the total of the different models made in Germany is said to have been 155 36/220, 102 38/250 SS, and 37 38/250 SSK. (Further information about competition successes and production figures etc. will be found in MOTOR SPORT for February 1952—Ed.)
Among those who shared a preference for these exciting race-proven Mercedes, apart from Sir Malcolm Campbell with his r.h.d. four-seater and Earl Howe with his 1929 TT-winning car road-tested by MOTOR SPORT in 1929, were Baroness von Loen, who drove an open 36/220, and Lord Portarlington, who had a 38/250 with black Freestone & Webb Weymann sports-coupé body, endowed with helmet-style mudguards, side-mounted spare wheels and dummy hood-irons. To give rear-seat head-room the lining was attached directly to the roof. Somebody else’s 36/220 coupé visited the Sahara, and a very exciting 38/250 had been supplied to Major J. A. Coats, its two-seater body with rear-mounted twin spare wheels by the Carlton Carriage Company. It was white with red upholstery, had side-valances to the windscreen, and a big toolbox on the o/s running-board.
A person who had owned three 36/220s spoke of a heavy clutch, non-self-centring steering, and uncomfortable back seats. He used 2nd gear, on which close on 80 m.p.h. was obtainable, in traffic, often for as long as 50 or 60 miles. Fuel consumption he quoted as 8 m.p.g. if the supercharger was used frequently, otherwise 11 to 12 m.p.g., but to obviate gasket-blowing 75 % pure benzole had to be put in the fuel. The only shortcomings were “a little brake trouble” with the first car and “a little oiling up of the front plugs” on his third Mercedes. At the time when these cars were being supplied from No. 37 Davies Street, W1 the 38/250 cost £2,150 in chassis. form, £2,750 as a standard four-seater.
So far as performance is concerned, the 4½-litre Bentley, an out-and-out sports 4-seater weighing 30 cwt. 2 qr. and costing £1,295, was timed by The Autocar in 1929 to do 92 m.p.h. and accelerate from 10 to 30 m.p.h. in 6.8 sec. in 2nd gear. A 38/250SS Mercedes-Benz tourer weighing 47 cwt. laden, and priced at £2,350, was timed by The Motor in 1931 to reach 103.2 m.p.h. under unfavourable conditions, and it got from 10 to 30 m.p.h. in 6 sec. in 2nd gear. A fairer comparison is with the blower-4½ Bentley. The one tested by The Autocar in 1930 weighed 37 cwt. in 4-seater form, cost £1,720, was clocked at 97.82 m.p.h. and got from 10 to 30 m.p.h. in 2nd gear in 6.4 sec. (the only comparable figures available).
If I have a bias towards the Mercedes, it stems from being driven at as near as dammit 100 m.p.h. while still a schoolboy along the Barnet By-Pass in a 36/220, as recounted in an earlier article. I have, however, no desire to “knock” the Bentley, for two memorable rides in Forrest Lycett’s Special 8-litre and drives in others, including B. M. Russ-Turner’s ex-Birkin blower-4½ single-seater, have endorsed their appeal and charm. But in this 100th Anniversary Year of Dr. Porsche I feel these notes should he written about “the other make”.—W.B.