Thunder and white lightning

It’s vast, brutal and makes a noise like nothing else on the planet – once you get it to fire…

These days, and thanks to the explosion of interest in all things historic, it’s tempting for us enthusiasts to think we’ve heard every sound a car can make. Twelve-cylinder Ferrari? Goes without saying. V16 BRM? But of course. Straight-eight Alfa? Natch. But unless you happen to have been present at one of extraordinarily few occasions around the world over the last century when a genuine Blitzen Benz has been fired up, there is one sound that has so far eluded you. The moment you hear it is the moment you know you’ll never forget it. It is the sound of Germany’s first and, to date, only successful Land Speed Record car. For reasons that will soon become clear, it sounds like nothing else on earth.

But first it must be coaxed into life. You might expect this process to take a few minutes but you’d be wrong. It takes a few hours. Quite a few hours. The problem is that engine. Because it displaces 21.5 litres, everyone presumes it was first designed to power an aircraft. In fact it’s not an aero engine at all, but a purpose-built, unique race motor that only displaces such a gargantuan capacity because, back in 1909, no other way was known of achieving the 200bhp reckoned to be required to break the Land Speed Record.

It needs to be warmed before it will start: industrial strength blow-heaters pointed at that vast block of cast iron under the bonnet heat the engine quite effectively without it completing so much as a revolution.

Then making it start is quite straightforward. Unlike Mercedes’ later pre-war racers which require bespoke blends of substances, the somewhat simpler Blitzen will work on whatever petrol comes out of the pump. So you just give each cylinder a squirt of fuel, switch on the magneto, retard the ignition and ask a very brave and strong chap to man the crank handle.

The first time it fires is like the finale to the world’s biggest fireworks display. There’s one colossal bang as all the fuel in the engine explodes, a staccato jet of flame firing out the stub exhausts, then silence. Even those who’ve worked on this car for years instinctively duck. It’s all I can do not to flee the scene entirely. I’m meant to be driving this bloody thing in a minute. For a moment I think the engine’s consumed itself and cast an eye around for an elephantine conrod buried in the walls of the Mercedes-Benz World workshop at Brooklands. But no one looks concerned. Annoyed, yes, but not concerned.

They try again and again, but today it seems only to want to do howitzer impressions: impressive but not why we’re here.

And then as we’re about to pack up and go home, the motor fires momentarily. One more squirt of fuel, one more Olympic effort from the bull of a man on the starting handle and with a primal, roaring, ear-rending bellow, the Blitzen awakes.

As a teenager I was once in the audience of the Hammersmith Odeon at a gig by British hard rockers Saxon that was, at the time, billed as the loudest ever held; listening to the Blitzen took me straight back there.

The thing I have deliberately failed to mention until now is that the Blitzen has just four cylinders. Eight spark plugs, but four cylinders. That means each piston sweeps 5375cc, larger than the combined capacity of all 10 cylinders in a Lamborghini Gallardo.

It must have piston rings like hoola-hoops, crowns like dustbin lids. Such is the torque the motor prowls around the engine bay like a hungry Rottweiler on a short chain, blaring and barking at you. And all this just at idle.

Normally I’m nervous about driving other people’s priceless racing cars, but not today. Today I’m just plain frightened. I’m not from the era when people of a different constitution chose to drive Blitzens as fast as they possibly could.

Blitzens plural? In fact there were six, of which you could argue four survive in various conditions from highly original to replicas constructed from some original parts. The Blitzen you see here is Mercedes’ own car although it is of course not a Mercedes at all but a Benz, the two brands only linking in 1926. It was assembled in 1935 from two Blitzens to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Karl Benz inventing the viable road car, of which more in a minute.

The very first Benz 200hp (as it was then known) was put together in 1909 as a marketing exercise, its stated aim being to smash through the infamous 200kph barrier. Even then the engineers realised that raw power alone would not be enough. The aerodynamic concept was to keep the car as slim as humanly possible, even if that meant a staggered and phenomenally uncomfortable seating position for the driver and his hapless riding mechanic. Likewise the gearshift and handbrake were located outboard to avoid adding width while the tail tapered to an elegant point to smooth the wind’s departure from the body surface.

Its engine was a development of the 15.5-litre 150hp engine Benz was using in its Grand Prix machinery, and at its full 21.5 litres remains the largest engine ever used by any functioning Benz, Mercedes or Daimler car. It ran through a four-speed transmission to the rear wheels via a pair of chains that look fit to lower a drawbridge.

This monstrous powerplant was duly installed in a Grand Prix chassis modified to take its extra girth, and after taking part in a couple of sprints to prove the concept – it dismissed the opposition in both as if they didn’t exist – it duly fronted up to the just-opened Brooklands race track in Weybridge, Surrey. There Victor Hémery claimed the only Land Speed Record ever to be set on English soil, storming through the flying kilometre at 202.648kph (125.9mph) achieving the car’s design objective on its very first serious run. (Fred Marriott’s 1906 Stanley steamer run of 127.6mph was for many years not accepted in Europe.)

Point proven so far as Europe was concerned. the firm’s next move was to take the Benz 200hp to North America, a critical sales territory with the added advantage of space to achieve speeds not possible in Surrey. It was here it acquired the title of ‘Lightning’ or Blitzen Benz. Driven by Barney Oldfield it reached 131.7mph at Daytona Beach in March 1910, but being set in just one direction the record went unrecognised by the authorities.

A year and a month later it was back, now with Bob Burman at its wheel. Finally the Blitzen was allowed to run unimpeded as fast as it would go, and in two directions. When it was done, the incredulous timekeepers saw it had averaged 140.2mph.

A second Blitzen was built in 1910 and raced with success by Burman and others until it went missing in 1919, while a third was assembled in 1912. This was bought by British Benz dealer LG ‘Cupid’ Hornsted who used it to break seven extant Brooklands records, but it is perhaps better known for flying clean over the banking with Captain John Duff at the wheel in 1922. Miraculously although the car was mangled, Duff was not and would recover in time to take Bentley to the first Le Mans 24 Hours the following year.

Blitzen number four was also built in 1912 and became known as ‘Grandmother’ after the war thanks to its retention of old-fashioned wooden artillery wheels. The fifth car came together in 1913 and, according to Mercedes, disappeared from public sight almost as quickly.

The final Blitzen was sold by Benz at the end of 1913 and was unique in having an extended chassis and a four-seat touring body, though having driven a Blitzen, the idea of going on holiday in one sounds hilarious to me.

Of the four Blitzens existing today, one is the four-seater, another a replica put together in 2004 using original parts and the third a British-built replica of Hémery’s car. The fourth is the car you see here, reassembled in 1935 from the wreckage of Hornsted’s car with other parts from ‘Grandmother’.

For once I’m not in a hurry to get in. Sadly we’re not allowed to drive the car on the Brooklands banking because the last time that was tried the driver was bounced clean out of his seat and only saved himself and the Blitzen by clinging to the steering wheel. So it’s the rather tamer and less attractive handling course more commonly used for dealer demonstrations of new Mercedes saloons that we’ll use today.

It’s starting to rain and having taken literally hours to warm up, the Blitzen is in danger of getting too hot. It is now or never. It’s bloody uncomfortable in here, even before a mechanic somehow squeezes himself in beside me.

He’s there because the fuel needs to be pumped from tank to engine by hand and, as you might imagine, it needs rather a lot. There’s a small scatter of dials, including a rev-counter reading all the way up to 2000rpm, but they’re buried so far under the cowl they might as well not be there at all.

Then, as I am receiving my pre-flight briefing, I’m told this particular Blitzen has Land Speed Record gearing. The implications of this are that the car won’t actually run at less than 40mph. This may seem a trifling inconvenience but the car is vast, the track tight, tiny and now on the wet side of damp. It has the skinniest tyres imaginable and brakes that would be hopeless even if they worked on more than the rear wheels alone. They’re operated by an exterior handbrake which, just to keep you on your toes, needs to be pushed rather than pulled.

This is a car designed to go as fast as humanly possible in a straight line about to be driven on a track with corners so sharp there is no way it will begin to tackle them even at idling speed in first gear. The only consolation is that because it’ll do 100mph before requiring second, at least I’m not going to be bothered with the intricacies of changing gear. I’m told to advance the ignition via a big lever on the steering wheel and lift the clutch.

The Blitzen travels from 0-40mph in the time required for me to take my foot off the pedal and without even brushing the throttle. The whole thing is shaking and yelling with murderous intent and I feel like the last man on a runaway Wild West locomotive everyone else has long since abandoned.

The first corner turns up and I still haven’t touched the accelerator. Even so, it is clear the angle of the turn and the speed of the fast approaching Blitzen – still idling in first gear – are entirely incompatible. All I can do is dip the clutch, push the brake lever, turn the wheel and hope. It responds, better than I’d hoped. Moreover the cone-type clutch is actually quite gentle and re-engages drive at the apex smoothly enough not to unsettle the car.

I do a couple of laps like that, I imagine the only laps I’ll ever do in a road or racing car without using an accelerator pedal. And in the way of such things, what appeared baffling and terrifying five minutes ago now seems merely hugely challenging and really rather thrilling. The short straight opens up and realising it really is now or never, I open the throttle as wide as it will go.

In that instant there is a glimpse of what Messrs Hémery, Oldfield, Burman and Hornsted would have come to regard as routine all those years ago: the noise that fills every space in your head until you feel it possesses you, the mighty lunge forward and the vibrations of that insane engine making your internal organs shudder.

For a moment I was transported from the Surrey suburbs to Daytona Beach, imagining miles of open sand ahead of me, each gearchange, each reapplication of power as the speed headed ever upwards. You’d know if something went wrong there’d be no escaping it: the available outcomes were to complete the course without incident, coast nonchalantly up to the wide-eyed crowd and ask someone for a cigarette, or die. And in that moment and knowing there was nothing you could do save lift to steer the hand of fate in one direction or the other, I’m not sure you’d care. You and the machine had become one and you’d stand or fall together.

An anxious glance from my riding mechanic brings me back to reality. The Blitzen is going quite fast now and the curve at the end of the straight has got no shallower. But with confidence growing I’m less scared than I’d been a couple of laps back and at half the speed. For all the blood and thunder, it appears the Blitzen is still just a car and one that will respond approximately in line with expectations.

A few laps later I’m driving it as I’d have never imagined possible, not even worrying when I feel the rear tyres start to slide a little on the slippery surface. Later I am assured that given the time and space the Blitzen will really drift, a spectacle I’d pay proper money to see.

For now, though, someone else needs the track and while the idea of terrorising customers trying out their new A-classes in a 100-year-old 21.5-litre Land Speed Record car is not without its appeal, apparently that is not an available option.

When I track-test a car, I like to come away with at least an understanding of what it is like to drive at the speeds and in the environment for which it was designed. But because I had neither banking nor beach at my disposal, that was never going to be possible with the Blitzen. But in the same way as you can tell much about a fine wine by its smell, so too can you learn much about the Blitzen even from such a fleeting acquaintance. I know what it sounds like, what it feels like to handle and how hard it kicks when you let it off the leash.

But I feel I learned most about those who jumped in and tried to travel faster than man had ever travelled before on land, sea or air. They were pioneers doing important work in breaking down barriers, making possible the hitherto impossible and risking their lives in the process. Were the Blitzen and I flown to Daytona Beach and given the chance for one last shot of glory, would I take it? I’d like to think so, but probably not.

Writer Andrew Frankel, Photographer Howard Simmons