Behind the shock and awe of era-defining Silver Arrows domination, tension festered in the wake of the Führer’s decision to split state funding between Mercedes and the new Auto Union
Writer Doug Nye
Pre-war motor racing was well reported by the British weeklies The Motor and The Autocar, with Tom Moore and friends in Motor Sport having more time to get it right. Time reveals so much more – but let’s begin here with a potted history of Grand Prix racing into the early 1930s…”
The game had really suffered into 1928, deteriorating to a level previously experienced only in the crisis years of 1909-1911 and 1915-1920. The Delage, Fiat and Talbot factories had all withdrawn from racing. Bugatti effectively faced variable competition from Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Formule Libre rules were adopted by most race promoters, except in the 600km Italian GP at Monza. In 1929 only the French and Spanish races toed the AIACR governing body’s regulatory line. Then into the 1930s only the Belgian GP really complied, Louis Chiron winning unchallenged for Bugatti. But its heyday was shuffling into evening.
In the 1930 French GP, 14 Bugatti Type 35s started on the old Pau country-road circuit, yet Sir Henry Birkin finished second in his 4½-litre Bentley with Le Mans four-seater body – despite it looking, he said “like a large Sealyham among greyhounds”.
Bugatti won three major international races that year, while Italy’s new Maserati marque won four and Alfa Romeo a couple (but concluded that its seven-year-old P2 model – designed for 120mph – was inadequate approaching 140). Bugatti’s Type 35, with basically a 1922 engine, was simply underpowered. As Laurence Pomeroy of The Motor observed: “Despite the world financial crisis [of 1929-30], the logic of events forced constructors to produce new racing designs for the 1931 season… much influenced by the growing political importance of racing. Mussolini gave every encouragement to Italian constructors, who were told that motor racing victories were a big contribution to the home and world prestige of Fascist rule.” State aid would become a defining feature of 1930s motor racing. Income from car sales alone was woefully insufficient, and the AIACR – forerunner of the modern FIA – had failed for three successive years to produce a GP formula acceptable to constructors or race promoters.
For 1931-33 the regulators floated a 5-litre, 790-odd Kg minimum weight formula before shrugging, accepting Formule Libre without riding mechanics and insisting top-level GP races last at least 10 hours. The 2.3-litre twin-cam Bugatti Type 51 emerged, as did the rival Alfa Romeo 8C-2300 Monza. The Milanese marque also fielded its remarkable Tipo A Monoposto cars with centreline driving position, and bodywork only just wide enough to accommodate two six-cylinder sports car engines side-by-side up front. Each had its own clutch and gearbox, aggregating 3½ litres and more than 200bhp. Fagioli’s 2½-litre straight-eight Maserati led the French GP at Montlhéry, before a Bugatti T51 won from an Alfa Monza. Maserati occasionally fielded its fearsome coupled-crankshaft V16, then uprated its straight eights to 2.8 litres. Privately run 7-litre Mercedes-Benz SSs picked up some GP crumbs and Bugatti unleashed its barrel-chested 4.9-litre Type 54s, brawn baffling brains…
Bugatti, increasingly cash-strapped, and Maserati (content with its lot) continued racing proven designs through 1932. Alfa Romeo led the way with its super-slim 2.6-litre Tipo B Monoposto, the so-called P3. After Giuseppe Campari had driven the prototype around the Alfa factory yard at Portello he enthused it was “as nimble as a bicycle.”
The Monza had been unable to beat Bugatti and Maserati, while the Tipo A twin had proved both obese and a clenching challenge for even Alfa’s finest stars to drive. The AIACR recognised GP races of not less than five hours and not more than 10 – and while the fastest car in the 1932 Italian GP was Fagioli’s Maserati V16, the winner was the svelte, slender new Tipo B with Nuvolari aboard. Three of these new Alfas dominated the French GP at Reims, and followed up with Rudi Caracciola – released from Mercedes-Benz as a cost-saving measure – winning the German GP. He then triumphed in the Italian GP at Monza, while Bugatti found consolation as the Tipo Bs broke in the Monza GP, won by Chiron’s T51.
Alfa Romeo’s great results through 1932 facilitated the State-backed – more or less bankrupt – company’s shock decision to retire from racing for 1933. Its state-of-the-art Tipo Bs were consigned to storage, leaving the quasi-works Scuderia Ferrari to make the most of its dual-purpose Grand Prix/sports-racing Monza models.
German economic austerity led to the national GP being cancelled, Nuvolari deserted Scuderia Ferrari in disgust at the inadequacy of its Alfas and, in a freshly purchased Maserati 8C Monoposto (reintroducing hydraulic brakes to the GP category), won the Belgian GP. At Livorno he beat Brivio’s SF-entered Monza by eight minutes and shamed Alfa’s board – nudged by Mussolini’s unimpressed Ministry men – into releasing its Tipo Bs to the Scuderia.
Bugatti launched its Type 59, which looked outmoded and had little hope of combating state-assisted Italian programmes.
Simultaneously, the Alfa and Maserati men listened aghast to rumours that the Germans would be weighing in come 1934. Despite all its terrible times post-WWI, the German economy was resurgent and the nation’s new Fascist regime had much more muscle than Mussolini’s Italy could ever flex…
North of the Alps, Mercedes-Benz had been founded upon clinical engineering excellence. The marque had been promoted assiduously through many years of motor racing, and whenever Mercedes addressed its ambitions seriously in any class of competition, its will and capability had proved almost irresistible.
In 1931 the AIACR had canvassed expert advice to frame at last an acceptable, workable new Grand Prix formula. When finally announced in October 1932 – to apply during 1934-36 – they introduced a maximum weight limit of 750kg to be enforced less driver, fuel, oil and tyres, and a minimum body cross-section at the driving seat of 85x25cm, or 33.5×9.9in.
One expert advisor behind these new regulations had been Prof Dr Ferdinand Porsche, former chief engineer of Austro-Daimler, Mercedes-Benz and Steyr, who in 1930 had founded his own independent design firm in Stuttgart. In his mid-50s, Porsche was experienced, tough, shrewd – and legendarily foul-mouthed. It had been predicted that the latest rules would confine GP cars to engines of only three litres and 250bhp, but Porsche and collaborators Josef Kales and Karl Rabe began work on something superior – their shockingly daring, futuristically rear-engined V16 P-Wagen.
That is really what 1930s GP racing all came to be about. It brimmed with fantastic engineering and was done against a background of massive social change and disturbance.
It provided a microcosm of the tense and turbulent times in which it all unfolded, and through 1933-34 the elephant in the room was the spectre of Germany resurgent.
Here was a new Germany that had endured its defeat and punishment at the end of the First World War, when it emerged in hock to the American banks and others. Germany’s Weimar Republic from 1919-1932 experienced the fantastic hyper-inflation of the early ’20s. When Hitler’s emergent NSDAP political movement bought him a 16/50hp Benz car in 1923, its price was 135 thousand billion marks…
But the economy stabilised, the Golden Twenties developed and Berlin bustled as Europe’s most entertaining capital. Germany printed and borrowed money and indulged it. The Bauhaus architects emerged, but in 1929 America’s Wall Street Crash destroyed the feelgood factor.
Stricken US banks foreclosed on German loans. Mass redundancies reduced Mercedes-Benz’s workforce from more than 18,000 in 1927 to under 5000 in March 1932. Mercedes boss Dr Wilhelm Kissel had been an ardent supporter of motor racing to promote the brand, but even he had to face financial fact and declare the Three-Pointed Star’s withdrawal until the economy improved.
The shareholding Deutsche Bank’s representative on the Daimler-Benz board was Dr Emil Georg von Stauss. From 1930 he had loudly used his influence in the Reichstag parliament to promote a policy of ‘national motorisation’, ranging from road building and tax relief on car sales to Government defence orders for vehicles and aircraft “in the national interest”. This aped Mussolini’s Italian policies and matched those of Hitler’s ever more popular NSDA Party.
One of Prof Dr Porsche’s partners was star driver Hans Stuck – close to Hitler’s inner circle. Another was Adolf Rosenberger, who had competed in the rear-engined Tropfenwagen racing cars of 1923-24. Rosenberger was a member of Berlin’s influential Herrenklub, and won financial backing from among its wealthy members for Porsche to found the Hochleistungs-Fahrzeugbau GmbH (High-Performance Vehicle Construction Co) to perfect the P-Wagen. The Prof Doc was well acquainted with Wanderer and tried to sell them the project, but Wanderer was in deep financial trouble, as were the other motor companies in Lower Saxony – Audi, DKW and Horch. In February 1932 the State of Saxony guaranteed six million Reichsmarks to support its local motor industry, and that June the four marques merged under the banner of Auto Union AG.
The new combine’s board would prove aggressively promotion-minded. In January 1933 Hitler became German chancellor, his Nazi party rapidly all-powerful. An enabling act was passed allowing government by decree, even in breach of the nation’s constitution. On February 11 that year, Hitler became the first German chancellor to attend the Berlin Motor Show. Here he announced his programme of national motorisation, watched by Jakob Werlin, Mercedes-Benz’s Munich distributor and a long-time associate of the Führer. Daimler-Benz was in pole position for lucrative Government contacts, and when the new regime announced state backing for companies willing to build a ‘national Grand Prix car’, Kissel assumed his company alone would benefit.
The bounty was to total 450,000 Reichsmarks per year, plus success bonuses of 20,000, 10,000 and 5000RM for top-three finishes. Dr Kissel was outraged to learn that the new Auto Union combine had also applied, for on March 17 1933 it had agreed with Dr Porsche to back his P-Wagen programme until the end of 1936. This was contingent upon its prototypes testing successfully, developing 250bhp at 4500rpm, meeting the 750kg weight limit and initially completing 10 uninterrupted laps of Berlin’s AVUS track, reaching 250kph (150mph) on the straights. AU’s negotiators then dropped the ball, agreeing that any future state subsidies should accrue to the group “up to a total of 100,000RM”. Any sum in excess would be split 50:50 with Porsche. By 1936 Porsche – not Auto Union – would have benefited by half a million extra RM.
At Mercedes, Dr Kissel had argued long and hard against any new Government backing for those Saxon upstarts. He wanted 100 per cent for Daimler-Benz alone, declaring that AU wanted state funds “to gain experience in an area completely new to it”. He seethed at the injustice of funding going to AU instead of Daimler-Benz “who have already from our own resources successfully carried the German colours in motor sport at home and abroad”.
But it was the Führer’s way to split programmes, to set one faction against another in pursuit of the same goal. And from 1934-39 this approach would certainly keep both Daimler-Benz and Auto Union on tenterhooks – in many ways a bare-knuckle fight.
Back in 1932, Manfred von Brauchitsch had won the Avusrennen in a special, aerodynamically-bodied Mercedes-Benz SSKL. Amazingly, a crackly wire recording survives of that race’s radio commentary by Germany’s ‘Murray Walker’, Paul Laven. It’s stunning to listen today to him describing Brauchitsch’s leading car bursting into sight: “Here comes the silver arrow!” A style had been set.
The resultant Silver Arrows rapidly toppled Italian dominance at GP level. Their frontier technology became a development landmark. These cars were designed to overwhelm all foreign opposition – and did so.
Daimler-Benz and Auto Union threw money and men at the problem – and produced stunningly advanced racing cars whose sheer output and performance would survive unmatched in combination for almost 40 years.
Dr Hans Nibel supervised design of Mercedes’ original Typ W25 for 1934, an orthodox 3.3-litre supercharged straight eight mounted conventionally ahead of the driver in an all-independently suspended chassis with hydraulic brakes. Porsche’s P-Wagen fulfilled Auto Union’s design criteria – and the German teams first met in public at the Avusrennen in May ’34. But while AU’s daring new programme had a gilded birth, Mercedes struggled with testing accidents and then the excruciating embarrassment of having to withdraw pre-race due to fuel filter blockages caused by their chosen brew dissolving the internal lining of their Aviotub fuel piping.
While this left Auto Union to represent Germany alone, it made new-boy errors – and Franco-Algerian Guy Moll won in the Ferrari-entered Alfa Romeo Tipo B with Pallavicino streamlined bodywork.
Mercedes atoned with Manfred von Brauchitsch winning the following Eifelrennen at the Nürburgring, but the team lost narrowly to Alfa Romeo in France. Hans Stuck then won the German GP by more than two minutes for Auto Union, highlighting an excellent debut season and a ground-breaking new design.
Into 1935, with enlarged straight-eight engines, Mercedes-Benz got into full stride, winning five of the seven Grandes Epreuves and taking nine wins in all, including five 1-2 finishes and a 1-2-3 at San Sebastian. In 1936 Mercedes dropped the ball again, new short-chassis W25 models proving difficult to control – leaving motorcycle-bred new boy Bernd Rosemeyer, the Clark or Senna of the 1930s – to dominate the European Championship (the world title equivalent of the period) in the ever-developing V16 Auto Unions.
The AIACR announced a replacement GP formula but agreed it should commence in 1938, extending 750kg racing for one final season. Mercedes produced its ultimate Big Bazooka, the 5.66-litre 646bhp W125, with de Dion rear suspension, front-mounted engine, rear-mounted transaxle, which effectively defined pure-bred, front-engined GP car configuration into the late 1950s. Auto Union responded with its V16 in 6-litre form, generating such colossal mid-range torque its drivers lapped Monaco without changing gear.
The new formula for 1938-40 then matched 3-litre supercharged cars against 4.5 litres unsupercharged – and while Mercedes-Benz broadly dominated with its W154 3-litre V12s, Auto Union, free of Dr Porsche and his alarmingly obsessive over-complication and swing axle, produced the de Dion rear suspension, more centralised 3-litre V12 design that would ultimately, from the 1938 Italian GP, accrue more Grand Prix victories.
And the rest seldom got a look in. Germany’s near stranglehold upon Grand Prix racing led rival manufacturers and race promoters to look elsewhere to earn some revenue. Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Talbot-Lago, Delahaye and Bugatti were too often just outclassed makeweights. Beating nobodies on the race circuits of the world might be promotable to the unaware public, but, beyond providing a fantastic spectacle in silver, much pinnacle-level motor racing of the late 1930s was little contest – except between M-B and AU. As I grew up in the racing world, all I read – and was told by those who had witnessed it – made me appreciate that those white-overalled GP drivers (and that smaller man in the yellow shirt and red leather helmet, Nuvolari) might just as well have been Men from Mars, so unearthly was the ear-splitting sound and shimmering performance their cars created.
This is why I literally had to pinch myself when, at Donington Park in 1973, here beside me at lunch was Hermann Lang, the man upon whom the title of European champion had been bestowed in 1939, when he had won the lion’s share of that year’s great races for Mercedes.
In period in his native land, Lang had been a popular phenomenon – the former racing motorcyclist turned Mercedes works team engine fitter, racing mechanic, then driver.
He had served and learned at the feet of the senior team stars, Caracciola and von Brauchitsch. He had maintained their early Italian team-mate Luigi Fagioli’s W25s before being given his chance to drive.
In those days there was a perceived class distinction – and an earnings gulf – between racing drivers and motorcyclists, aka “the leather-suited oiks”. As a works rider for Standard motorcycles in 1931, Lang had earned 8000 Reichsmarks. Once taken on by Mercedes-Benz as a team mechanic he earned 2600. But after being trusted to drive a team W25 – then W125 – Grand Prix car and scoring his maiden win in the 1937 Tripoli GP, his earnings exploded to 60,000RM.
‘Hermannle’ was a stolid Swabian with huge, calloused, work-hardened hands. He spoke broadly accented local dialect. He was a decidedly blue-collar worker, and his mechanic mates all revered him for never losing sight of that, nor of them. He won more races in 1938 – his 70,000RM income matching that of his vastly senior and supposedly socially superior team-mate, Manfred von Brauchitsch.
Core of that 1930s’ Mercedes team had been the Caracciola/von Brauchitsch axis – one profoundly aspiring middle class, the other an arrogant and capriciously talented minor aristo whose uncle, Field-Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, became commander of the German Army. Contemporary motorcycle racer Georg ‘Schorsch’ Meier was also a professional soldier, but a grizzled Sergeant-Major. And he would recall how Caracciola and Brauchitsch could never resist taking cheap shots at “the mechanic”.
When Meier began driving for Auto Union, he got a little of the same. But Lang’s in-house persecution was increasingly fuelled by the senior duo’s growing alarm at the sheer pace he demonstrated, more so by the prize and bonus money he was taking from under their noses…
By 1939, when Lang won five of his eight GP formula races, “the mechanic” had far outgrown their jibes.
He had one great ally and supporter within the team through 1937-38, and that had been the unlikely figure of the upper-crusty (and supposedly snobbish) Englander Dick Seaman. In fact, Seaman proved just as comfy with both the threatened German stars and the fast-rising former mechanic. He demonstrated technical interest (and insight) exceeding even that of the vastly experienced Caracciola, and which – according to team development engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut – was beyond anything “Brauchitsch might even have imagined…”
So here beside me was the great Lang , the driver who had done so much, seen so much, and about whom I had read so much. But sadly in his old age – what should have been his greatest racing years long lost to World War II – when in truth perhaps too much wine had dulled his talent, he had also forgotten so much. But he told how, “In those cars you waited for it to come straight, and then hit the power. You hung on, and then you braked. You judged it through the corner – that’s where you made your time – you came straight, you hit the power again. But this was never easy. And always you worried about the tyres. Always! Tyre bursts could kill you…”
And while Lang had won those races, and had passed into history as the 1939 European champion, there was a hidden sub-text. Had AIACR rules been properly applied, that season’s true champion had not been Lang at all, but a different Hermann: HP Müller, another former racing motorcyclist and Auto Union’s perennial number two or three.
So Lang and Mercedes-Benz had been declared de facto 1939 champions, despite Auto Union’s Müller actually scoring more points. That decision was made not by the irrelevant and bypassed AIACR, but by Adolf Hühnlein, head of the Nazi state’s motor sport programme, for reasons of political expediency. Lang had won most races, while Müller had accumulated his points mainly with minor placings. In the public eye Lang and Mercedes-Benz had demonstrated the best of the ‘new’ Germany – unmatchable, unbeatable. Be proud, our people, while you foreigners should both respect and fear us.
Right here, at the close of the 1930s, is evidence of what state-backed Grand Prix racing had in many ways become. But strip away the period, the politics and the gathering clouds of war. Just consider the quality of those cars, their construction and design. Every surviving Mercedes-Benz GP car shows evidence of some craftsmen with a drafting-pencil, grindstone or machine tool having lavished unmatched skill and care and love upon every square centimetre of every single component. More careful with their money – benefiting rather less from state defence contracts, yet sharing the GP racing bounty – Auto Union parts match M-B quality where it matters, yet are relatively unfettled, even agricultural, where it does not.
But in the late 1970s when I arranged a track test back at Donington for 1961 world champion Phil Hill in a 1938-39 V12 Auto Union, he approached the experience with trepidation, expecting it to be literally dreadful. In fact he found the handling eye-openingly impressive. He remarked: “It’s a tragedy that after World War II all anybody remembered was the terrifying tail-happiness of the earlier Auto Union V16s. Six hundred horsepower with swing axles up-edging concrete tyres barely 5in wide. If we’d appreciated the balance of these V12 de Dion-axled cars instead, damn, we’d have raced rear-engined cars long before we did…”
Website poll results
1 Auto Union ‘Type D’
The last of the great rear-engined Silver Arrows, powered by a V12 and sprung on de Dion suspension. Years ahead of its time.
2= Mercedes W125 & W154
The two cars that sealed the three-pointed star’s Grand Prix superpower reputation. Even WWII wouldn’t wipe the memories.
3 Auto Union ‘Type C’
The last of the glorious 16-cylinder AUs that completes a Silver Arrows clean sweep in our poll.
Website poll results
1 Tazio Nuvolari
Another inevitable and overwhelming victory for the Flying Mantuan. The benchmark for a generation, even when he wasn’t in the best car.
2 Bernd Rosemeyer
Considered by some as the pre-war equivalent to Senna or Villeneuve. German hearts were broken when the national hero perished in a speed-record attempt in 1938.
3 Rudolf Caracciola
The pre-war Prost to Rosemeyer’s Senna. Three European championships were highlights of a stellar pre-war career.
From Motor Sport February 1937
Probably the most remarkable feature of Richard Seaman’s inclusion in the official Mercedes-Benz racing team has been the lack of publicity it has received. After all, here is a sporting achievement that is worthy of pride, and yet it has been almost universally ignored by the newspapers.
The apathy in regard to Seaman’s appointment has only been equalled by that which greeted Eric Fernihough’s wonderful motor-bike records. Truly we are the most extraordinary nation – or perhaps we must blame our newspaper editors who fill their columns with ‘human’ stories and refuse to regard real achievements as being of interest to the public. At any rate, no longer can the pessimists say that we haven’t got any drivers capable of handling modern GP cars. “We’ve got the men…”
Caracciola, Seaman and Lang – so reads the Mercedes team for 1937. Quite a formidable trio, for Caracciola is still capable of giving even the meteoric Rosemeyer a run, and Hermann Lang clung to the Auto Union driver’s heels for many laps in last year’s German GP. It will be interesting to see how Seaman shapes up.
Freddie Zehender will be the Mercedes-Benz reserve driver, and it will be remembered that he nearly got his chance at Nürburg last July. He was actually in the cockpit when Neubauer told Lang to take over the car. Von Brauchitsch may still sign up, but there appears to be some difficulty about terms. Then there is the cadet school, consisting of Walter Baumer, Brendel and Hartmann. These three are to undergo an intensive course of training as 1938 drivers, under the eagle eye of Neubauer. It is obvious that such astounding cars as the Mercedes-Benz must take a great deal of getting used to, and a full year’s practice does not seem too much.
Mercedes-Benz is pinning great hopes on its new 12-cylinder cars. The engines have already shown their worth in record attempts, and the rest of the car has received attention. A completely new frame has been designed, which ought to eliminate the road-holding troubles experienced with last year’s eight-cylinder cars. The design of the frame is at present a closely guarded secret, but no doubt full particulars will be available later.