Uncovering the Family Silver

In 1948 British photographer George Monkhouse revisited the Mercedes-Benz plant at Stuttgart-Unterturkheim. It was his first trip to the place he had literally revered during the 1930s as the seat of all that was finest in motor racing technology. He had never stopped telling people how good the Germans were at what they did, and of course in a Britain with its back to the wall from 1939-45, outspoken George had not made himself particularly popular.

On his 1948 trip he was reunited with his old ally from the pre-war ‘Silver Arrows’ team, engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut. And on a nostalgic tour of the factory’s redundant parts store, Herr Uhlenhaut showed George some of Mercedes’ surviving weaponry. One car which George photographed that day is particularly interesting. There’s Rudi standing proudly beside it, and one can see it’s a two-stage supercharged 3-litre V12 car, a W154. The huge scuttle tank is thick with dust. The car has a road-racing flat aero screen, but fascinatingly, its wheels are all enclosed within streamlined fairings. What’s more, the front fairings are in two parts. There’s plainly a tail cowling outrigged behind each front wheel, while the forward fairing section is free to steer with the wheels. Tall, fixed streamlined cowls then enclose each rear wheel.

The overall effect is rather like the body used on the 1939 3-litre Rekordwagen, the open-cockpit W154-based car driven by Caracciola on the Dessau record stretch to set new International Class D standing-start speed records. That record car – chassis ‘11’– used an ice cooling system, tail-mounted to add weight above the driven wheels, while a tiny nose inlet fed the engine’s induction. But its front-wheel fairings were fixed, having sufficient space inside to permit only limited steering lock.

The car Uhlenhaut showed George was chassis ‘12’, which had been set up with faired wheels to compete in the 1940 GP season, pre-empted by the home team having marched on Warsaw instead… The earliest factory document relating to this car’s modification is dated October 17, 1939. The Rennabteilung had long been interested in streamlining’s road racing potential.
When the 3-litre W154s were first designed for 1938-39, fully enclosing bodywork had been considered. Quarter-scale models were tested in the FKFS wind tunnel, and six of the 15 chassis planned for 1938 were at one stage going to be ‘Stromlinienwagen’. But all road-racing W154s ultimately ran as conventional slipper-bodied open-wheelers.

Chassis ‘12’ with its steerable fairings was stored at the Stuttgart factory at least until 1942, and in March ’46 was rediscovered in Hamburg. Its wheel fairings were then removed during the car’s preparation for the Argentine Temporada races of 1951, when it was driven by Hermann Lang, and in ’78 it was the car we ran with Phil Hill on the Nürburgring Sudschleife for a Road & Track Salon story. If only we’d known. It would have been interesting to explore the servo effect of those spats steering with the front wheels! But I wouldn’t guarantee that Phil would’ve felt so keen.