Important Grand Prix masterpiece resurfaces after years in secret collection
By Damien Smith
The most important and expensive Grand Prix car ever sold will go for auction this summer in a sale that will create a frenzy among collectors.
The Mercedes-Benz W196 in which Juan Manuel Fangio won the second of his five Formula 1 World Championships is the only post-war ‘Silver Arrows’ to exist in private hands, and its consignment to Bonhams for the Goodwood Festival of Speed sale on July 12 has sent a lightning bolt of speculation through the old car world on how much it will fetch.
Chassis 00006/54 was one of two open-wheel W196s built at Fangio’s request following his struggles placing the enclosed-bodied streamliner around Silverstone’s oil drums at the 1954 British GP. The Argentinian gave chassis 6 a winning race debut at the German GP, then followed this up with victory at Bremgarten in the Swiss GP, where he trounced Jose Froilan Gonzalez’s Ferrari by 58.7sec. The triumph secured Fangio his second world title.
The car was then raced to fourth place at the Italian GP by Hans Herrmann. A year later, it returned to Monza for what would be its final race appearance in the hands of Karl Kling, who ran as high as second among its sister streamliners. The car remains in updated 1955 bodywork as driven by Kling, and has been preserved in perfect period condition.
Mercedes withdrew from racing at the end of that season, in the wake of its involvement in the Le Mans disaster that killed more than 80 spectators. The W196 was retained by the factory until the 1970s, when it was loaned to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. Incredibly, that loan became a donation — which allowed Beaulieu to sell the car. Chassis 6 has passed through several hands since Mercedes’ generous act. In 1990 collector Jacques Setton bought it for $20m — by far the record for a GP car and the equivalent of nearly £14m at the time. Now the world waits to see how much its sale will reach this time. Bonhams chairman Robert Brooks admitted to Motor Sport that he has been wanting to bring this car to auction “for years”.
“My motoring auction career spans five decades and I’ve been privileged to handle some of the world’s most desirable and important cars,” he said. “To handle the sale of this legendary W196 GP car — the only one out of captivity — could well be the pinnacle.”
The W196 remains one of the most significant F1 cars in history. Just nine years after the end of WWII, it marked the return of Mercedes-Benz as a powerhouse of Grand Prix racing. That the Silver Arrows’ comeback would turn out to be so short-lived only cemented the car’s place in the record books.
Brooks admitted Bonhams hasn’t tried to start the straight-eight engine. “But with those desmodromic valves, it would be easy to start,” he said. “If I owned it I’d want to get it running. I’d have all the consumable parts restored and take it back to the factory to get it going. Once you got the fuel right, it’d run.”
As a historic racer, chassis 6 would not be competitive without a ground-up restoration — which would erode its immense value. The car’s originality and rarity is where its desirability will lie, in the manner of a work of art.
Bonhams revealed its coup on March 18 at its headquarters on New Bond Street, London. Until then, Brooks had kept the identity of its star lot as a closely-guarded secret, even from Goodwood’s Earl of March.