The 1908 Grand Prix

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Mercedes’ victory in the 1908 French GP was one of its best. Bill Boddy tells the tale and traces the whereabouts of the survivors

It is indisputable that Mercedes (Mercedes-Benz from 1926) has been one of the significant names in motor racing, from the earliest days onwards. Emphasis has been placed on the make from Unterturkheim, Stuttgart, because it has had a knack of achieving notable successes, often at what must be regarded as landmarks in racing, then with drawing, only to return to further major victories.

Let us start, for instance, with the 1903 Gordon Bennett Trophy in Ireland. This was the first motor race to be held on British roads, as such racing was not permitted on the mainland, and it thus gained widespread attention. The political move for such public road closures had been forced on us because the race rules stipulated that the country winning this nationally-orientated contest would hold the following year’s race and Edge’s Napier had been victorious in 1902. Mercedes had intended to make its bid for GB honours with a team of new 90hp racing cars but a factory fire destroyed these on the eve of the event. So production-type 60hp cars had to be substituted, borrowed it was said from willing private owners, and fitted with racing bodywork.

This was perhaps a fortunate turn of fate, because the massive 90hp Mercedes were not very reliable and could have been difficult to handle over the Athy circuit. However, the 9-litre Mercedes Sixties were up against Panhard and Mors, then the top Lautenschlager pits during his heroic drive in the 1908 French GP. The strain on the tyres is clear racing cars, in the hands of leading drivers such as Rene de Knyff and Gabriel. Yet Camille Jenatzy, dubbed “The Red Devil’ on account of his red beard and fearless driving, beat them all, winning at 49.2mph, 11 min 40sec ahead of de Knyff’s 80hp Panhard. Jenatzy, a fine all-round sportsman, collected £8000, perhaps equivalent to what lesser F1 drivers now earn; he was to meet a cruel fate, killed in mistake for a wild boar at a shooting party . . .

The next landmark success for Mercedes was the 1908 French Grand Prix. This rates as a racing landmark because after Renault and FIAT had won the ’06 and ’07 GPs, the Automobile Club de France decided to abandon future fixtures, for some years at least, and thus all eyes were on the outcome of the 1908 race. Mercedes had competed in the two former French GPs but had got no higher than 10th, (Jenatzy/Burton in 1906 on a 14.5-litre car, Hemet with an 11.9-litre Mercedes in 1907). But designer Paul Daimler persevered and had a team of cars ready for the ‘interim’ GP, which proved able to defeat two Benz entries, as we shall later see.

The next landmark in the racing history of Mercedes was again at the French GP, this time the dramatic 1914 even held at Lyons on the eve of war, one of the greatest of this series, contested between most of the leading makes of that time. Mercedes built five cars of rather conservative design, to the 4.5-litre ruling, eschewing the twin-cam engines and frontbrakes which were emerging as the way to go, but by meticulous preparation and practising, as in 1908, they did it again, coming home 1, 2, 3, before the first of the hitherto dominant Peugeots, easing to a slight degree the French humiliation by finishing fourth. The end of an era, you might rightly say . . .

After the war, Mercedes made an impressive return to racing, considering the difficult conditions prevailing. The next significant landmark had to wait, however, until 1934, when, under the new 750kg formula, Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union built the fastest GP cars yet seen which were truly exciting to watch as the few drivers capable of fully extending them coped with their light weight and tricky handling characteristics. Between them these so-called ‘Silver Arrows’ (ugh!) bred disturbing propaganda from Germany as, with drivers of the calibre of Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Seaman and Lang, they screamed to victory all around Europe.

There was another break before the Mercedes-Benz racing department appeared again, for the newly introduced 2H-litre formula, to repeat the former overwhelming superiority with the W196 GP and 300SLR sports-racing cars, the former giving Fangio his second World Championship, the latter taking the 1955 Sports Car Championship.

Historians have often looked at the post-race provenance of the Gordon Bennett Mercedes and researchers of the1914 GP team cars include R H Johnston, ‘Bunty’ Scott-Moncrieff, myself and Edward Eves. But less attention has been paid to what happened to the 1908 GP cars after their landmark race. Now, with the help of Max von Pein, curator of the Mercedes-Benz Museum at Stuttgart, it is possible to look at what seems to have happened to these great cars.

But first, the race. It was run over 477.48 miles of the 1907 GP course, which implies that the faster drivers were in action for some seven hours — those Edwardians really went motor racing! Paul Daimler, conscious of the poor showing of Mercedes in the two previous GPs, prepared a team of four new cars, to rules restricting cylinder bores and weight. Three of these had engines of 12.8-litres, one was of 13.5litres, all with push-rod-operated overhead inlet and side exhaust valves in chain-driven chassis. Remarkably, the car chosen to attempt to win was entrusted, not to a racing driver, but to 31-year-old tester Christian Lautenschlager, who had been with the company since 1899. Willy Poege, with the outsize engine, and Sake; were to hany the opposition.

With typical thoroughness the cars were sent twice to Dieppe for long spells of practice until this was forbidden after May 1st. So by race day, July 7th, Mercedes, as ever, were well prepared. But their race plan did not work out, because road conditions were extremely poor, causing tyre failures, even collapsed wheels, and eye trouble for drivers ex to the dust and flying stones. This put Saber out after two laps, and Poege was delayed at the same time when he ran into a fence. Which left the burly, moustachioed test-driver to battle it out alone, with no tyres left in his pit for the last two laps (or 95 miles), so demanding had the race been. But his long experience of the car with which he had been entrusted, paid off. After the FIATs had broken up, the challenge came from Hemery and Hanriot in the 12.4-litre Benz. But Lautenschlager kept his cool and won by 8min 40.2sec, at 69.05mph, the two Benz second and third, Poege fifth.

Paul Daimler was there to see this triumph by his test-driver who, in 1914, was to lead home the veteran Wagner, and Salzer, at Lyons in that great triple Three-Pointed Star’ triumph, after a drive lasting for more than seven hours, thus justifying, if it be true, the statement made during a pre-race board-room meeting in Stuttgart that “For reasons of propaganda Mercedes have decided to win this year’s French GP”! It had taken care similar in attention to detail as the 1908 GP success and which we were to witness again in the later pre-war and post-WW2 racing by Daimler-Benz.

Apparently the unfortunate French had to endure the playing of ‘Deutschland uber Alles’ three times as the Mercedes crossed the finishing line in 1914; but the band thoughtfully included the ‘Marseillaise’ after each rendering, and again as Goux’s fourth-placed Peugeot arrived . . .

Now to the provenance of these 1908 Mercedes. What was thought to have been the winning car eventually went to America, where it was later discovered to be, in fact, the spare or training one. Before its export to the USA it had been sold, a week after the GP, via De Cros Mercedes in London, to Mr R F Fry, just in time for Resta to drive it to third place in the second Montagu Cup race, behind a 90hp Napier and Hutton’s earlier GP Mercedes. After the opening of Brooklands in 1907, Mercedes were glad to sell their out-dated racing cars to British sportsmen keen to race on the new Track. Mr Fry had already acquired a 1906 GP Mercedes for the famous Dario Resta to drive for him, but it lost the first Montagu Cup Race because Resta inadvertently did one lap too many, allowing J E Hutton’s sister Mercedes to win the 200 sovereign Trophy and prize of 1400 sovereigns! It was the same type of GP Mercedes that had a horrific accident in 1908, killing the mechanic.

Mr Fry continued to enter his 1908 Mercedes at Brooklands for Resta to race until the end of the season. He then passed it on to Old Etonian and expert shot A W Tate, who won two Brooklands races in 1909 from scratch and the class for GP cars at Saltbum Sands, doing 93.2mph for the flying start km, after which, having joined the army, he was absent for some time. But in 1913 the old Mercedes was the object of some amusement at Shelsley Walsh that year, when, after Tate had run into the railings and damaged a front hub, a cottage loaf was stuffed into it to obviate loss of grease on the journey home. The old warrior was then laid up for a while at its owner’s country scat, the Manor House, Chippenharn, Ely, Cambs, until around 1920, after it had been overhauled, repainted and given new tyres. It was in original condition, with an Elliot speedometer, dual Bosch ignition ensuring a start ‘on the switch’, and was said to give 15mpg. Only the owner had driven it since 1913 and it was for sale, but Tate, with a DSO after war service, took it to the 1919 Southend speed-trials, nonchalantly mastering a skid on the wet course. The car was said to be unchanged since 1908 and again painted white, as were the team-cars at the GP that year.

I believe that it was used on English roads by the next owner, until it was shipped to America. Its first owner in the USA was Karl Martin, until it was purchased by George Waterman in 1939, and transported to his premises on an extended ModelB Ford truck. Now it is part of George Wingald’s stable of historic cars. In 1996 he brought it over for the Goodwood Festival of Speed and it clocked 82.3sec up the hill, fastest in its class, with Gail Wingard as ‘riding mechanic’ to keep up fuel-tank pressure, after the pair had put out a fire and repaired a sheared sprocket-key.

The true provenance of Lautenschlager’s winning car is obscure but it appears to have gone to America too, it is thought at the behest of K W Vanderbilt Jnr, of New York, soon after the GP, and to have been fitted with a touring body by Labourdette of Paris and Madrid. The Poege Mercedes went to the wealthy sportsman Theodor Dreher and stayed in Germany, while the wellknown Mercedes dealer and rebuilder Gordon Watney acquired the Salzer car on behalf of Lord Vernon. For a few years these monster Mercedes GP cars were a considerable attraction at Brooklands, driven by such a variety of different drivers that individual identities cannot be easily established. Cooper/Zborowski had some success with one at Brooklands after the war which was probably the ex-Salzer car. These 1908 GP Mercedes should not be confused with the special large-engined ones which made FTD at the Semmering hill-climbs of 1908/09, driven by Poege and Salzer, nor with the special-edition cars built by Unterturkheim, with one of which Ralph de Palma so nearly won the 1915 Indianapolis 500 until a con-rod broke within sight of the line and which was raced later by Mulford and Spencer Wishart. The GP cars were fast for their day, Laurent’s taking the half-mile record to 109.05mph at Brooklands in 1909.

Along the years Mercedes has so often achieved that peak of racing achievement, winning on the first appearance with a new design, notably with the two W 165s, built secretly when the Italians changed the formula to 1½-litres, intending to frustrate German opposition. It trounced the opposition with a 1-2 at Tripoli in 1939 on the its first and only race appearance. That and the almost entire domination of the races in which Stuttgart competed, was indeed formidable. To date McLaren-Mercedes has yet to perform so convincingly…