A 1914 Grand Prix Mercedes
THE 1914 French Grand Prix at Lyons was one of the most dramatic motor races in history, as was, perhaps, befitting for the last classic contest before the outbreak of the world war. The 1912 and 1913 contests had been victories for the House of Peugeot, the winner on both occasions being the great Georges Boillot. Peugeot was naturally very anxious to win for the third time in succession, and for the 1914 race they entered a team of 4½-litre twin o.h.c. cars, possessing streamline tails and four-wheel brakes.
Mercédès, who had last won in 1908, were also determined to win the French classic. As soon as the course was announced, much surreptitious practice was put in, and four and six-cylinder engines were compared. Before the race, at a trade luncheon given at the Trocadero by the British branch of the Stuttgart Company, a German director is said to have solemnly announced that his board had decided, for publicity purposes, to win the forthcoming Grand Prix . . . . The cars used were tour-cylinder 4½-litres. driven by Lautenschlager, Wagner, Salzer, Sailer and Pilette.
It seems that actually six cars were driven across Europe to Lyons, accompanied by a seventh chassis, from which spares could be taken. The choice of fifth car was apparently made at the last moment, as it was weighed in without racing numbers and with its registration numbers still in place. The subject of this article was, in fact, that fifth car, and, as it happened, No. 5 Mercédès. It was given No. 41, and was driven by Pilette. Lautenschlager’s race number was 28, Wagner’s No. 40, Salzer’s No. 39, and Sailer’s No. 14. Apart from their very thorough preparation, Mercédès were extremely efficient over their pit work, and they used Sailer’s fast car as a pacemaker to attempt to break up the Peugeots. It is now a matter of history that Sailer went into the lead for six laps, when, with a lead of 3 mins., a connecting-rod broke and the car retired. Pilette’s car had retired on the fourth lap, but Lautenschlager, Wagner and Salzer went on to finish first, second and third. Boillot’s Peugeot, making up in braking what Mercédès gained in speed and acceleration, put up a magnificent battle until it retired on the last lap with a broken propeller shaft. Lautenschlager averaged 65.45 m.p.h. for the 467 miles. The three white cars finished in a hushed silence, broken by the “Marseillaise” as Jules Goux’s Peugeot came over the line in fourth place.
Further drama was lent to the race because when one of the Mercédès was taken to the Rolls-Royce works after the outbreak of war and stripped, it was found to have much in common with the six-cylinder Mercédès.aero-engines. The subsequent Rolls-Royce “Hawk” aero-motor was largely based on the Mercédès racing-car unit—it has even been rumoured that after the Armistice a royalty was paid to Mercédès on all the “Hawk” motors we produced. W. 0. Bentley, too, based the design of the 3-litre Bentley on this engine. To revert to the Grand Prix, many contradictory stories have circulated concerning the ultimate fate of the 1914 Mercédès cars, and even now the position is confused. It appears that after the race Mercédès painted the number of Lautenschlager’s winning car on all the cars and sent one to each of their foreign agents for advertising purposes—which discounts the romantic legend that war came at once and saw Herr Neubauer and all the personnel sportingly sent back home in a plain van, whilst an enterprising French motor dealer waylaid the cars and sold them all at enormous profit by presenting every one as Lautenschlager’s winning car! In sober fact, it is believed that the car that went to the factory museum at Unterturkeim was Lautenschlager’s No. 2. In 1915 Ralph de Palma won the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race with one of these cars, at 90.4 m.p.h., and this was probably the car which Wagner drove in the Grand Prix, No. 4. The car which finished third in Salzer’s hands, No. 3, is believed to have been bought in France or Belgium by Count Zborowski and brought by him to England, where he raced it with considerable success at Brooklands. Pilette, incidentally, was the Belgian Mercédès agent, and it is interesting that it was not No. 5, which he drove, which subsequently went back to his showroom. There is also an engine from one of the 1914 cars in the Mercédès museum, and if we decide that this came from the chassis which accompanied the team to Lyons in case spares were required, we still have Sailer’s and Pilette’s cars to account for, as well as “No. 6.” Masetti bought a complete car, modernised it, and with it won the 1922 Targa Florio at 39.2 m.p.h. If we assume that he would prefer Sailer’s car to the less well-known “No. 6” this settles the fate of No. 1. Possibly No. 6 was the car which Rosenberger, who of recent times was Dr. Porsche’s business manager, drove many years after the war, with some modifications incorporated. On the other hand, Rosenberger’s car looked so like Masetti’s 1922 Targa Florio winner as to suggest that it might be one and the same.
It remains only to trace the post-race history of Pilette’s No. 5, which is now being restored to its original condition by Peter Clark and with which this article is concerned. The cars were started in pairs, except No. 41, which, being an odd number, was alone—and last. However, it was sixth by the end of the first lap, putting in the second fastest lap of the team; Sailer’s was the fastest, and in the lead. In the race it retired after four laps, due to “an accident,” although some reports speak of a broken propeller-shaft. However, when the present owner took down the engine, he found that No. 4 cylinder was .005″ oversize and marked “No. 6” yet had a normal piston. This suggests that the retirement was due to engine trouble and that a cylinder from the spares-car was hastily put in place to enable the racing car to get home. Afterwards, the car came to England for display and Major R. M. S. Veal paid a deposit with a view to buying it outright. He lost his deposit with the outbreak of war, when Rolls-Royce persuaded the Government to let them borrow the car for technical research. It is very interesting that Straker-Squire after the war produced a six-cylinder car the engine of which bore a close resemblance to the G.P. Mercédès engine, but this is explained by the fact that Straker-Squire built Rolls-Royce “Hawk” aero-motors during hostilities.
Early in 1919 a Mr. Harrison shipped this Mercédès to America. It has been rumoured that it ran at Indianapolis, but no Mercédès ran that year, so this is complete nonsense. She now became a touring-equipped car. Difficult starting was partially cured by setting the Bosch people of New York to fit a huge starter. They put a dynamo below the driver’s seat and drove it by chain from a split sprocket between the clutch and gearbox and stowed two wedge-shaped 6 volt batteries below the fuel tank on each side of the prop. shaft. Starting still proved very troublesome and the car usually had to be towed in top gear at about 40 m.p.h. before any response was obtained. This was attributed to the racing overlap, and about 1922 the Mercédès was shipped back to England so that a touring camshaft could be obtained from Germany and fitted. Just why the car never returned to the States no one seems to know, although some highly scurrilous rumours have been circulated. Until 1925 a dust sheet at Hooper’s, the coachbuilders, hid her, and then Major Veal found her again and bought her on the spot. Further road equipment was added, and a big screen fitted, while a big trunk was installed behind the fuel tank where the spare wheel used to live. When weighed in for the race the car turned the scales at 1,090 k.g., but it now weighed a great deal more. The touring camshaft had been put in, and braking had been improved by fitting Whitehead front brakes, cunningly arranged to steady the car without winding up a front-end not intended to take retardation stresses. In spite of this weight increase and the considerable head-resistance, the Mercédès still possessed acceleration of an order that would require a good “30/98” Vauxhall to beat it, and it would do 80 m.p.h. in third. The exhaust note was reminiscent of a very touring “Blue Label” Bentley, but the rear axle whine and valve gear noise was most inspiring. The seats were very comfortable, the roadholding excellent, and at 40 m.p.h. the engine speed was a mere 1,000 r.p.m. Major Veal used the car regularly until about 1927, and always the old engine started on the starter on No. 1 petrol. Feeling he was getting rather too elderly to do an ex-racing car justice he then laid the Mercédès up.
Now, shortly after the outbreak of the second world war, it is again stripped, but by an amateur enthusiast who is steadily restoring it to its original trim. The four-cylinder engine has a bore and stroke of 98 x 165 mm. (4,481 c.c.) and is rated at 21 h.p. The single o.h. camshaft is driven by a vertical shaft at the back of the engine and operates four inclined valves per cylinder. The actual valve stems and the tips of the rockers are exposed, but an ingenious trap prevents excessive escape of oil. The original steel pistons showed minute cracks on the thrust faces of the skirts at right angles to the gudgeon, when subjected to a “Magnaflux” test, so new Aerolite pistons, in alloy, but similar to the original design, are going to be used. The valve-guides have been bored out and the valve stems “Fescolised” to fit; the valves were perfect. The crankshaft runs in five main bearings, and the connecting-rods are H-section, machined all over. As the flywheel was loose on the crankshaft the tapers were re-ground and built-up, new bearing shells were made, and the full panoply of Mr. Laystall’s art, indeed, was brought to bear. There are three pumps per cylinder, two being on the off, or inlet side. The near side of the head is cored for two plugs also, either because Mercédès thought of using four plugs per cylinder or because they wanted to experiment with the third plug in varying positions. Ignition is by two Bosch magnetos driven Bentley fashion, but at the rear of the engine; that on the near side has a single distributor, that on the off side a double. Peter says that if he can acquire another dual magneto he will try the full sixteen candles! Cooling is by pump at very high flow speed. The temperature will not rise above 60°F. unless the (original) cover is slipped behind the flank of the radiator stoneguard. The original inlet manifold is in place; a most amazing copper manifold which has twin risers of “V” formation feeding into a four-branch pipe of like diameter, there being no central division, despite the use of twin risers. A very crude air heater was subsequently fitted, air entering a duct behind the radiator on the near side, wandering over the exhaust pipes and being led round the back of the engine to a junction box below the carburetter intake, where a driver-controlled flap valve allowed air to enter either through this device or through a hole facing forwards by the off side front wheel, where dirt and filth would intrude. Two spare carburetters which came with the car are identical to the original design. No lagging remains on the manifolding, which glories in the nakedness of shining brasswork. The Polyshoë carburetter from the 1908 Hutton may be experimented with, and it seems that a Packard carburetter much improved the car which de Palma drove at Indianapolis in 1915. The original straight-through exhaust pipe succumbed to an undersize drop-pipe where No. 4 branch comes in, leading into a big silencer below the chassis and a small tail pipe. As already mentioned, No. 4 cylinder is .005″ oversize everywhere, but this will be rectified. The other cylinders show a bore wear of only .002″. The engine originally ran up to about 3,200 r.p.m. at which speed piston-speed was quite fantastic. The drive passes to a double cone clutch and four-speed gearbox. Final drive is by torque tube enclosed shaft— Mercédès having abandoned chain-drive for the first time in 1914. The rear axle has two crown wheels and pinions and thanks to this division of loading, shows no wear, only a small amount of attention to the oil-retaining felts being called for. The foot brake originally operated on the transmission and the hand brake on the rear wheels, but when the front brakes were added the hand brake was relegated to the transmission. One rear drum was worn much more than the other, doubtless because oil-leakage had saved one from any real work. Both brakes were relined and a lot of trial and error adjustment carried out with the cunning inter-shoe compensators. The transmission brake was replaced with its original metal lining, but the spring-loading on the pull-off linkage was modified a trifle. When the gearbox was taken down, all was found to be in perfect order. New bronze blocks were made for the front universal, and some welding, grinding, and scraping committed on its other components. Apart from this, no other work was necessary. Peter Clark certainly deserves every credit for stripping the car so thoroughly before reassembly. The car will, when finally completed, be as nearly as possible in the condition in which it ran in the dramatic race at Lyons before the last war. Barring the few very minor modifications outlined, and a very carefully contrived pressure-feed lubrication of the valve gear, the Mercédès will be in 1914 trim. It seems that some joke centres around the tails used on the racing bodies, for in different pictures they are alternately present or absent, like an umbrella or overcoat. It is nice to think of the portly Lautenschlager barking his knees so often on the sharp edge that he rent the tail away with the tin ships, but, alas, that is pure romance.
We have been promised a drive in this remarkably interesting veteran when Peter Clark gets it on the road, and we shall look forward to reporting on the car’s performance, for in the race these Mercédès reached 110-115 m.p.h. at least once a lap and the close ratio gearbox, giving ratios of about 2.5, 4, 5, and 11½ to 1, permits, we believe, of rapid gear changes. Highly ingenious cam-lift, coil spring shock-absorbers look after the half-elliptic suspension, and these were the steadiest cars in the race in spite of the short wheelbase. As late as 1927, with one of these cars, Rosenberger broke the course record at the Semmering hill-climb, and in 1929 won the St. Moritz G.P., being timed to exceed 120 m.p.h., with streamlined bodywork and other modifications.
Peter Clark has been fortunate in securing a car which not only belongs to a most dramatic episode of racing history, but whose design remained almost unbeaten for nearly fifteen years. It should be the fastest road-worthy pre-1914 car in existence when fully restored, and will be watched with extreme interest at Vintage S.C.C. Edwardian contests, for which several new veterans are being prepared, when these are resumed. The pride which Major Veal took in the old car is amply upheld by the very careful overhaul which Peter Clark is conducting on the car, and let us hope that when the work is finally completed we shall also have won this war.