Sterling silver

To conclude our trilogy of significant French motor sport anniversaries, we rewind 60 years to the day that Mercedes-Benz returned to Grand Prix racing – and obliterated its rivals
Writer Richard Williams

The first outsider to catch sight of the new Silver Arrow hadn’t a clue what he was looking at. Which was a relief to the Mercedes personnel, who allowed the photographer George Monkhouse to wander round the racing department one day in the early weeks of 1954. A familiar figure at the Stuttgart-Untertürkheim factory, Monkhouse had travelled with the team to several of the pre-war Grands Prix in which his pal Dick Seaman had competed as a Mercedes works driver, and his photographs were prized by the company as a record of their conquests. But there were things even he was not supposed to see.

What Monkhouse glimpsed that day was a racing car with fully enclosed bodywork, very similar at first glance to the dramatic cars Mercedes had produced to race against the similar Auto Union machines at the high-speed AVUS track in 1936, and later to attack records on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. “I vaguely wondered why they should have got out one of their pre-war record-breakers,” he wrote many years later in his final book, Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Racing 1934-1955.

Then Karl Kling, a former development engineer who had become a team driver, spotted him. “He went white with anger,” Monkhouse continued. Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the head of the experimental department, was quickly informed. He knew Monkhouse well from the pre-war period. “What did you see, George?” he asked. Monkhouse told him that he thought he’d caught sight of a pre-war Rekordwagen. “Good,” a relieved Uhlenhaut responded. “Let’s leave it at that.”

Less than six months later the truth would be revealed. What Monkhouse had seen was a new kind of streamliner: the W196, designed by Uhlenhaut and Hans Scherenberg and built over the previous three years to meet the new Formula 1 regulations coming into effect at the start of the 1954 season.

This magazine had offered a wholehearted welcome to the new era. “A whole issue of Motor Sport could be devoted to discussion of prospects and possibilities of the coming racing season,” the editor wrote that February. “It seems that many excitingly fresh Grand Prix racing cars built to the 1954 formula will emerge from the chrysalis stage, although how many will have proved themselves by the end of the year, and whether the oft-spoken marques of Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, ERA, BRM and Vandervell will be seen all on a starting grid at any one race, in company with the expected teams of Ferrari, Maserati, Osca, Gordini, Talbot, HWM, Cooper, Kieft and Connaught, remains to be seen.”

Six months later, when an entire team of the new streamlined cars emerged into the sunshine of north-eastern France from the transporters of the Mercedes-Benz Rennabteilung, ready to make their debut in the fourth round of the championship series, he had his answer.

The final appearance by Mercedes-Benz in a pre-war Grand Prix had been in Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Park on September 3, 1939, when Manfred von Brauchitsch’s W154 finished a handful of seconds behind Tazio Nuvolari’s D-type Auto Union. It was the day France and the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, 48 hours after Hitler’s Panzers had invaded Poland. Rudolf Caracciola, newly crowned European champion for the third time, had already retreated with his second wife, Alice, to their home in Lugano, in neutral Switzerland. Over the next few months the team’s cars were dispersed for safety to various parts of Germany; later some of them would turn up in Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

When the Allies celebrated victory in Europe in April 1945, nine-tenths of the Untertürkheim factory lay in ruins, smashed by bombs. In the two years of chaos that followed the German surrender, Caracciola remained in Switzerland and von Brauchitsch ran a transport business in Munich. Their team-mate Hermann Lang was attached to a US Army ordnance unit as a test driver, while Uhlenhaut was employed at a British Army REME depot in the Ruhr. It was the task of Neubauer to reassemble the elements of the team and coax it back to life.

Under the Allies’ post-war planning, West Germany was to be reshaped as a predominantly agrarian and light industrial nation. Munitions factories, shipyards and aircraft manufacturing were to follow the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine into oblivion. The policy of ‘industrial disarmament’ led steelmaking to be cut to 25 per cent of 1938 levels, with car production set at 10 per cent. Coal, timber, leather goods, beer, toys and musical instruments were among the commodities intended to replace the products of heavy industry as the country’s principal exports. Under a short-lived agreement with the Soviet Union, some German industrial facilities were dismantled and sent east; they included the Daimler-Benz underground aircraft engine plant at Obrigheim, an hour’s drive from Stuttgart.

As early as mid-1946, however, the picture began to change. Seeing the need to rebuild West Germany into a bulwark against the military threat of the Soviet bloc, the Allies agreed to fire up the engines of the country’s heavy industry. A start was made by doubling the level of steel production and raising the artificially low price at which German mines had been required to sell coal to the victors. The Marshall Plan, through which the US made financial loans to European countries undergoing reconstruction, was extended to West Germany in 1948. US aid amounted to $1.4 million (just under half the total received by Britain), $1.1 million of which was gradually repaid over the next 20 years.

The Mercedes factory might have been largely rubble, but the company was able to reassemble most of its key personnel. Operation Paperclip, the Office of Strategic Services’ scheme to spirit 1500 German scientists into the US, was more interested in rocket scientists and nuclear physicists than in chaps who knew how to design a better supercharger. As early as 1946 the firm was able to resume production of the popular four-cylinder 1.7-litre 170V model, first put on sale in 1936 and now reappearing in the form of the vans, ambulances and police cars required as the country rebuilt. Saloons, cabriolets and coupés were on the market before the end of the decade.

Caracciola had gone to the US in 1946, from where he tried unsuccessfully to get one of the two W165 cars built for the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix sent from Switzerland for him to race in the Indianapolis 500. The following year a three-litre W154 turned up in Czechoslovakia and was sold to Britain before being shipped on to Don Lee, a buyer in the US, who entered it for Duke Nalon to drive in the 500; the car retired with a burnt piston when lying fourth, leaving the huge crowd impressed by the way the shattering roar of its engine had drowned the noise from the rest of the field. The following year the same car, now driven by Chet Miller, retired with an oil leak.

Back in Germany, a low-key return to competition took place when Kling entered the 1949 Nürburgring Six Hours and finished seventh in the 2000cc class.

By 1950 the factory was back in full swing, the company was preparing to launch the more luxurious 220 and 300 passenger models, and thoughts could turn once again to the publicity benefits of a competition programme. It was time, in the words of Daimler-Benz AG’s technical director Dr Karl Nallinger, to “open a window on the racing scene”. Neubauer had been tracking down the pre-war Grand Prix cars, unearthing four W154s and six engines, from which three cars were constructed. In February 1951 they were shipped to Argentina, where Lang, Kling and Juan Manuel Fangio – the local hero, just returned from Europe where he had finished runner-up in the inaugural world championship – were to drive them in two races in Buenos Aires’ Palermo Park as a prelude to an Indianapolis appearance.

The tight Palermo Park circuit did not suit the big W154s. In the first race, the Gran Premio Juan Perón, the 2-litre Ferrari of José Froilán González, another local hero, came in ahead of Lang, Fangio and Kling. A week later, in the Gran Premio Eva Perón, González rubbed in the unexpected humiliation, winning ahead of Kling and Lang, with Fangio retiring. One newspaper headline put it almost too succinctly: “The Blitzkrieg that failed.” Nallinger promptly cancelled the Indy 500 entries and the party returned for a rethink.

In June the new regulations for the 1954 Formula 1 season were published, followed by the announcement of Mercedes’ intention to take part. Now there was a racing department with 200 dedicated staff and the ability to call upon the expertise of 300 specialists from other divisions. Uhlenhaut set to work on the new car with a design team under the supervision of Dr Nallinger and Dr Hans Scherenberg, a senior engineer whose wartime Stuttgart University thesis on valve control systems for four-stroke engines would come in particularly useful when designing the desmodromic valve gear for the W196’s fuel-injected straight eight.

Meanwhile Dr Nallinger’s ‘window on the racing scene’ was to be kept ajar through the development of Uhlenhaut’s W194, a lightweight 300SL coupé with gullwing doors. In 1952 two cars were entered in the Mille Miglia, Kling and Hans Klenk finishing second with the ageing Caracciola fourth. There were one-two-three finishes for the works drivers in the sports car races accompanying the Swiss and German GPs, a one-two for Lang/Fritz Reiss and Theo Helfrich/Helmut Niedermayr at Le Mans, and another one-two for Kling/Klenk and Lang/Erwin Grupp in the Carrera Panamericana. The value in publicity terms, particularly of the wins at Le Mans and in Mexico, was obvious. And the success of the gullwing coupé was only the beginning.

July 4, 1954 was the day on which a German team won the World Cup final for the first time, beating Hungary 3-2 in the match that became known as the Miracle of Bern. It was also 40 years to the day since, on the eve of the first world war, Mercedes-Benz had claimed a first famous victory in the French Grand Prix, the white cars of Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer vanquishing serious opposition from Peugeot, Fiat, Delage, Sunbeam and others as they finished in that order, the winner taking just over seven hours to complete 20 laps of a 23-mile course outside Lyon. Now the company’s latest creations were to have a similarly traumatising effect on those present to watch them race over the high-speed course on the outskirts of Reims.

“It was very impressive, to say the least,” remembers Stirling Moss, who was present that weekend to drive a D-type Jaguar in the 12-hour sports race. “They made quite an impact straight away. They came with many more mechanics than anybody else, for a start. Perhaps 20 or 30, which would be twice what Ferrari or Maserati brought. Some of the directors were there, too, and people from the PR department, led by Artur Keser, with two or three sidekicks. The other teams had nothing like it. Mercedes understood the value of PR.”

They got it as soon as Fangio and Kling captured the first two slots on the grid, with their young team-mate Hans Herrmann seventh fastest (the fourth car was a spare). The Ferrari 625 of Alberto Ascari, the reigning champion, occupied the third place on the front row of the grid with the sister car of González on the second row, but when the flag fell on the Sunday afternoon it was no contest.

While the Rennabteilung had been making its final preparations for a debut in France, attempting to leave nothing to chance, the other teams had been showing off their new models. Maserati’s 250F had won the first two rounds in Argentina and Belgium, driven by Fangio, thanks to Mercedes’ willingness to lend the services of their new team leader – keen to set about the business of collecting championship points – to one of its Italian rivals.

Monkhouse was present at Reims, to record the team’s return. “The race itself was almost a massacre,” he wrote. “The two silver streamliners sailed into a lead they would maintain throughout the 61 laps, the retirement of Herrmann on lap 16 through a broken piston failing to dent their serene composure. Fangio completed the 506km in 2hr 42min 47.9sec, crossing the line with Kling alongside. All their surviving pursuers – the closest was Robert Manzon’s Ferrari – had been lapped. The latest models from Maranello and Modena, unveiled only a few months earlier, were made to look like also-rans.”

Although the very sight of the W196 took the breath away, there was plenty to attract the attention of those whose primary interest was technical. Under the headline “The Formula 1 Mercedes-Benz: A New Standard in Grand Prix Design”, Motor Sport’s Denis Jenkinson gave a detailed description of the car’s features, from the direct fuel injection and the inboard brakes to the use of three-eared knock-off hub caps on the front wheels and two-eared on the rear, “to avoid any errors”. He added, “The general standard of finish was something that you might expect to see at the Motor Show.” That spectacular bodywork turned out to be fabricated from elektron, an alloy – 90 per cent magnesium, nine per cent aluminium – invented in 1908 and used in Zeppelins and incendiary bombs.

“It is obvious that Mercedes-Benz has come back into Grand Prix racing not only to stay, but to win,” Jenks wrote. “Personally I feel that July 4 witnessed the beginning of a new era in Grand Prix racing, similar to that witnessed in 1934 at Montlhéry, when from the point of view of technical interest the current Alfa Romeos and Maseratis were made to look obsolete.”

It is interesting, so many years later, to recall that, in their keenness to watch the sport at the highest level, motor racing fans outside Germany were willing to ignore the events that had cost tens of millions of lives barely a decade earlier.

The fans at Reims, and at Silverstone a fortnight later (where the streamliners briefly stumbled), evidently made no emotional connection between the howling straight-eight racing engines coming out of Stuttgart and the 34-litre V12 units built by the same company that had powered the Luftwaffe’s Messerchmitt Bf109s and 110s to lethal effect against their brothers, fathers, uncles and neighbours in the skies above France and England. From the grandstands, there was a complete readiness to accept the essentially benign nature of this latest manifestation of German technical prowess.

The mood had nothing to do with the new realities of the Cold War, through which the half of Germany containing Stuttgart-Untertürkheim was now officially on “our side”. It was a leap of the imagination that connected the sight of Fangio and Kling in their shining silver machines with that of Caracciola and von Brauchitsch in their pre-war W154s.

A broken thread of glamour and glory had been mended, and once again the phrase “all-conquering” could be used without unpleasant echoes. To Neubauer and Uhlenhaut, the authors of this renaissance, it must have seemed like a miracle.