Re-acquaintance with the 36 / 220 Mercedes-Benz
The Editor experiences again, after 48 years, the might, magnificence and mystique of this great vintage sports car
In 1927, at the age of 14, I wrote, without any idea of the outcome, but with all the confidence and arrogance of youth, a letter to the motoring Press about supercharging.
What happened was both astonishing and highly satisfactory. I received two letters, written to me care of the weekly journal concerned. One was from British Mercedes-Benz Limited, the other from Lagonda Limited. It was apparent that in trying to blind readers with obtuse reasons why a supercharger should force air through the carburetter instead of sucking mixture from it, I had not made myself sufficiently clear, at all events to those whose responsibility it was to sell the German car in this country. Because the gist of the communication I got from the Mercedes concessionaires was that they would like to prove to me that their system of forced induction was the better, indeed, the only possible one— which was exactly what my letter was intended to imply! The Lagonda people, on the other hand, had probably read the insinuations correctly and wished to prove to me that my theories were absurd.
Anyway, it was all very exciting, to a schoolboy who thought of little else but cars. Naturally, young Boddy replied to both letters and was invited to take trial runs in these sports cars possessing opposing types of supercharging. I travelled by suburban electric train to Staines for the Lagonda ride, was talked to by Mr. A. H. Cranmer, and subsequently given an inspiring run in a blown 2-litre tourer along the pine-flanked secondary roads of Surrey, in terrain I was soon to know as “Brooklands country”. We are, however, concerned here with my initiation into the splendours of motoring a 36/220 Mercedes-Benz.
I received the letter from British Mercedes-Benz first and I lost no time in accepting their invitation to take a trial run! I went by ‘bus to the London showrooms, and, wearing my school cap, presented myself to the first salesman who approached. The letter I proffered was read, I was ushered into the Manager’s sanctum, and it is to the everlasting credit of both these gentlemen that they did not for a moment betray surprise, or annoyance, at the age of their “prospective customer”. Indeed, I was bade wait until an available car arrived, among those great Mercedes coming and going in the street outside, which, I was told, had either just arrived from, or were leaving immediately for, destinations in faraway Europe.
It was pretty heady stuff and even more so when a 36/220 demonstrator drew up and I was directed to get in beside the driver, who wore a peaked chauffeur’s cap. A few words to him from the salesman (no doubt about not prolonging the test, but to be sure to engage the blower!) and we were away, threading our path through the congested West End traffic in this huge, low-built, so-impressive motor car. Our objective was the Barnet By-Pass, along which these great cars were regularly tested and demonstrated. Here the blower was made to emit its shrill howl, the speed increased, the wintry wind tore round the windscreen and, eyes glued to the speedometer, I saw it register 99 m.p.h., before the driver lifted off. He did this because, far ahead, he had seen a colleague reversing into a gate-way, preparatory to turning round in another 36/220 that had been out on test. I was thrilled to the marrow, yet disappointed that the magic “ton” had not been attained. (In retrospect, perhaps it had been, for I was looking across at the speedometer—maybe this was the test-target the Mercedes drivers set themselves.) Anyway, we returned to the showroom, I thanked my benefactors, and returned home, a Mercedes-Benz convert for life! I wrote another letter to that weekly paper, expressing with even greater conviction that the German company not only knew how to correctly supercharge an engine but made the finest sports cars in the World (alas, they published only a brief summary). I walked on air, lived with the gods, for weeks afterwards, and the performances of the green Bentleys at Le Mans were, I am afraid, apt to leave me, if not cold, certainly rather lukewarm. . .
This youthful acquaintance with the 36/220 Mercedes-Benz had made me an avid follower of its fortunes and for some years afterwards, whenever an opportunity arose, I would write to The Autocar and The Light Car, advocating forcing good clear air through the carburetter of a supercharged engine.
Even before I had been out in one, there were enthralling, if brief and only occasional, references in the Press to this great car. It had made its debut, so far as this country was concerned, at the 1927 Olympia Motor Show, occupying Stand No. 155 in company with the 16-50 side-valve model noted for its top-gear flexibility, a 21-60 chassis, and the 33/140 supercharged Mercedes. This was the Show at which the new 4½-litre Bentley, too, made its debut. But how could a car-mad youth fail to be more impressed by the new Mercedes, this so-called Grand Prix (in spite of its four-seater coachwork) 36/220S, with its three flexible exhaust-pipes emerging from the o/s of its long, many-louvered bonnet and the three-pointed star mascot riding proudly atop the low, aggressive vee-radiator ? Moreover, the 36/220 was said to be the fastest touring car at Olympia, with a guaranteed top speed of 120 m.p.h. It was priced at £2,000 as a chassis, £2,300 with touring bodywork.
I don’t think The Autocar ever had the 36/220 or the later 38/250 Mercedes-Benz for road-test. But they had lesser flirtations with these so-covetable motor cars. For instance, late in 1928 they published the impressions of their Douglas Clease after he had tried a 36/220, seemingly at dusk along the Oxford road. His account was headed by a picture which had had a great deal of attention from the air-brush, to the extent of making the big four-seater look as if it were literally flying, and much of the text was given over to a description of how the Mercedes, when parked, had attracted a group of enthusiastic small boys (what did I tell you!) and had entranced a young policeman of whom Clease asked the way. However, even a brief run had obviously impressed the driver, who wrote: “It is impossible, of course, to unleash the power of this machine on the road for more than a few seconds at a time. It is known, for example, that the maximum speed with the high gear ratio of 2½ to 1 is in the neighbourhood of 120 m.p.h., but in the extremely rapid acceleration made possible by the great power there is a sheer exhilaration which is as good as a tonic.” Oddly, no performance figures were given, but 60 m.p.h. could be attained in second gear “before you have recovered your breath”. Later, in 1930, there was a similar short piece in The Autocar about how they had used an open 38/250 Mercedes-Benz to rush the Motor Cycle’s TT report through the night from Liverpool to London (they had employed an HE Six for the same purpose in 1929), which did not escape my notice. It was about this time, too, that one exciting day I was given rides round Brooklands in a Le Mans blower-4½ Bentley belonging to Robertson-Roger and in Edward Harmsworth’s I.h.d. SSK Mercedes-Benz.
All these things contrived to increase my enthusiasm for Mercedes-Benz cars but it was the MOTOR SPORT road-test report on a 36/220 that clinched my admiration for the German car. I had commenced to read the journal I now edit at the age of eleven, buying No. 2 of The Brooklands Gazette (as it then was) at the bookstall on Marylebone Station and insisting immediately that my Mother place an order with our local newsagent for No. 1 and all subsequent copies. And there, soon after my epic run in one, in the issue dated April, 1928, was this piece about the most exciting motor car of them all. Again, no performance data were quoted, apart from mention that “On the Byfieet banking . . . the engine was turning over at 2,600 r.p.m. with the supercharger sounding like a siren in front, which rate of revolutions is equivalent to a road speed of 104 m.p.h.” and that on the second lap they attained 110 m.p.h. on the Railway straight. But how I envied L. A. Hutchins, who afterwards drove the big car to Winchester for lunch, twice attaining over 100 m.p.h., once up an appreciable hill. Hutchins, who had earlier tested a 33/180 Mercedes, found the new car remarkably docile in top gear in London traffic, extremely stable at high speed, but to possess less effective brakes than he would have liked, and although the front seats were very comfortable, the back ones were not! He would also have preferred a separate lever to engage the blower, as on a Stutz Black Hawk.
A year later MOTOR SPORT published a fuller test report, on the 38/250, after W. S. Braidwood, B.A., had been out in Earl Howe’s TT-winning car, at first being driven by Mr. Garman of Mercedes-Benz but later taking the wheel himself. The impressions were much as with the earlier car, except that the brakes were most effective—contrary opinions have been expressed, however—and a road speed of 3,200 r.p.m. (114 m.p.h.) was attained. The Motor also tested a 38/250, an open four-seater, from which they got 103.2 m.p.h. over the Brooklands ½-mile, on a 2.76 axle ratio, although the car was scarcely run-in, and accelerated from to 90 m.p.h. in 45 sec., from 10 to 60 m.p.h. in second gear in 20 sec. However, we are concerned here with the 36/220, which many Mercedes experts consider to be a much better car.
Apart from my exhilarating schoolboy run in one, there were its competition achievements to maintain my fever for it. Apart from some notable victories in Continental race-meetings and hill-climbs, including 1, 2, 3 in the 1927 German GP, the 38/250SS and SSK Mercedes-Benz continued these impressive successes, even in races where Bentleys were competing! Caracciola’s victory in the 1929 TT in a l.h.d. SS, in which he averaged 72.82 m.p.h. over a rain-sodden course, lapping at 77.81 m.p.h., did not go un-noticed among the customers in this country—and it is nice to remember that his tyres were Dunlops, not the expected Continentals, and that they gripped the wet Irish roads effectively, with no hint of the manner in which today’s racing tyres bedevilled this year’s British GP!
These performances of the later model with a swept volume greater by 280 c.c. and a higher radiator kept Mercedes-Benz very much in the picture in this country, where Earl Howe and Sir Malcolm Campbell drove their cars frequently at Brooklands. Moreover, apart from the great TT victory of Caracciola’s, he had won the 1930 Irish GP at Phoenix Park in a I.h.d. SSK, at 85.88 m.p.h., again on a wet course (with Howe’s Mercedes-Benz third, ahead of Birkin’s blower-4½-litre Bentley), and had broken the sports-car record at Shelsley Walsh hill-climb. If I am really concerned here with the smaller-engined cars, it seems only right to remark that the subsequent racing performances of the 38/250 Mercedes-Benz, such as winning the 1930 Mille Miglia, the 1931 German GP, etc., and, in the hands of private entrants, the 1931 Spa 24-hour race, besides finishing second that year at Le Mans, mark the pre-war Mercedes-Benz as an exceptional sports car by any standards.
At Brooklands, Campbell’s r.h.d. four-seater SS held the Class-B Mountain lap-record at 73.89 m.p.h. for a long time, and these great cars appeared occasionally on the outer-circuit, Thistlethwayte’s 36/220 lapping at 112.42 m.p.h., Capt. Miller’s at 108.74 m.p.h., Earl Howe’s SS at 118.30 m.p.h., Rose-Richards’ SS at 105.52 m.p.h., Arbuthnot’s SS at 116.36 m.p.h., and Zhender’s SSK at over 120 m.p.h.
Having thought so well of these cars when they were current models, I was anxious to make re-acquaintance with a 36/220. The one I invited myself to drive last month was the impeccably-turned-out, white, 1928 36/220S four-seater belonging to Peter Hampton.
Mr. Hampton bought this car fifteen years ago, from the late Edward L. Mayer, the prolific enthusiast for these cars; rumour says he owned 90 Mercedes of various types in his lifetime. It was in a very poor state, so naturally Peter set about restoring it with his well-known enthusiasm and integrity, and today it is like a new car, gleaming white with black wheels, I would think the finest example of its kind in the entire World. It has the short fixed racing-type mudguards and the competition 2/4seater body, with token back seats and the driving compartment to the rear-of-centre of the wheelbase—an anti-social motor-car, as Peter Hampton puts it.
What a magnificent beast it is! It is long beyond belief, mostly composed of that great bonnet covering the immense single-overhead-camshaft, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche-designed, six-cylinder engine, the triple exhaust pipes of which drop away from the offside. Two spare wheels are strapped on behind. It is interesting that Hampton’s car has the legendary “Elephant” supercharger, normally found only on the SS and SSK 38/250 cars. This, it may be remembered, was used by Caracciola at Le Mans and Phoenix Park in 1930 but was dis-allowed for the 1930 TT, his car having to be scratched, after comment by Malcolm Campbell had drawn attention to this allegedly non-standard blower, a great disappointment after Rudi’s convincing victory in the previous year’s Ulster TT. These blowers were slightly higher than those used on the catalogue S and SS models.
Otherwise, Hampton’s 36/220 is virtually a standard car. The fail-safe clutch for the cooling fan, which is driven from the nose of the camshaft, has been deleted and its gears changed from steel to fibre pinions, while a stay, found on others of these engines, is used to support the fan extension, as slight movement here induced oil leaks. A new crown and pinion were made for the back axle, as those on the car when it was bought “could be heard from here to London”, and Peter has put a fine big fan-tail, which was made for him by that tin-smith behind the “Ship” hotel in Brookland’s days and used on many of his cars, on the end of the exhaust pipe. There was no time to have new gears made for the gearbox, so the noise is tolerated, but the lubrication system and clutch have had attention recently after which all was pronounced as working satisfactorily and Hampton drove his splendid Mercedes from Sussex to the “Cordon Rouge” Prescott Meeting. And here I was, a few weeks later, admiring just such a car as took my breath away at the age of 14. . . .
It really is an impressive sight! The overall length is 16 ft. 3 in. and the dry weight 35¼ cwt. The 98 x 150 mm. (6,789 c.c.) engine develops 120 b.h.p. unblown, 180 b.h.p. when, by full use of the accelerator pedal, you bring in the blower. This runs at nearly three times the crankshaft speed and gives a boost of about 8 lb. per sq. in. The Mercedes has 6.00 x 19 front, 6.50 x 19 rear Dunlop Racing tyres. The blower forces air through two complex Mercedes carburetters and there is dual ignition, six plugs being fed from a Bosch magneto, another six by coil. The Reg. No. is GN 1950 and engine chassis numbers tally, being 72191. The car is run on Castrol-R and 5-star petrol. Consumption of the latter is in the region of 9½ to 10½ m.p.g. The tank, with its enormous filler-neck, holds 29 gallons. Eight shock-absorbers, four Hartfords and four hydraulic-dampers, contribute to the comfortable and stable ride. Top speed ?—a question inevitably asked sooner or later, is about 120 m.p.h. The gearing gives 38 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in top, but Hampton keeps to around 2,000 r.p.m. in ordinary motoring and places the sensible maximum as 110 m.p.h. He naturally uses the blower sparingly, as it was prudent to do when these were new cars. In 1932 this 1928 car was in the late Robert Arbuthnot’s care and he is reputed to have driven it from Marble Arch to Cambridge in 48 min., an average speed of some 66 m.p.h. Today’s road conditions are different and had we made for the Barnet By-Pass, where I had my schoolboy ride in one of these 36/220s, it would have been illegal, as well as difficult, if not impossible, to have done 100 m.p.h. thereon. Nevertheless, this Mercedes-Benz is an entirely practical car for modern conditions. It proudly wears on its dumb-iron tie-bar a big AA badge, flanked by RAC, Mercedes-Benz Club, VSCC, and pre-war Brooklands ARC badges, with a Bugatti OC badge on the headlamps’ tie-bar. At night your way is lit by Carl Zeiss headlamps of discreet size.
Climbing into the car, either over the “Caracciola-type” cut-away in the doorless o/s of the Mercedes-Benz coachwork or through the n/s door which has just one internal handle, you sit on a comfortable leather seat and are confronted by a dashboard very generously endowed with information. Thus, from left to right, there are the following instruments and controls: A small plated plunger for operating the Nivex-type petrol gauge; a blower-gauge reading to 81b./sq. in. the pressure side, to 12 lb. in steps of 4 lb., on the vacuum side; a clock; the petrol gauge marked ¼, ½, ¾ and Full; a big ammeter with a plated lever-type switch to give voltage or amperage readings; a DRP manometer (or oil-gauge) calibrated in kg./cmn.² from 0 to 6; ,a big AVC (German AT?) speedometer reading to 120 m.p.h.; then, before the driver, a truly enormous tachometer calibrated up to “40”, or 4,000 r.p.m.; a temperature gauge reading up to 120°, which even in hot weather does not climb above 60-65; and below this a Bosch circular-plated “switchbox”, with starter button, red ignition-warning lamp and tiny ignition-key. Continuing to rove the eye across this impressive dashboard to the right, you find another circular “switchbox”, neatly labelled “ignition”, for running the engine on mag., coil, or both systems; the bolted-on plated mounting for the steering column ; a small tumbler switch no longer in use; the small dials, reading up to “300”, for the Telecontrols of the Andre friction shock-absorbers, front above rear, with the control knobs, and the Ki-gass knob, the use of the latter “absolutely essential” for firing-up the engine from cold.
Nicely placed in your lap is the wood-rimmed steering wheel, with big finger holds on the underside of its rim. A plated half-diameter horn ring encircles it and from its boss there extend two knobbed levers, that on the left being the hand-throttle, that on the right the ignition advance-and-retard control. These levers move smoothly over a considerable arc, and it is amusing that the direction arrow for the ignition control is “cranked”, to indicate electricity; whereas the other is plain. Hampton has had the gear lever moved from the centre to the right of the driving compartment, for personal reasons, his left arm being a war-casualty. Originally brake and gear levers were central, the latter with a ball-gate. This long plated lever works in an open gate, back-to-front, as on a Brescia Bugatti for instance, the position being ⁴₃―²₁ The hand brake lever is now outside the body. The single-pane windscreen can be folded flat and there is a neatly furled hood and a tonneau cover over the back seats.
Driving this Mercedes was a great experience. The exhaust emits a deep rumble that changes to a scream if you fully depress the central accelerator to bring in the famous Mercedes blower. It would be an exaggeration to say that this fascinating noise resembles an emergency siren. But it can be effectively used in lieu of the horn; when overtaking! On today’s main roads the scream is somewhat muted by the noise of heavy lorries, etc. But it remains one of the most inspiring and fascinating sounds in motoring. . . . Incidentally, if the horn is preferred, a little switch on the dash gives town or country renderings.
I found that when changing from top into third very little revving-up was the norm, while double-declutching, if smooth, quiet changes were to be made. Clearly, the gearbox has close ratios. The movement across the gate is very small indeed, but the fore-and-aft lever movements are considerable. With more practice I would have enjoyed this gear change, which calls for very little effort; indeed, going from third to top, the lever almost makes its own forward movement. The clutch is light and foolproof but if any one thing stands out, it is the lightness and freedom from kick-back of the steering. That of the 36/220 is allegedly much nicer than that of a 38/250, which lashes back unpleasantly and is heavy, perhaps due to double-shackled front springs.
This 36/220 S-type Mercedes really is pleasant to drive, feeling suprisingly compact except on tight corners, and exhibiting no chassis flexion or brake kick-back. It rides nicely, responds quickly to the driver’s whims, and if you have to kill its eager pace the brakes, which have simply enormous copper-plated drums, are entirely adequate, although the pedal has a good deal of movement. I could have driven happily for hours in the August heatwave, in this magnificent motor-car, recalling my youth as I sighted the big triple-pointed star mounted high on a substantial radiator filler-cap, across that white expanse of a bonnet broken only by the holding-down strap and 40 pairs of louvres along the top panels.
This is a car to drive purposefully, depressing the throttle pedal for greater acceleration or the sheer joy of hearing the whine of the blower, as it is coupled up by a complicated linkage, and accompanying pressure systems, that I have only once seen fully described in print, in that great book by Karl Ludvigsen about the racing cars of Mercedes-Benz. When the blower is thus engaged the big car becomes alive; there is nothing ponderous about it. Indeed, it is not a ponderous car, being quite happy idling at 500 r,p.m. in top gear through congested places. Essentially, though, it is a motor-car for the open road, a majestic way of going quickly for its own sake, and I must say I would dearly have liked to have seen Caracciola coping with the wet roads of that 1929 TT, in just such a 36/220.
My sincere thanks are due to Peter Hampton, that arch-enthusiast for cars of all ages and types, for enabling me to recapture the magic and mystique of this great vintage motor-car.—W.B.