Small point, well made - Mercedes W165

When one Grand Prix changed rules to favour Italy’s voiturettes, dominant Mercedes had an answer. Its ‘mini’ Silver Arrow only raced once and it has a perfect record


Of all the things I expected Mercedes-Benz to insist upon before it let me drive one of only two W165 Grand Prix cars in existence, and the only one that actually works, I can safely say ‘you must not drive it too slowly’ was not one of them.

But Gert Straub, the man who looks after Mercedes’ unapproachable collection of priceless racing machinery, was quite insistent. “If you let the engine fall below 4000rpm, the plugs oil, the engine stops and we have to start again.”

Come again? “Ja, also if you drive too slowly the engine will get too hot. Drive as you feel you should in the corners but put your foot down on the straight. Use 7500rpm.” This is not the kind of pre-flight briefing I’d been expecting at all, and here’s why.

The W165 is certainly the rarest and perhaps the most enigmatic of all the Silver Arrows. I’ll delve into the reason for its being in a moment, but for now it’s enough to know that although four chassis numbers were issued, only two ever raced, and only in one race — the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix. Hermann Lang won in this very car, followed by the great Rudi Caracciola in its sister which now sits on permanent exhibition in Mercedes’ extraordinary Stuttgart museum. It seems that a third car was built up as a streamliner, but if it exists today, its whereabouts are unknown.

After Tripoli the W165s did run again, not in anger but to experiment with some developments, including a two-stage supercharger and Mercedes carburettor in place of the single-stage blower and Solex carb that ran at Tripoli. But that’s it. Mercedes says that everything actually inside the engine today was in the engine in 1939. And I can spin it to 7500rpm, which is to me an unimaginable velocity for even a newly-built pre-war motor. Sure, this one has been apart and its every component crack-tested and x-rayed, but then they were all put back right where they were. And they’re still there now.

So what exactly is this once-raced, never crashed, terrifyingly original and unimaginably valuable racing car in front of me? The evolution of 1930s Mercedes Grand Prix machinery is not difficult to fathom if you know where it all began. It started in 1934 with the ugly but effective W25, which enjoyed two successful seasons before reaching the end of its development and being mugged by a combination of Bernd Rosemeyer and his V16 Auto Union in 1936. Suitably stung, Mercedes’ response was the legendary W125 of 1937 which, in ultimate form, developed 646bhp from its straight eight, 5.7-litre supercharged motor.

The W125 soon became a victim of its own outstanding success and a 3-litre formula was mandated for the 1938 season. Out went the W125, in came the lower, sleeker W154 with its 3-litre V12 engine which raced in 1938 and ’39, with different bodywork in the latter season, causing the car to be known perhaps mistakenly as the W163 after its M163 engine designation. Either way their dominance was enough to make others wonder why they bothered turning up.

Understandably, more than a few constituents of the European racing community became cheesed off by the overwhelming superiority of the German teams in general and Mercedes in particular. But only the Italians decided to do something about it.

Hard to imagine though it is in its currently beleaguered state, Tripoli in 1939 was an Italian-owned playboy’s paradise and its Grand Prix a rival for Monaco for its glamour and prestige. But Mercedes had won it in both 1937 and 1938, and the Italian authorities thought they could survive very happily without the hat-trick. Which is why they announced a mere eight months before the race that it was to be run to voiturette rules, which meant engines of no more than 1.5 litres. Italy, thanks to Maserati and Alfa Romeo, had plenty such cars. Mercedes had none. This was one show the Germans were not going to steal.

But just occasionally a rule change has precisely the opposite effect to that intended. Sometimes all you need is a manufacturer who knows that just because something has not been done before, that does not mean it cannot be done. There is no better example than Porsche’s decision to meet the new 1969 sports car rules by designing a handy little racing car called the 917 and then presenting the newly mandated 25 examples, apparently complete, to the authorities for inspection.

Thirty years earlier, a similar sense of purpose gripped Mercedes-Benz. True, it didn’t have an eligible car, so it would simply build one. By the time work started six months remained until the race: an all-new racing car usually took three times as long to design, build and test. But then usually the race team didn’t work day and night, seven days a week. They did this time.

The gasps in the paddock at the Melhalla circuit when Alfred Neubauer and his entourage disembarked would have been worth hearing. The cars being unloaded looked for all the world like W154s that had shrunk in the wash. But while they looked like W154s and followed the W154 architectural engineering principles, they were not W154s nor even loosely based upon them. They were completely new cars in every regard, from their chassis and bodywork to their engine and gearbox.

The engine was a designed-from-scratch 1.5-litre V8, the first bent eight in Mercedes history, eschewing the straight-eight approach used by both the W25 and W125 in years gone by and the 158 Alfas that would provide the main opposition in Tripoli. Shorter, stiffer and easier to package within an abbreviated wheelbase, it boasted four overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder — much like the V8s Mercedes makes for Grand Prix racing today. And this was 72 years ago. Supercharged and running on a heady mix of methanol, ether and nitro-methanol, it developed 275hp at 8000rpm. Its power was fed rearward to a state-of-the-art five-speed transaxle gearbox.

The chassis was the same simple ladder frame affair used by almost all race cars of the era, the suspension a combination of double wishbones at the front to maximise wheel control and an advanced de Dion rear axle to reduce unsprung weight.

The story of the race itself is easily told. In qualifying on the ultraquick circuit, pole position went to Luigi Villoresi’s streamlined Maserati 4CL, with Lang half a second back and Caracciola 0.8sec further behind. The fastest Alfa belonged to the doughty Giuseppe Farina, though he could not get within two seconds even of Caracciola.

Peculiarly the start of the race would be determined not only by lights as usual, but also by the drop of Marshal Balbo’s flag. Ever his own man, Lang took the lights as his cue to start, everyone else electing to wait for the Governor of Italian North Africa’s signal.

But this was only one reason why Lang came past the packed grandstands alone at the end of the first lap. Villoresi had broken his gearbox on the line, while Farina had got the jump on Caracciola, the 158 Alfetta then holding up the W165 around the course. After five laps Lang’s advantage was 20 seconds. Two laps later Farina gave up the impossible fight to keep the Mercedes at bay and that was that. At the flag Lang was three minutes clear of his team-mate, who led the best-placed Italian car, Emilio Villoresi’s works Alfetta, by a further four. The next best-placed car was almost a quarter of an hour behind. Lang’s average speed for the race was over 122mph.

Caracciola it seems was not happy: not only had he been beaten by Lang who’d started life as a mere mechanic and was looked down upon by his more aristocratic team-mates, but he suspected Neubauer of loading the dice in the younger man’s favour through tyre choice and the mechanical specification of the cars. In his autobiography, the race is not even mentioned.

However, it was not the end of Caracciola’s association with the cars. After the war, which he had sat out in Switzerland, he tried to take them to the 1946 Indianapolis 500 and was on the point of exporting them from the country when permission was denied. He went anyway, and in qualifying was hit on the head by a bird, knocked unconscious, hit the wall, was thrown from the car and hit his head again on the track. He said it took two years to recover fully; others have said that he was never the same again.

Either way, neither Caracciola nor anyone else raced the W165s again.

In fact, apart from the odd demo run and the aforementioned development work, until now they’ve barely been driven.

Which is why it seems so odd to see Lang’s car sitting on a concrete test track in Stuttgart, awaiting my instructions. It looks tiny and my fear that I won’t fit my 6ft 4in frame into it is both real and justified. The mechanics who fuss and fret over it look doubtful too. Prewar German racing drivers tended to be short, stocky types with massively powerful upper bodies and barrel chests, built for wrestling twitchy racing cars for hours at a time. Long legs were not part of the job description. The steering wheel is an impossible obstacle to negotiate. Unless they have another, I’ll not be driving today.

Happily they do. “We keep the big wheel for people we don’t like,” says Straub. He’s joking. Or at least I think he is. Either way a smallerrimmed wheel is produced and attached with me in situ. The wheel is closer to my body than any other I can recall and I have to hold my knees high under the dashboard, but I’m in and I can drive. If only someone will tell me how.

On paper it’s actually very simple. You flick on the magneto, wait for someone to plug in the external starter, fire her up, select a gear and go. In reality, this is probably the hardest car I’ve ever tried to handle.

From cold it has to be gently persuaded into life and left to idle until the water temperature reaches around 70deg C. Then you shut it down, change to cooler plugs and once it starts again you do not hang about. If you do the plugs will oil up in an instant and you’ll have to start the entire procedure again.

The problems are many. There’s not much to look at because instrumentation extends only to a large and simple rev-counter flanked by temperature gauges for oil and water. There’s not even an oil pressure dial, which suggests confidence in the product. But there is so much to remember.

Most obviously the pedals are around the wrong way, with the accelerator in the middle and the brake to the right. This I can cope with because I’ve driven others with the same configuration. The gearbox, however, is unique. What’s most confusing is that first and fifth are exactly where you’d expect them to be: top left and top right respectively, just as they are on a Ford Fiesta. But it’s first and not fifth that sits in a plane of its own, so you have to not only pull back but across to get second and then just push forward for third, then back and across for fourth and forward into fifth.

Imagine you’re in top gear, hurtling into the braking area of a straight at the 170mph the W165 will reach with ease. You want fourth, so you pull the lever back and across into the central plane. And select second. And distribute the W165’s priceless innards all over the track.

There’s more. This race engine really is only happy at maximum effort. Low revs, part throttle and progressive response are all phrases belonging to somebody else’s lexicon. Foot to the floor and balls to the wall are the only terms that interest the W165. Ridiculous as it sounds, just persuading it to continue to function at reduced pace for some of the photos you see here count among the very hardest things I have done in a car.

But soon the formalities are over, all the secret Mercedes prototypes have scuttled into their hiding places and, for a few laps at least, the track is mine.

Just venturing out feels like a real adventure. I won’t even hazard a guess at the car’s value because it cannot be realistically determined. But that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s the history — the one thing no amount of money can put back. Damage this and you damage the heritage of a marque with a race history so long and successful it must be regarded as the most important in the world.

Thoughts crowd my mind as the deafening blast of the exhausts and the intoxicating aroma of the super-volatile brew it drinks seek to cloud it, too. Mercifully some of my many other worries are unfounded: the steering is light and precise, the massive drum brakes powerful and progressive — astonishingly so for a pre-war device.

The track opens up in front of my tiny but effective windshield. I push my foot down, the W165 coughs, thinks about it, decides against it, dies, changes it mind, coughs and then, in an instant, goes.

By any standard most people might understand, including those of modern supercars, the acceleration is incredible and even alarming at first. But when you consider the car hurling you down the road is 72 years old and is powered by an engine displacing a mere 1.5 litres, it is scarcely believable.

The gearing is extremely high, first seeming to run to at least 60mph before the cross gate change to second whereupon, lungs suitably cleared, it responds no longer with a cough but something closer to a battle cry. The noise is fascinating, complex and brutal, the howl of the V8 largely drowned by the shriek of the supercharger. This is a concrete track, designed mainly to optimise the suspension systems of modern saloons, not provide septuagenarian Grand Prix cars with a little light exercise, and the bumps make me bounce around in the seat, the ridges blurring my vision.

Improbably some banking appears. Somehow I’m now in third gear travelling at a crazy velocity. I prod the brake, knock the woodentopped gear lever ball into neutral, kick the accelerator, press the clutch again and feel second engage cleanly. But as the g-forces load and I’m forced to mete out the power gently, so the W165 engine rapidly loses interest. A long straight awaits at the end of the curve but I’m not sure I’ll get there. It staggers round, plugs clearly fouled, but just as I’m composing my apology it responds to the accelerator and cannons down the track once more, flinging the rev-counter needle back to 7500rpm.

When I track test a car for Motor Sport my hope and expectation is not simply that I get the hang of driving it, but also to emerge with some flavour of what it must have been like to race. But the W165 nearly defeated me. In that car on that day at that track, the sense of history and occasion combined with the fact it was so damned difficult to drive was almost overwhelming. I can tell you it was very quick, accurate and enormous fun; I can tell you I’ve never felt more privileged to drive a car, nor felt a greater weight of responsibility on my shoulders. But can I really give you a view of the environment inhabited by Lang in Tripoli all those years ago? If I can, it is the merest glimpse.

So an enigma the W165 remains and that is probably for the best. If I’d discovered a car that was simple and easy, driven it on the limit and handed it back knowing its every secret, it would somehow be diminished. Frustrating as it was, I like the fact it is difficult, truculent, complex and unpredictable. For it means it can be mastered only by men of immense talent and heroic bravery. Hermann Lang and Rudi Caracciola had both, I have neither. It is nothing more than right that the real secrets of the W165 lived with them alone. And while their cars survive, I suspect those secrets died with them too.