Start of the 1954 French Grand Prix

Streamliners – Daimler-Benz Through The Decades

By Ed McDonough | Photos as credited

The concept of streamlining and streamliners has been around for countless decades, though it is difficult to find two people who agree on just what streamlining means. It has been used in reference to everything from small weapon-like implements to giant locomotives, aircraft and ships. The essential ingredient, however, has always been the quest to make something capable of high speed.

In motor sport, we perhaps learned more about streamlining, and its limits, when knowledge increased about aerodynamics in general. Modern motor racing has invested billions in aerodynamics which has turned out to be a far more sophisticated field of study than streamlining. The issues have become far more complex than just going fast and top speed. In many ways, streamlining has become irrelevant in understanding aerodynamics…we would hardly call many contemporary racing machines ‘streamlined’.

Streamlining, as a developing semi-science, was about reducing air resistance. From the 1930s to the 1950s there was an obsession in the railway world about reducing resistance, culminating in the ‘bullet trains’. That obsession spread to aircraft and automobiles, partly because it had economic and performance benefits, and partly because it became fashionable. Competition swimmers were, and are, equally obsessed with being streamlined to reduce friction against water so they can increase speed. Swimsuits, swim hats, and body shapes have all changed in the pursuit of the more streamlined swimmer. Buses, cars, bicycles, forms of water transport and even diners followed suit. In the burgeoning world of high speed automobile adventures, streamlining became an end in itself.

In the car world, production vehicles of many types were streamlined…everything from the 1910 A.L.F.A. 40/60HP, the Tatra T77, the VW Beetle, the Saab 92, the Chrysler Airflow to the recent Honda Insight hybrid car have had a go at using streamlining. The Romanian Persu of 1922 had a remarkably low drag coefficient of 0.22. Record breakers pioneered attempts at producing huge strides with machines such as the Bluebird, Blue Flame, Goldenrod, JCB Dieselmax and the Thrust SSC. In both sports car and grand prix racing, many companies and special builders focussed specifically on streamlining to gain advantage.

Before WWII, Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union and Maserati with its 4CL built effective streamlined versions of their race cars. Post-war, Vanwall, Brabham, Cooper and Protos all had special versions for circuits where high speed was essential. Of all of these, however, Mercedes was the manufacturer which took streamlining most seriously and worked at it from the 1930s through the 1950s, and indeed to the present day in production cars. Of all the memorable products of that long effort, one stands out. That is the 1954 W196 Grand Prix car which became the W196 Streamliner…Projekt W196R. Though this car symbolises for many what a real streamliner should look like, it was nevertheless not a major competition success. Through the mists of time, though, that doesn’t seem to matter a lot. People loved and remember that fabulous shape when it first was unveiled in 1954 and soared to an amazing win in its first race at Reims in France.

Mercedes – The Early Days of Streamlining

By the time that Adolf Hitler was supporting two German manufacturers in motor racing in 1933, Auto Union and Daimler-Benz, the latter company had already been in motor sport for a quarter of a century. But 1934 signalled a change in the racing world and a new formula came into existence. The Mercedes-Benz SSK and SSKL series had been racing well in the Formula Libre 1920s, and there was even a streamlined version with von Brauchitsch’s SSKL designed by Fachsenfeld. But the W06 series were large and heavy with seven-litre engines that were technologically outdated. The new formula called for a maximum weight of 750 kilograms and the company designed a car to that weight restriction with an engine half the size of its predecessor…the new W25. There would be a premium on shaping a car that could perform well on some of the faster circuits with this restrictive formula. But the Benz heritage had already included clever thinking on the early aerodynamics of the Blitzen Benz and the 1923 Tropfenwagen.

1909 Blitzen Benz
Early streamlining - the 1909 Blitzen Benz. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
1911 Blitzen Benz
The Blitzen Benz in 1911, a very rapid early Benz racer. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

Thus the W25 appeared for the race at Avus in 1934 with a body design aimed at succeeding at the very high speed Berlin venue, though at this stage the streamlining was fairly conservative. Various problems in practice led the team to withdraw from it s first race, but it won only a few weeks later at the Nurburgring. It was at this race that the white paint was scraped from the W25 to save some weight, lending strength to the story that this was the birth of the Silver Arrow. However, it seems that Manfred von Brauchitsch ran a car a few years earlier which he dubbed the ‘Silber Pfeil’. Nevertheless the title stuck after the race at the Ring.

During this period Mercedes-Benz put considerable effort into building cars for national and international record attempts, and used the eight-cylinder, four valves per cylinder W25 as the basis for these attempts. Record breaking, using public autobahn and autostrada was a widely recognised sporting activity in the pre-war years, and a great deal of publicity for manufacturers resulted from the attempts. The knowledge and development ideas from racing and record breaking filtered across the various efforts so progress in one area was deployed into another.

1934 Mercedes-Benz W25 racing sedan, Rudolf Caracciola.
The 1934 W25 ‘racing sedan’ record car driven by Rudi Caracciola. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Caracciaola testing the Mercedes-Benz W25 ‘racing sedan’ in December 1934.
Caracciaola testing the W25 ‘racing sedan’ in December 1934. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

The cars received a vast amount of attention because it was in fact only in Germany that there was a real public interest in streamlining and the whole concept of reducing drag. As Setright says, this idea fired the public and governmental imaginations, partly because Germany had fabulous new autobahnen where it was possible to drive at very high speeds, and this was a great temptation as fuel was becoming a valuable commodity, and the ability to drive fast without wasting fuel was considered an achievement.

The 1934 record cars used the 3360 cc supercharged engine which was producing 430 bhp and achieving 318 kilometers per hour, some 200 mph. By 1936 a four stroke twin supercharged engine with twelve cylinders appeared. This had a capacity of 5577 cc and now produced 616 bhp, reaching a top speed of 372 kph, or over 230 mph. This was still the basic W25 but with a very different engine. Rudolf Caracciola made numerous record runs during 1936 with this car and information was fed back into the development of the 1937 grand prix car.

Caracciola drove this Mercedes-Benz W25 record car at 372 kph on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt Autobahn in 1936.
Caracciola drove this W25 record car at 372 kph on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt Autobahn in 1936. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Mercedes-Benz W25
Such was the pressure of the air on the record car that the nose caved in and required additional supports. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Mercedes-Benz W125
This is an early photo of the streamlined Mercedes-Benz W125 that would race at Avus. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

Streamliners – Daimler-Benz Through the Decades Continued

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  1. Great article and love the Streamliner Replica. I’m amazed you got it through the UK IVA test – it took me 11 months to get my Maserati A6GCS Replica through, with many changes needed.

  2. Ed Great article and history lesson. Although it was not an Alfa, it is the next best thing. Saw the 300SLR # 722 at Pebble Beach last year plus the Blitzen, really beautiful cars. Thanks for the story behind the cars, what a great read!! Al

  3. Truly Awesome, what a magnificent age to be racing these remarkable cars….Have seen a few at Goodwood.
    Excellent article and lovely pictures…

  4. Thanks guys for the comments. It has been a pleasure to be involved in such an interesting project. We made our ‘competition debut’ at the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power just two weeks ago where the car was very well received, and where it put on a good show in the postwar Grand Prix class. It will be on show at the Silverstone Classic and will run again at Shelsley Walsh at the end of July as well as at the new Pentillie Fesitval in August.

  5. Ed – what a fantastic article and I really enjoyed your effort to re-create the spirit of the Silver Arrows. And yes the Uhlenhaut Coupe is just about the best shape ever put into sheet metal.

    Somewhere there is a picture of a W196 chassis, complete, with the skin off – this picture gives you a sense of the masterful engineering underneath the “Elektron” bodywork.

    anyway well done!

  6. Dear Ed,

    Great piece and lovely pictures – cannot wait to see you both in the flesh at the Silverstone Classic.

    Thank you again for a wonderful piece,

    Vincent.

  7. I saw this car yesterday at the Pentillie Festval of Speed. What a lovely car, I must confess I was unaware of this recreation, though knew of the originals. Great achievement, MB’s own acceptance of this at their Brooklands facility justifies its creation. The Embericos Bentley tribute, was also at Pentillie, another stunning piece of craftsmanship.

  8. John
    Great you got to see the car at Pentillie. It was a real challenge on that very tight and twisty hill…not what the Streamliner was intended for. I am very flattered to have received the Retro-Speed ‘Man and machines’ Trophy for driving at the event. Ed

  9. My late father Dieter Schmitt ended his career with the factory race team in 1955 at the LeMans race crash. He helped build race engines for the W196R. Great article. Nice to revisit those exciting times for race technology.