Start of the 1954 French Grand Prix

Streamliners – Daimler-Benz Through The Decades

Streamliners – Daimler-Benz Through the Decades – Page Three

The Post-War Years and Mercedes Resurgence

While motor racing resumed fairly quickly after WWII, technical innovation was a bit slow. In grand prix racing, Alfa Romeo picked up where they had left off in the voiturette class and was dominant through the late 1940s.

But the 1950s saw a real resurgence of interest in what was now being referred to as aerodynamics rather than just streamlining. There were experiments in this decade which just couldn’t have happened later as particularly safety regulations tightened up. As in the pre-war period, designers recognised that open wheel configuration was always going to account for considerable drag. All-enveloping bodies were tried as before, with some very novel designs appearing.

The significant aerodynamic developments in this decade probably had their roots in the immediate pre-war thinking of people like Neubauer and Uhlenhaut at Mercedes. They had started wind tunnel testing in the late 1930s, and when the company reappeared in racing in 1952, they frightened the life out of the opposition. Mercedes had not been ‘big’ in sports car racing, so when the 300SL appeared at the Mille Miglia and Le Mans in 1952, the motor racing and automotive world was staggered. The 300SL bore the looks of some of the pre-war streamlining efforts, but this car had been very well thought out, using a very lightweight but strong and stiff chassis. With the engine at 50 degrees the front was low and flat. The shape and contour was very efficient and had a notably low drag coefficient of 0.25. The lines were very smooth….streamlined, yes as there was little drag, but aerodynamic as well which gave good road holding. A win at Le Mans and 2nd at the Mille Miglia made it clear that Mercedes was back.

Mercedes-Benz 300SL W194
Mercedes-Benz made a successful return to racing in 1952 with the 300SL. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Herrmann Lang, Erwin Grupp, Mercedes-Benz W194 300SL, 1952 Mille Miglia.
Herrmann Lang and Erwin Grupp drove this 300SL in the 1952 Mille Miglia. They retired but Kling and Klenk were 2nd overall. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Lang and Reiss won the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans race in the Mercedes-Benz 300SL W194
Lang and Reiss won the 1952 Le Mans race in the works 300SL, shown here leading the Cunningham of John Fitch. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

It was an even bigger shock when the company announced that it was coming back to grand prix racing as well. The intention was to build a chassis capable of taking a ‘conventional’ open wheel style body and a streamlined, fully enclosed body. As development progressed there would be a ‘short’ wheelbase and a ‘long’ wheelbase car, and as it turned out the streamlined body always worked best on the longer wheelbase format. It also appears that there was at least one chassis which was a ‘medium’ wheelbase, somewhere between the other two.

The W196R made its maiden appearance at the French Grand Prix at Reims on July 4, 1954. To say that the audience was stunned would be putting it mildly. It was known that Mercedes was going to appear but very few were ready to see a grand prix car the likes of which had not been witnessed before. The Daimler design team had gone to enormous lengths to get the car right, and it was a superb package with a tilted straight-8 on fuel injection with a desmodromic valve system. Immensely detailed calculations had been made to assess which body type would be quicker at each circuit.

Three cars appeared at Reims for Fangio, Karl Kling and Hans Herrmann, the first two leading the grid. They simply went away from the field causing most of the Ferrari and Maserati engines to blow up in a vain attempt to keep up. Herrmann’s engine also expired but it had been an amazing return to racing.

The start of the 1954 French Grand Prix, with Fangio in 18, Kling in 20, next to Ascari’s Maserati (10). Herrmann is in 22 on row two, Mercedes-Benz W196
The start of the 1954 French Grand Prix, with Fangio in 18, Kling in 20, next to Ascari’s Maserati (10). Herrmann is in 22 on row two. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Another view of the start: Kling and Fangio are desperately trying to see what starter Toto Roche is doing, Mercedes-Benz W196
Another view of the start: Kling and Fangio are desperately trying to see what starter Toto Roche is doing. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Fangio and Kling, Mercedes-Benz W196
Fangio and Kling just disappeared from sight. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Fangio Mercedes-Benz W196.
Fangio sits very close to the steering wheel in the W196. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)
Hans Herrmann, Mercedes-Benz W196
Hans Herrmann looks very relaxed, though his engine failed at 16 laps. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

The potential weakness in the streamlined car appeared immediately at Silverstone, where Fangio drove his Reims car and Kling was in chassis five with a streamline body, as the new open wheel body was not complete. As Silverstone was a former airfield circuit with the corners marked by large oil drums, the driver’s ability to judge the corner precisely was reduced…and a number of dents appeared on the silver cars. Though Fangio was on pole, it was the Ferraris of Gonzales and Hawthorn which won with Fangio fourth and Kling seventh.

Froilan Gonzales overtakes Kling at the British Grand Prix in 1954 at Silverstone.
Froilan Gonzales overtakes Kling at the British Grand Prix in 1954 at Silverstone. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

At the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, three of the streamlined cars had been re-bodied with the open wheel body for Fangio, Kling and Lang, while Herrmann did his best to cope with a fully enclosed body at the Ring. Fangio won.

Juan Manuel Fangio, 1954 German Grand Prix, Mercedes-Benz W196
Fangio won the 1954 German Grand Prix in the debut of the open-wheel W196, while Herrmann retired the sole streamliner in this race. (Photo: Daimler-Benz)

Streamliners – Daimler-Benz Through the Decades Continued

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Show Comments (10)

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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.