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.
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 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.
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.