Streamliners – Daimler-Benz Through the Decades – Page Five
A Streamliner for Today – One Man’s Dream
There have been many attempts over the years to recreate the automotive glory days of the past. Some of these have been very successful, and some have been complete failures. The ‘anti-replica’ battle raged for many years, and it has recently begun to subside, as many of the great cars for road or racing have either disappeared or gone into hiding, some being far too valuable to risk on the race circuit.
Motor racing regulations, especially in regard to historic cars, have changed in the last several years. It is now completely acceptable for cars with no race history or which were built yesterday to reasonably original specifications to receive ‘historic papers’. Some people do this purely to increase the value of their property, others do it because it’s the only way to go historic racing in something that had its roots in the past….and some do it for other reasons. The future is likely to see races with re-creations like the Streamliner that can be used competitively at reasonable expenditure.
Not long ago, I ran across a UK and US-based German art dealer by the name of Hermann Sommersell who had brought his remarkable Streamliner recreation to one of the many UK shows. I am one of those people for whom the W196 has always stood out as a very special machine, and meeting him was the start of an interesting journey. Hermann explains how it came about:
“The “lares et penates” of travel in my paternal grandparent’s household were motor cars made by Mercedes-Benz. Amongst some of the general life instructions given to the boy were: ‘Ladies First’ closely followed by ‘only ever buy the best’. And as far as cars were concerned, Daimler-Benz made the best cars.
There are happy childhood memories of journeys in Mercedes cars standing in front of the passenger seat, holding on to the grab handle and looking out over an endless bonnet with a large star in a perfect circle on top of the radiator.
When a Mercedes was disposed of by my Grandfather, uncle ‘Kitty’ was dealing with the cleaning of the car and getting it ready for the new owner. Invariably, the final act was an almost ritual blow with the flat of his hand to break off the rigidly attached star on top of the radiator cap. This star then joined a number of similarly damaged others that were suspended from a row of nails in the room formed by the empty space underneath the main staircase.
Inevitably my first car had to be a Mercedes and it was a battleship-grey model 170 S-D. These early Diesel cars were incapable of exceeding 100 kph, and it took an eternity for the schoolboy in a hurry to reach the mediocre top speed. Since it was such hard work to regain lost speed, the brake pedal was used only very sparingly, teaching me all manner of unorthodox methods to avoid losing momentum.
From these mundane beginnings over the many intervening years there have always been a number of Mercedes motor cars in my collection. These ranged from a W123 model 300 TD estate workhorse to the “Grand Mercedes” 600 and covered virtually almost all other models in between.
For many years my Mercedes cars have been looked after by the David Bothen workshop in Bottrop, Germany. Some years ago he found himself with a single owner, low mileage W124 model 300E-24 that proved to be impossible to sell. Because this car was in such a perfect condition, I eventually agreed to buy it. The unusual dog-leg five-speed Getrag gearbox made it initially rather difficult to use, but after some practise this relatively innocuous, ordinary looking Mercedes model turned out to be the most enjoyable and probably the best of the breed that I ever had the pleasure of owning.
The fun ended in a staged accident forced on me by professional criminals, cruising around London without stop lights to find another victim. Although my responses were quick, one front wing was slightly crumpled in the minor collision. I drove the damaged car home but the insurance company decided to write it off. Because it was such a superb car, I bought it back from the insurance company and stored it for a while.
In my profession as an art dealer I am very interested in the three-dimensionality that is expressed in sculptures. And one of the most voluptuous and elusive sculptured shapes ever created is the Mercedes W196 Streamliner Formula One car of 1954/1955.
Numerous discussions with panel beaters and chassis builders eventually came to fruition. A fully surfaced computer model of the Streamliner was created with help of the “Catia V5” computer design program, which is in standard use in the automotive industry.
During their active race use, the Mercedes Rennabteilung incorporated any number of changes dictated by the needs of a particular race. This means that there is no such object as an “original” or archetypal Streamliner. Starting with the long-wheelbase measurement of about 2,400 mm, I chose the most appealing elements amongst the many body variants that were built in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. What eventually emerged is my personal interpretation of the Streamliner shape. This design incorporates all the elements that define this racing car, but my Streamliner is no copy or replica but an interpretation of a theme that exists as a stand-alone design.
Once the project got under way, many friends were willing to invest their time and energy in helping me to make a car that is not only exceptionally good fun to drive but also aesthetically pleasing. Because it looks right without being a copy, Mercedes-Benz World at Brooklands decided to exhibit the Streamliner for the Mercedes-Benz 125-year anniversary display in 2011. When it is not used for my purposes, it continues to be exhibited at the Brooklands facility in a prime position right next to the main entrance because it is a major crowd attraction.”
So what is the W196 Streamliner? What started out as a dream and aspiration of a lifelong enthusiast for the model turned into a personal challenge, and subsequently into the seed of a potentially significant business venture.
Sommersell commissioned the building of, in simple terms, a triangulated chassis largely based on the original design from specialist chassis builder Ian Mockett of Northampton. The design brief was to house the 3-litre straight six engine, gearbox, final drive and rear suspension from a standard Mercedes-Benz W124. The professionally built result is a chassis that not only looks mechanically like the ‘real thing’ but actually feels and drives very much like the great machine from 1954 with a perfect weight distribution of 50:50.
The powder-coated tubular space-frame chassis has a single central seat, and was based on factory specifications with a 2400 mm wheelbase. It has a typical racing car type double wishbone independent front suspension with rack and pinion steering. The rear suspension is a modified factory multi-link unit and the final drive ratio is one of the many things a prospective owner can decide for himself. There is a fifty-litre aluminium fuel tank, but a fuel cell can be fitted. For now, 15” chrome wire wheels with stainless steel spokes are fitted. These are currently being updated to a 16-inch specification with the original lacing pattern.
The modified Mercedes-Benz inline six cylinder 24-valve DOHC engine with KE-Jetronic fuel injection fits it neatly into the engine compartment and is redlined at 7,000 RPM. The W124/R129 engine (type M104.980.RS) is in many respects similar in layout and overall appearance to the original straight-eight, 2.5 desmodromic valve engine of 1954…so it looks right. It has cylinder specific ignition timing, variable valve timing and under-piston cooling jets. The Streamliner also has a clever dual purpose road and race exhaust system with a cockpit lever to open or close the system. The Streamliner emits a raucously glorious bellow and bark when it is run on the side exhaust pipes only.
The body was built at Streamline Panels and Assemblies Ltd. at Brackmills in Northampton. The connection between the names is an interesting coincidence, because Streamline Panels is a division of Richard Westley’s Fablink Ltd. based in Brixworth, and Westley himself is a very enthusiastic supporter of the project.
The hand-beaten aluminium body is approximately 1/10th larger than the original 1954 car, and the design is a re-interpretation of the best lines of the famous Fangio-driven car. In period, the competition department were interested in the dynamics of streamlining but knew little about down-force. Hence, they created perhaps a dozen different streamline bodies in the attempt to get it right. Some were downright ugly. What emerges here from the co-operation between Sommersell and the panel beater Frank Nicholls is a fine blending of good looks and function.
Alongside many design details, the cockpit has its own set of beautiful instruments carefully designed by Phil Lemon which give a superb period feel. There is a chronometric rev counter with tell-tale, oil pressure and water temperature gauges and a low fuel warning light. The steering wheel is a large original period Mercedes-Benz three-spoke cast aluminium piece of sculpture, and the driver climbs into a check-cloth upholstered seat…just like the original.
So what is this car like to drive? As I evolved from ‘an interested journalist’ to a ‘hanger-on’ to now the team test and development driver, it’s been a fascinating trip. First, the car always has a big impact on people seeing it especially for the first time. At the 2011 Classic Motor Show at the NEC, it sat on the M-B Owners Club stand, and had a non-stop line of onlookers, many asking if it was, indeed, the Fangio car.
Sir Stirling Moss, who drove the original Streamliner in the 1955 Italian Grand Prix held in Monza, has inspected the prototype and will drive the Streamliner when a suitable occasion presents itself.
I have now had a chance to drive it at Brooklands…and on the banking…and the Mercedes-Benz World track, but most of our serious testing has been at the Bruntingthorpe Proving Grounds in Leicestershire. This is a large and fast test facility, and also home of Jetstream Motorsport where Matt Walton with Dave Beasley and his team assist in looking after the car and helping with improvements. But in many ways, Bruntingthorpe is a trip into the past, with a large assortment of vintage and modern aircraft scattered about the site.
The runways are long, and there is a great collection of corners for serious testing.
One of the test sessions was evocatively filmed by the motorsports and rock band photographer and film maker Laurence Baker, who, like me, turned his professional interest into an almost full-time support role for the Streamliner project.
The Streamliner is now producing about 260 bhp so, with a fairly light all-in weight of about 950 kgs, it is pretty quick. I haven’t quite managed the original’s top speed of about 168, but we’re getting there. The five-speed Getrag box is flexible and does a good job handling the impressive torque. What has been amazing, however, is that this is a car that not only looks like it did nearly 60 years ago, but it genuinely feels like a sophisticated period performance machine. It’s capable of four-wheel drifts through medium and fast bends, has sufficient roll to give plenty of feel and can be driven very hard. Yet, it is docile when pottering around, and quite easy to manage at low speeds.
The question arises: is this a road car or a race car? My answer is YES. But that is a bit facetious. The car is now road registered and has an MOT certificate which allows it to be driven in daytime on the road., but an additional lighting system in the development phase. Taking the car up the Jetstream workshop, we have adjusted the shock absorbers, played with the timing, changed tyre pressures and made it go quicker each time. The competition potential is clearly there, and it will be making its competition debut in my slightly shaky hands at the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power in June. There have also been serious enquiries about supplying several cars for a race series in the Mid-East…now that is interesting. And currently sitting at Brackmills is a two-seater Uhlenhaut-Gullwing 300 SLR version progressing towards completion. Even further in the future is a very pretty two-seat version of the Streamliner designed by Phil Lemon that has universal appeal. More on that in time.