Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

With yesterday’s acquisition of Brawn GP, Mercedes-Benz will return to Formula One after a 55-year hiatus. Judging by their earlier attempts to build race cars, every team has reason to be very, very afraid.

Mercedes-Benz have been racing cars for over a century now, but since 1955, they have been doing it in disguise: as AMG, as Sauber, as McLaren.

This is set to chance in 2010: Brawn GP will become Mercedes-Benz’s factory team as Mercedes Grand Prix.

The new team, headed by Ross Brawn, will have quite a history to match. The most famous Mercedes-Benz racing cars are the Silver Arrows, named for their unpainted aluminum bodies: two groups of cars which competed in the 30s and the 50s and won most of the races they were entered in.

Here they are.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W25
Year: 1934–1936
Engine: 3.3-liter straight-8
Power: 354 HP
Claim to fame: The first Silver Arrow

The rise of Mercedes-Benz’s grand prix team paralleled the Nazis’ ascent to power in Germany. After Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, he was approached by a Daimler-Benz executive and they agreed to a deal where the German state would sponsor the Mercedes-Benz racing team, which was then in deep financial trouble. There is dispute about the precise amount of sponsorship, with various sources pegging it between 10% and 40% of expenses.

The W25 was created for the 750-kilo formula: cars could weigh no more than 1650 pounds. It is not precisely clear how they lost their German racing white to became silver, but the most widely quoted story is that team manager Alfred Neubauer and driver Manfred von Brauchitsch devised the scheme to strip the car of its paint to squeeze it below weight regulations.

In any case, after early teething problems were overcome, it was a very successful car, winning many races in 1934 and taking the 1935 European Grand Prix Championship for Rudolf Caracciola. In its last year, it was eclipsed by Auto Union’s Type C, driven by Bernd Rosemeyer.

Like every Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow which would follow, the W25 had a supercharged engine which emitted a characteristic whistle under acceleration. If you’re interested, Jenson Button drove it at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, where I captured the whistling on video.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W125
Year: 1937
Engine: 5.6-liter straight-8
Power: 646 HP (← not a typo)
Claim to fame: Most powerful Grand Prix for decades

The W125 was supposed to be a stopgap for the 1937 season, before new rules for 1938 would come into effect, but what a stopgap it’s turned out to be! Developed by young engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut, who could drive it on the Nürburgring at race speeds, it rectified the W25’s handling problems and received an engine which would not be matched for power until Can-Am cars became truly mad, a good three decades later.

Rudolf Caracciola used the W125 to retake his European Grand Prix Championship title from Bernd Rosemeyer. As displacement rules changed for 1938, the car was retired after its single successful season.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W125 Streamliner
Year: 1937
Engine: 5.6-liter straight-8
Power: 646 HP
Claim to fame: Won fastest ever Grand Prix race

This was a version of the W125 entered for the ludicrous AVUS race, held on two straight stretches of Autobahn with banked corners to connect them. The cars reached speeds of 240 MPH on the straights. Hermann Lang, who won the race in the car pictured, described the sensation as more akin to airplane acrobatics than auto racing.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W125 Rekordwagen
Year: 1938
Engine: 5.5-liter V12
Power: 736 HP
Claim to fame: Holds land speed record on public road

Mercedes-Benz also used the W125 to run speed records attempts on Germany’s newly built Autobahns. On a January morning in 1938, Rudolf Caracciola drove this W125 at 268 MPH on a measured mile between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. To this day, it remains the highest speed ever achieved on a public road. Caracciola would describe the experience of running under overpasses at such speeds as trying very hard to stick a piece of thread through an eye of a needle.

This image is also testament to the troubled relationship Mercedes-Benz has with its past, where great racing success happened to coincide with Nazi power. Look close and you’ll see a swastika airbrushed into moderate oblivion on the driver’s headrest.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W154
Year: 1938–1939
Engine: 3-liter V12
Power: 425 HP
Claim to fame: Beat Auto Union

For 1938, Mercedes-Benz designed a brand-new car, in keeping with the new regulations, which limited displacement to three liters. The resulting W154 was a low-slung technological marvel, running on a mixture of methyl alcohol, nitrobenzene, acetone and sulfuric ether, a gallon of which would propel it for a mere 2.8 miles. Auto Union’s rival Type D was no match for it, and Rudolf Caracciola used the car to take his third and last European grand prix crown.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W165
Year: 1939
Engine: 1.5-liter V8
Power: 254 HP
Claim to fame: Took revenge on sneaky Italians

In the 1920s and 1930s, Tripoli—the Libyan capital, then part of an Italian colony—was host to a glamorous grand prix with high prices. By colonial tradition, it was an Italian home race. Following Hermann Lang’s back-to-back wins in 1937 and 1938 for Mercedes-Benz, the Italians suddenly changed the rules to allow only 1.5-liter cars for the 1939 years—cars which Alfa Romeo and Maserati, as opposed to Mercedes-Benz, happened to possess.

With only 8 months to go, Mercedes-Benz had their work cut out for them. A skunk works was formed, which took the 3-liter W154 and downsized it for Tripoli, finishing the car just in time. Hermann Lang didn’t waste the opportunity and rounded out his hat trick of Tripoli titles to the Italians’ great irritation.

Four months later, Europe was at war and motor racing came to a halt.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W196 Type Monza
Year: 1954
Engine: 2.5-liter straight-8
Power: 257 HP
Claim to fame: Returned Mercedes-Benz to Grand Prix racing in high style

Barely a decade after World War Two, the Mercedes-Benz team was back in action. Team manager Alfred Neubauer and engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut returned to lead a new team, luring Maserati’s world champion Juan Manuel Fangio to drive their new car, the W196. The team debuted at the 1954 French Grand Prix, where they proceeded to take a 1–2 win.

The streamlined body was good for high-speed tracks like Rheims and Monza but unsuitable for most other circuits. After two races, Mercedes-Benz dropped the streamliner and introduced an open wheel version of the W196 which was used for the rest of their time in Formula One.

Photo Credit: Mercedes–Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: W196
Year: 1954–1955
Engine: 2.5-liter straight-8
Power: 257–290 HP
Claim to fame: Won back-to-back Formula One World Championships

The W196 was one of the most successful cars ever constructed for Formula One. It debuted and exited with a victory and won a total of 9 races between the 1954 French Grand Prix and the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. During that period, it was only beaten three times.

Of those nine wins, eight went to Juan Manuel Fangio and one to Stirling Moss.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: 300SLR
Year: 1955
Engine: 3-liter straight-8
Power: 310 HP
Claim to fame: Won World Sportscar Championship

You probably know this car already! The 300SLR was a two-seater version of the W196, with the engine enlarged to three liters. In 1955, Stirling Moss and Denis Jenkinson drove it to an incredible victory at the Mille Miglia, averaging 100 MPH over one thousand miles of Italian public road, a record which still stands.

The 300SLR also won the RAC Tourist Trophy and the Targa Florio, which was enough to beat Ferrari for the 1955 World Sportscar Championship title.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: 300SLR, Le Mans version
Year: 1955
Engine: 3-liter straight-8
Power: 310 HP
Claim to fame: Killed 85 people, caused Mercedes-Benz to withdraw from motorsports

On June 11, 1955, it went all wrong for Mercedes-Benz. Running a customized high speed version of the 300SLR in Le Mans against the Jaguar D-Types, Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR catapulted into the air and slammed headfirst into a wall of spectators, killing scores. The car was made of a highly flammable magnesium alloy called Elektron, which did not help things. The burned-out husk you see on the picture is what remained of Levegh’s car.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz's Silver Arrows

Name: 300SLR Uhlenhaut Coupé
Year: 1955
Engine: 3-liter straight-8
Power: 310 HP
Claim to fame: Fastest road car of the 1950s

Had Mercedes-Benz not retired at the end of the 1955 season, this is the car they would have raced at Le Mans. A coupé version of the 300SLR race car, it was instead used by Rudolf Uhlenhaut as his daily driver. The car could run at 170 MPH on the public road, which Uhlenhaut, a driver of almost Formula One quality, exploited to the last drop.

As the 300SLR itself was based on the W196 Formula One car, a way to imagine its devastating speed would be to install a canopy on Jenson Button’s championship-winning BGP–001 and use it as a daily driver.

New Formula One cars are usually introduced in January, so expect the next Silver Arrow to crop up sometime in January 2010. We’ll be here to tell you all about it.

Photo Credit: Mercedes-Benz