Like most kids, I was interested in cars of my own era when I first started following racing. But it didn't take me long to delve into the history of the sport. So I read about Henry Ford's 999 and Ernest Henry's twin-cam Peugeots, scarlet Alfa Romeos and pale blue Bugattis, jewel-like Millers and the behemoths that raced on the banking at Brooklands. Then I came across the Silver Arrows -- the magnificent prewar Auto Unions and Mercedes-Benzes that dominated grand prix racing until World War II -- and nothing else seemed to matter.
To this day, I'm convinced that the Silver Arrows were the most spectacular, most sophisticated, and most visionary cars in motorsports history. The astonishing Auto Union Type A that debuted in 1934 featured an exotic V-16 engine mounted behind the driver, pioneering the template that is used to this day. By 1937, the sleek yet brutal Mercedes-Benz W125 was using a supercharged straight-eight engine that produced a mind-boggling 646 hp -- or more than any Formula 1 car until the early 1980s.
I was seduced by their streamlined shapes, stunned by their technical specs, overwhelmed by their gaudy race results. I analyzed the celebrated George Monkhouse photos and pored over Chris Nixon's evocative book. Over the years, I absorbed the lore surrounding the men who drove the cars to victories from New York to North Africa -- the incomparable Bernd Rosemeyer, the indomitable Rudi Caracciola, Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, Hans Stuck, Hermann Lang, Manfred von Brauchitsch, the star-crossed Dick Seaman. There was just one thing I didn't do: I never got a chance to see them in action. So when I heard that no fewer than ten Silver Arrows would be at the Goodwood Revival -- the first time the Mercedes-Benzes and Auto Unions had faced off on a racetrack since 1939 -- I made damn sure I'd be there.
No vintage-racing event draws a more impressive selection of cars than the Revival, and even before reaching the Silver Arrows, I stroll past an array of fourteen Ferrari 250GT0s, with one 330GTO thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, I can't suppress a gasp the first time I see the Auto Unions and the Mercedes-Benzes, parked side by side with Teutonic precision in a wooden garage inspired by the pits at the 1937 Swiss Grand Prix. Late Friday morning, under slate-gray English skies, mechanics in period jumpsuits roll the cars out of their stalls to warm up the engines.
A crowd materializes out of nowhere, flocking around the Silver Arrows like metalheads in the front row of a Megadeth concert. Snarling waves of glorious noise -- braaaat, braaaat -- cause goose bumps to pop up on my forearms as the engines are revved hypnotically, rising and falling in excruciatingly loud mechanical counterpoint.
But it's out on the track, of course, where the cars sing with truly operatic majesty, each with its own sonic signature, from the distinctive whine of the W25 -- the product of the pressurized carburetor -- to the ear-splitting shriek of the W165, the 1.5-liter screamer that Mercedes developed in eight months to win the Tripoli Grand Prix in 1939. Standing at the exit of the chicane leading onto the front straight, I watch five-time Le Mans champion Frank Biela sawing at the oversize steering wheel as the torque of his Auto Union Type C overwhelms the narrow tires before he plants the throttle and lets the engine blast its sixteen-cylinder aria.
I'm waiting in the paddock when the cars return. The garage is filled with the heady, sweetly astringent aroma -- smelling faintly like shoe polish -- of the witch's brew of methanol, nitromethane, and acetone used to fuel the later-model Benzes. (In the interest of health, the nitrobenzene and sulfuric ether used in the 1930s are no longer permitted.) Bernd Schneider and Paul Stewart pull off their crash helmets and exchange wide-eyed looks of wonder as they climb out of their cars.
"Did you find that when the car went past start/finish, it would suddenly go like this?" Stewart asks, making fishtailing motions with his hand.
"Ah, yes!" Schneider says. "Because of the wind, when you got past the barrier."
"The gearbox was tricky, though. I went from second to fifth a couple of times."
"So your gearbox was like mine, with fourth all the way over here?" Schneider pulls his hand to the right and back.
Stewart nods. "But it handles fantastically."
Mind you, these guys aren't a couple of wankers getting a few minutes of fantasy-camp wish fulfillment. Schneider has five DTM championships and two years of Formula 1 to his credit. Stewart, the son of Sir Jackie, was a pretty fair formula-car driver back in the day. But both have been reduced to giddy schoolboys by their first practice session.
"Awesome is an overused word," Stewart tells me, "but it's appropriate to describe these cars." Schneider adds: "They used to drive at the Nuerburgring at more than 300 kilometers per hour [186 mph]. And they were sitting in 400 liters [106 gallons] of fuel!" He shakes his head. "To drive that car on the limit, you would need to change your underwear."
Even now, I find it hard to wrap my head around the performance of the Silver Arrows. They lapped the racetrack at Avus at an average speed of nearly 172 mph. When they made their first appearance in England, at Donington Park in 1937, they outqualified the local aces by fifteen seconds. Legend has it that the British bookies, who'd blithely assumed that the Germans would be overmatched on foreign turf, slinked away from the track before the race was over because they realized they couldn't cover the bets placed on the Silver Arrows.
Despite the deprivations caused by World War II, Mercedes was able to preserve most of its racing cars, and the company has been showing them off ever since. But Auto Union, based in what was to become East Germany, was a casualty of war. Today, Audi is the only surviving nameplate of the company's four original brands -- Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer. It wasn't until the past fifteen years or so that Audi AG started acquiring the handful of Auto Union racing cars that have been restored and/or exquisitely re-created by the British firm of Crosthwaite & Gardiner (see sidebar).
In mid-2012, Audi bought a largely original Type D, the twin-supercharged V-12 car raced in 1939. As it happened, 2012 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the 1937 Donington Grand Prix, where the Silver Arrows finished 1-2-3-4-5. So Thomas Frank, who heads Audi Tradition, came up with the inspired idea of putting a fleet of Auto Unions and Mercedes-Benzes on the track together. "To see the cars is one thing," he says. "To hear them is something else altogether." And the Goodwood Revival, where the emphasis is not merely on racing old cars but also on reanimating the racing culture of the past, was the obvious place to stage the reunion.
To call the Revival the world's best vintage race car event is to damn it with faint praise. For sheer entertainment value, the three-day extravaganza is arguably the most impressive motorsports spectacle on the planet. Besides featuring an obscenely opulent array of cars (and priceless warbirds flying overhead), the event also draws drivers ranging from Indianapolis 500 winners to Formula 1 world champions. But more than the quality of the competitors, what sets the Revival apart are the period trappings. Not only are the structures and retail shops outfitted like relics from the 1940s and '50s, but there are so many people walking around in plus fours, fedoras, floral dresses, silk stockings, and smart military uniforms that Goodwood sometimes seems more like a movie set than a vintage race. Hearing it described, the Revival sounds insufferably twee, but in person it works remarkably well.