Silver Bullets

January 28, 2013
Silver Arrows Lined Up
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.
The annual fall gathering is the brainchild of Charles Henry Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March, a Hugh Grant look-alike blessed with an unfair cocktail of wealth, brains, and charm. Lord March's grandfather created the Goodwood race circuit in 1948 but shut it down due to safety concerns in 1966. The current Lord March staged the first Revival in 1998. "We told people, 'We want the best cars. The best drivers. Proper racing. No messing around,' " he says. "But we wanted to take things to another level with vintage buildings and vintage clothing. It took a while to catch on. But people started getting more engaged. Now, they feel as though they're contributing something to the event."
Although plenty of special cars have competed in the Revival over the years, the Silver Arrows were always Lord March's great white whale. "As a boy, they'd been almost mythologized to me," he says. "Getting even one of them here was a massive challenge. Doug Nye [the eminent racing historian] and I talked about it endlessly. When I finally heard all of them running -- that was a shiver moment."
The Silver Arrows were developed in response to a grand prix formula that was instituted in 1934 to slow cars down in the interest of safety. Instead of setting a limit on engine size, weight was capped at 750 kilograms, or about 1650 pounds, not including driver or fluids. The thinking was that this would produce cars in the image of the Alfa Romeo P3 -- simple ladder-frame-style monopostos putting out about 200 hp. Instead, the formula had the effect of rendering such cars instantly obsolete.
Lavishly funded by the Third Reich, the Silver Arrows -- so-called because they were left in bare aluminum rather than painted traditional German racing white -- were the first thoroughly modern grand prix cars. Innovations included tubular chassis, fully independent suspensions, streamlined bodywork, and the liberal use of exotic materials. The Auto Union Type A, known as the P-wagen because Ferdinand Porsche designed it, was more radical; the Mercedes-Benz W25 more powerful. But both of them produced more than 300 hp and achieved speeds near 200 mph. By 1937, they exceeded 600 hp and, in streamlined form, 240 mph. A new 3.0-liter formula was inaugurated in 1938 in a desperate attempt to limit speeds, but the Germans responded with cars that were even more complex. Both companies opted for supercharged V-12s and de Dion rear suspensions, and the W154 and the Type D established benchmarks that wouldn't be challenged for decades.
Here at Goodwood, the Silver Arrows are stabled in a garage adjacent to a paddock holding 1930s-era Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, and ERAs. Tall, narrow, and blunt, those cars look as antiquated as wooden warships next to ironclad destroyers. And the differences are even more pronounced when you examine the magnificent craftsmanship that went into the German machines. "You show some of the parts to a modern machinist, and he can't figure out how they did it," says L. Scott George, curator of the Collier Collection, which provided one of the W154s at the Revival. Adds Ollie Crosthwaite, managing director of the firm that restored the Collier Mercedes as well as all of the Auto Unions at Goodwood: "The Mercedes is designed to be the best with no compromise, full stop. The Auto Union really is a more clever design, in some respects, because it achieved the same results but was far simpler."
Even by modern standards, the engines are astounding pieces of engineering. Other than that, though, the cars betray their prewar heritage. "I would say that the brakes, gearbox, and handling could not keep up," former F1 driver Karl Wendlinger tells me after his final stint in the W25. "It is difficult to understand how they drove these cars on the limit." As if to support that statement, moments later Jackie Stewart puts all four wheels of his W165 on the grass at the exit of the chicane leading onto the front straightaway.
Back in the garage, Sir Jackie sheepishly admits that he went off after mistakenly pressing the center-mounted throttle instead of the brake. He then points to the empty cockpit of his car and declares, "When these people were driving, that's when men were men."
It's a good quip but bad history. Ernst von Delius and Dick Seaman were the only drivers killed while racing Silver Arrows. (Bernd Rosemeyer died in a criminally foolhardy speed-record attempt on a two-lane highway in a dramatically streamlined Auto Union.) By contrast, nine of the twenty men on the grid of Stewart's first world championship F1 race in 1965 were later killed in race cars. So who was braver, the drivers of the '30s or the '60s?
As long as Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsports, it will always attract the most talented competitors, and there's no reason to think that the drivers of one era would be better than another. But the pace of progress of race-car design ebbs and flows, and innovation arrives at irregular intervals. The Silver Arrows benefited from a unique confluence of engineering excellence, corporate competition, and an unprecedented national commitment to racing as a showcase for Teutonic superiority. The cars clocked lap times at the Nuerburgring that wouldn't be matched until 1956, and conceptually, they weren't surpassed until the aerodynamic revolutions of the '60s and '70s and groundbreaking advances in computers and electronics in the '80s and '90s.
Nowadays, going fast is all about controlling invisible forces by manipulating electrons and managing airflow. But Silver Arrows were the apogee of a more hands-on form of race-car engineering, and we'll never see their likes again.
Survival Story
How the Auto Unions were saved.
When the Russians occupied the Auto Union factory at Zwickau after World War II, the remaining race cars were dispersed to various Soviet automotive companies for technical analysis. But as the years passed, most of the cars were scrapped or scavenged. "One chassis had been cut in half to make a trailer -- unbelievable!" says Thomas Erdmann, Audi's encyclopedic in-house historian.
One Type C -- the sixteen-cylinder model raced most famously by Bernd Rosemeyer -- had been given to a museum in Munich in 1938, and it survived the war (although it was damaged by Allied bombs). After the war, a Type D surfaced in Czechoslovakia and made it to the United Kingdom. Also, a Latvian enthusiast miraculously saved a hill-climb car -- a Type D chassis with a Type C engine -- the day it was scheduled to be destroyed. He transported it to a museum in Riga, Latvia. But that would have been the last of the original Auto Unions were it not for the obsessive quest of American Paul Karassik.
A Floridian of eastern European descent, Karassik started hearing rumors during the 1970s about components that had been squirrelled away behind the Iron Curtain. Aided by a former ZIL mechanic who knew the locations of the factories where the Auto Unions presumably had been dispersed, Karassik made numerous trips to the Soviet Union and its vassal states. After a decade of torturous negotiations, he was able to amass enough parts for Crosthwaite & Gardiner to re-create not one but two cars.
"With Paul Karassik, you had exactly the person you needed to do the job," Erdmann says. "He spoke the language and he understood the Russian soul, so he knew how to talk to them. Nobody else would have been able to go there and find the parts."

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Photo Gallery

  • The winner of multiple Le Mans and Formula 1 races ran a Type D Auto Union. "When you drive the car," he said, "you understand the physical challenges faced by legends of another era."
  • The five-time Le Mans champ drove the elegant V-16 Type C Auto Union. "I was expecting it to drive like a truck," he said, "but I was impressed by how easy it was to handle."
  • The five-time DTM champ ran a twin-supercharged Mercedes-Benz W154 at Goodwood. "The V-12 engine is amazing," he said. "You could do a lot of donuts in that car."
  • The ex-Formula 1 ace drove the 646-hp Mercedes-Benz W125, the most powerful car of its era. He handled it so exuberantly that he was asked to slow down to keep the cars together.