Silver Bullets

Martyn Goddard

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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