At the Wheel of History Cockpit views of renowned machines from 125 years of Mercedes-Benz motorsport Part I

Graham Robson
Daimler Archives
Involved in motorsports since 1894, Mercedes-Benz is celebrating 125 years of challenge and success. This sequence of photographs of racecars on display in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Museum, puts the emphasis on the gorgeous functional detail of the cockpits

At the Wheel of HistoryCockpit views of renowned machines from125 years of Mercedes-Benz motorsport



Article Graham Robson & Stephan McKeown

Images Daimler Archives


1914 Mercedes Grand Prix racing car

In the early years of the 20th century, Daimler and Benz fought for advantage in the automotive marketplace by winning on the racetrack. Grand Prix racing first began in 1906; Daimler’s inaugural triumph came in the 1908 French Grand Prix. The Stuttgart firm then withdrew from motorsport for six years, returning in 1914 with an all-new 4.5-liter Mercedes. Designed around a conventional chassis by Paul Daimler’s team, the 2,400-pound open-wheeler employed a 4-cylinder single-overhead camshaft, 16-valve engine producing 115 brake horsepower; braking was rear-wheel only.

Daimler entered five vehicles in the 1914 French race, a 20-lap contest over a hilly 23.3-mile circuit near Lyons. Team preparation was meticulous: Drivers practiced rigorously beforehand in cars carefully tailored to their individual needs, and Daimler inaugurated the sport’s first system of pit-signal communications.

The Mercedes machines dominated the race. Max Sailer led from the start, fending off a serious challenge by Peugeot. By the halfway point, the German cars were running first, second and third. Christian Lautenschlager won, averaging 65.83 mph. With war looming, the cars were soon back in Untertürkheim, their European racing days over; one of the 1914 cars would win the 1915 Indianapolis 500, driven by American Ralph DePalma.


1927 Mercedes-Benz W06 SSK sports racing car

Ferdinand Porsche joined Daimler in 1923, tasked to design prestigious vehicles and modernize the company’s offerings. Porsche’s development team constructed the original 6-cylinder-engined 15/70/100 in 1924 – the firm’s first-ever supercharged production car. Faster, more powerful and more specialized sports cars followed – the K, S and SS –  with the ultra-special short-wheelbase two-seater SSK (only 33 were ever built) arriving in 1928, the same year in which Porsche left Mercedes-Benz.

Built for competition, the 7.1-liter-engined SSK generated 160 unassisted brake horsepower – an already significant figure for the day – that rose to 200 horsepower with the supercharger engaged. An astonishing 300 horsepower was available if an enlarged competition supercharger, nicknamed the “Elephant,” was installed.


Rudolph Caracciola, the Stuttgart company’s famous works driver, drove the SSK to wins around the world, including the British Tourist Trophy race of 1929 and the European Mountain Championship of 1930 (see Artifact, page 6). For 1931, the SSK was supplanted by the even more extreme SSKL.


1936 Mercedes-Benz W25 12-cylinder record car

Two years after the W25 “Silver Arrow” open-wheeler began its career, Mercedes-Benz planned a successor designed to house a new DAB 5,577cc V-12 engine producing 570 horsepower – a figure later increased to 616 horsepower. Unhappily, the brand-new V-12 ended up being too heavy for use in the 750-kilogram weight-limited Grand Prix car, but proved an ideal powerplant for the special streamlined machine built to attack International Class B records on the German autobahn.

The initial record car was based on an existing W25 chassis. This machine was cloaked in an all-enveloping bodyshell: The wheels were completely enclosed, and the alloy skin wrapped tightly around the snug cockpit.

The first of several record attempts was made in October 1936 when Caracciola drove this machine to 228 miles per hour. In May 1937 near Berlin, similar cars won the non-championship AVUS race. In 1937 and 1938, the same basic chassis – but with a different streamlined body – would eventually reach 268.7 miles per hour.


1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 Grand Prix car

Constructed under the direction of Rudolf Uhlenhaut and Max Wagner, the new W125 Grand Prix car humbled the competition to sweep the 1937 European Championship. Caracciola won five races, taking the title for Mercedes-Benz.

Although its appearance was similar to the last of the 1934-1936 W25s, much innovation lay beneath the W125’s skin. The all-new chassis had a softer suspension and more nimble handling, and was powered by a re-engineered 5,663cc version of the W25’s supercharged 8-cylinder engine. Developing a massive 595 horsepower in race trim, the W125 remained the most powerful Grand Prix and Formula 1 car until the 1980s.

The mighty W125 Silver Arrow won victories in Germany, Monaco, at Bern in Switzerland, Monza and in Czechoslovakia. There was also one non-championship visit to the United States, in which Dick Seaman’s car finished second.

After this triumphant year, European racing authorities changed the sporting regulations, mandating smaller-engined Grand Prix cars. The all-conquering W125 was retired after a single Grand Prix season.


1939 Mercedes-Benz W165 1.5-liter Grand Prix car

Hoping to eliminate Mercedes-Benz from competition in the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix in Libya, Italian racing authorities limited eligible engine displacement to 1.5 liters. Amazingly, between September 1938 and May 1939, Mercedes-Benz not only designed, tested and built two W165 single-seaters that adhered to the novel formula, but Hermann Lang and Caracciola captured first and second in the race.

Despite a close resemblance to the existing W154 Grand Prix car, the 1.5-liter W165 was completely new. The supercharged engine was a 1,495cc, 90-degree V-8 with twin-overhead camshafts per bank, developing 246 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, significantly more than its Italian rivals. Smaller in every way than the W154, the W165 ran on a wheelbase of only 96.5 inches and crossed the scales at a mere 1,582 pounds.

Despite having to meet a frantic seven-month deadline, Mercedes-Benz still found time to test the new open-wheelers at Hockenheim before shipping the machines off to Libya. After their victorious debut outing, the W165s were rolled into storage, never to race again.