1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 Stromlinie Pilot: Juan M. Fangio Team: Mercedes-Benz Race: 1st place, 1954 French GP Minichamps - 432.543018 (diecast)
Right after WWII, Mercedes-Benz was not very much interested in Grand Prix racing. Auto Union became Audi and was no longer racing, and Alfa Romeo was also out. Only Ferrari and Maserati were still at it, but basically with F2 designed cars. To stimulate other manufacturers to participate, a rule change was in order. So beginning in 1954, engines could only have 750 cm³ if supercharged or 2500 cm³ if naturally aspirated. The time had come for Mercedes to get back in the game, and a racing department, headed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut, was created. The race team was once again managed by the legendary Alfred Neubauer, and the pilots would be Juan-Manuel Fangio, Karl Kling and Hans Hermann.
The development of the revolutionary W196 had these new rules as guidelines. The new rules were very specific about the engine and that the car should be a monoposto. But since there was no mention about the body of the car, Mercedes did some lateral thinking and to improve aerodynamics designed a car with a full body. This design, specifically targeted for very fast circuits, became known as the W196 Stromlinie (or Typ Monza, after the Italian GP).
The engineering team was so worried about getting the car right that the works team didn’t show up for the first two (!) races of the season, the Argentinian and Belgian Grand Prix. The debut of the new car only happened at the French Grand Prix at Reims, in July. Eventually Mercedes realized that the W196 Stromlinie wasn’t ideal at tight circuits, specially after Fangio’s rough time at Silverstone. Thus, later on the season the more traditional and open-wheeled W196 monoposto became the standard car.
The chassis was a space frame made of welded aluminum tubes enveloped by an ultra-light Elektron magnesium-alloy bodywork. Stopping the car was the responsibility of extra-wide drum brakes. They were fitted inboard to decrease the unsprung weight and also because they didn’t fit inside the wheels. But the car’s strong point was the M196 engine. Very reliable, the engine was an inline-8 with 2497 cm³ and an unheard-of-at-the-time desmodromic valve actuation, that with direct fuel injection delivered 257 hp. To keep the bonnet as low as possible, the engine sat longitudinally and at in angle on the chassis. Though advanced as the car was for its time, specially because tire technology wasn’t as developed, all who drove it complained about snap-oversteer at speed.
The W196 raced for two years, and won two world championships for Mercedes. However, after the tragedy at Le Mans in 1955, Mercedes abandoned motorsports and only returned 30 years later. Juan M. Fangio piloted the W196 Streamliner #18 to victory on his first race as a Mercedes driver, at the 1954 French Grand Prix. Minichamps once again delivers a FANTASTIC little car, and I couldn’t be happier with it. Even so, if I were to make a criticism it would be because of the frontal air intake. It’s not totally hollow – though I only noticed that when i was setting the car up for the photo shoot. Still, this W196 Stromlinie has a lot going for it. It has terrific detail, was El Maestro’s first Merc ride and was a championship winner. And, it is a beautiful Silberpfeil. Or not?
In the strict historical sense, maybe the W196 may not be a Silberpfeil. The term was basically coined for Mercedes’ and Auto Union’s monopostos of the so-called “Golden Era” of GP racing (pre-WWII). In other words, just because it’s silver and German doesn’t make it a Silberpfeil. However, the W196 project was heavily inspired by the pre-war W154 and W165. Those two were the last Silberpfeile from Stuttgart before the war. In fact, early in 1952 Mercedes raced three W154 in Argentina, as a test of public acceptance. And also, to see how the competition fared against their old cars. Therefore, there were “original” Silberpfeile racing in the early 50s.
Adding to that, I also read a term in “Mercedes-Benz: Silver Arrows” (M. Bolsinger & C. Becker) that eased my mind somewhat about the issue. In the book, the author called the W196 “the second generation of Silver Arrows”. So after some consideration I decided to consider the W196 as a real Silberpfeil, and here it is. Nonetheless, the W196 is where I draw the line. I’m certain a few other “German silver cars” will eventually join the Garage, but I won’t display them among the Silberpfeile.