Silver Arrows – Part III: When is a silver car a Silberpfeil?


Published 02/12/21

So, I previously talked about how the cars came to be and where the name came from. All right, but when is a silver German car a Silberpfeil? Well, the first part of the answer is really easy. All the Grand Prix cars made by Auto Union and Mercedes in the pre-WWII era (1932-1939) are considered Silver Arrows. Basically, I’m grouping here the cars that benefited from the Nazi investment of 1933. So from Mercedes that would be the W25, W125, W154 and W165. For Auto Union that would be the Typ A, B, C and D. And of course, that also includes the LSR variations (“Stromlinie” or “Rekordwagen”) and the hill climb versions (“Bergrennwagen”). Both brands produced other cars in that period, and even some racers, but only those above can be considered Silberpfeile. Those eight cars (and their variations) are the “true” Silberpfeile, no doubt about it.

A Typ 80 is a Silberpfeil? Maybe not, but without a doubt is the cat’s pajamas.

However, from this point forward things git a bit murky. To this first group (pre-WWII) maybe you could also add the Mercedes Typ 80. Here at W-143 I list it as a Silberpfeil, but I admit I’m stretching it. Why? Because it was not a GP car nor a variation of one, even though it’s development followed and benefited from Mercedes’ Silberpfeil program. Without the Nazi grant Mercedes wouldn’t have made it. In spite of that, if I’m being strictly factual, maybe it’s better classified just as a “pre-WWII German LSR car”. So the Typ 80 as a Silberpfeil is at most iffy. Even with a cool nickname like Schwarzer Vogel (“Black Bird”).

Though they look VERY different, the differences are only skin deep. Literally.

And now things get really abstract. After WWII both Mercedes and Auto Union did not race anymore, and dismantled their racing departments. With the German economy in ruins (again!) they really couldn’t afford the expense. However, slowly Mercedes was getting back in the black again, and in 1953 the FIA issued a new set of rules for F1. To stimulate more manufacturers to compete, from 1954 onward engines could only have 750 cm³ if supercharged or 2500 cm³ if naturally aspirated. At the time, engine development was the most expensive part of any racing program. Nevertheless, Mercedes’ upper management felt that they could afford to develop an atmospheric 2500 cm³ engine. And that’s what they did, resulting in the superb W196 Stromlinie and W196 monoposto. Meanwhile Auto Union totally abandoned the idea of producing a true-blood race car.

One of these 300 SLR made history because of a podium and the other because of a tragedy.

In like fashion Mercedes also expanded their racing efforts to endurance racing. That being so, they also developed the 300 SLR for races like Le Mans and the Mille Miglia, mostly based on the W196. And yes, all these cars were silver. But were they true Silberpfeile? Well, that depends on what parameter you use. As I wrote above, a Silberpfeil was a pre-WWII Grand Prix car. By this metric these post-war cars are not Silberpfeile. On the other hand, Mercedes did race a W154 and a W165 in 1952 in Argentina. They did this nominally to test how the public reacted to the comeback of Mercedes to F1 racing and to gauge their opposition. And even though the W196 had a completely different engine, much of its development was based on the earlier cars.

The 300 SL #21 gave the first taste of victory for Mercedes at La Sarthe.

So, I’ll concede that the W196, in both of its forms, can at least be a “spiritual successor” to the pre-WWII cars. Also, according to the authors of “Mercedes-Benz: Silver Arrows” (M. Bolsinger & C. Becker), the W196 is “the 2nd generation of Silver Arrows”. Even so, I understand that accepting the W196 as a Silberpfeil is going overboard on the definition. There’s no clear-cut reasoning, however in the end I particularly accept the W196 as a true Silver Arrow. At the same time, that’s where I draw the line. As I wrote elsewhere, not every silver German car is a Silberpfeil. For instance, the 300 SLR and neither the 300 SL are Silberpfeile. How so? Silver color notwithstanding they’re not F1 or much less GP cars. Sorry, ice cool but still not Silberpfeile.

Without a doubt, Il Maestro’s most graceful ride.

In conclusion, there’s no definitive answer. I exposed above how I classify them, but obviously that doesn’t mean I’m 100% right. I think the historical facts are solid, but the classification depends on your personal point of view. In fact, after writing all this I even may reevaluate if my Typ 80 will stay in the Silberpfeil section 🤨.

What do YOU think?

Silver Arrows – Part I: What are the Silberpfeile?
Silver Arrows – Part II: Where does the name come from?

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