I’m a HUGE fan of the Silver Arrows. In fact, despite the fewer models in my collection, for me they’re just as important as Le Mans’ cars. But exactly what are the Silver Arrows? Well, first things first: being a German car, I usually refer to them in their German designation. Silberpfeil means Silver Arrow, while Silberpfeile means Silver Arrows (plural). Most (if not all) of what I’ll write here I covered before throughout my reviews. In spite of this I thought it would be interesting to have a centralized definition. Initially this would be a single page, however halfway-through it became obvious I would have a massive text. That being so, I divided it in three sections. I’ll start talking about what are the Silberpfeile and sequentially about the origin of the name and then classification. So let me get to it, but first a little history review.
Right after World War I, most of the world, and specially the USA, went through a state of euphoria. That generated the so-called “Roaring Twenties”, a time of wealth and excess. And that led to speculation in stock markets, especially in New York and London. In 1929 things reached the limit, and on September 20, the London Stock Exchange crashed. A month later, on October 29 came “Black Tuesday” – the day Wall Street crashed. In terms of global economy, that is considered the worst economic event in world history. And after this the whole world plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis, what we now call the Great Depression.
For Germany things were grim. Not only devastated by World War I, the Great Depression came to make the situation worse. Consequently, the German citizen was poor and very much without hope. Seizing the opportunity, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party rose to power. Yeah, that’s the official name of the Nazi Party. By 1933 Adolf Hitler was Germany’s Chancellor, and soon after ruled the country with an iron fist. In spite of this, the Nazis did manage to restart the country’s economy. And with that, the rest of the world started to notice Germany again.
In the early 1930s, Grand Prix racing was pretty big in Europe. At the time, the sport was dominated by the Italians, through Alfa Romeo and Maserati. Mercedes-Benz had a modest racing program, but couldn’t afford the necessary investment for better results. And Auto Union, founded in 1932, never even dreamt of making a race car. This is when the Nazis enter the story. Hitler saw Germany as a world power, and he believed that motorsports could be a good propaganda tool. With that in mind, in 1933 he offered both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union a grant to develop a racing program. The grant was huge, basically covering 20% of the costs of each manufacturer. Moreover, there were also bonus for podium finishes and good results. So with the Nazi investment, overnight both manufacturers became GP powerhouses.
In general terms, that’s how the Silberpfeile came to be. Since money was not an issue anymore, Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz started to build their own and unique Silberpfeil. Mercedes got into the deal a bit earlier with the government, so they started their program a tad sooner. The manufacturer decided to build a totally brand-new car, something totally different from their current SSK/SSKL. This new model was the W25. Work began on March of 1933 and by February 1934 it was ready to race. The W25 was the first, but Mercedes released a series of new models until the W165 of 1939.
Conversely, Auto Union’s first Silberpfeil was somewhat more difficult. They got into the government money after Mercedes (to the annoyance of the later), but worse of all, they didn’t have a racing department. The brand was only one year old, with absolute zero experience in racing. So instead of starting from scratch, they out-sourced the development. They contracted Ferdinand Porsche who already had a race car in development since 1932. And Porsche’s “P-Wagen” was nothing but RADICAL. It sported a super-charged V16 with 32 valves located on the rear of the car. Today that may be the norm, but in the 30s that was unheard of. So by early 1934 Auto Union had its first Silberpfeil, the Typ A.
The technical development achieved by the two manufacturers was phenomenal. For instance, in 1936 the M125 engine of the W125 delivered around 575 hp. To put this into perspective, the world would only see such a power output again in the Turbo Era of F1 in the 1980s. Simultaneously, as the engines got stronger, so did the danger. And of course, there were some absurd rules and/or racing strategies that made things worse. A lot worse, in fact. Like the W154 that in 1939 had a 420 l fuel tank to complete a whole GP race without refueling 😱. Many were the pilots that lost their lives in those early days. The Silberpfeile were monsters, and with such performance, the other manufacturers couldn’t stand up to the Germans. Bottom line, an Italian or French car would only win a race if there was no Silberpfeil around.
To maximize their investments, the Nazi government also demanded that both Mercedes and Auto Union went after LSR. Just like Grand Prix racing, party officials felt that German cars establishing land speed records was also good propaganda. With that, both manufacturers produced LSR versions of almost all of their Silberpfeile. The record attempts were taken very seriously, and became a private competition between Mercedes and Auto Union. And with all the pressure for results, pilot safety was not exactly a huge concern. Fortunately accidents were not common, but Bernd Rosemeyer lost his life in an accident that maybe could have been avoided.