T H E E L E V A T E D G A R A G E J O U R N A L
Pre World War II Supercars
By Timothy Hogue
In May 1932 the AVUS Grand Prix in Berlin was won by homegrown-hero Manfred von Brauchitsch in a Mercedes-BenzSSKL.The car featured a streamlined body combined with a supper charged engine that way out performed the Alfa Romeos and Bugattis of the day.
This race set the stage to help a downtrodden Germany have something and someone to cheer on and take national pride in. Unfortunately It was also an opportunity for an upcoming politician and eventual dictator Adolph Hitler to seize upon the moment and use it for his purposes to lead the public to believe that Germany could become a great power again. In the year that followed Hitler became chancellor and his propaganda machine was firmly set in place.The machine utilized the new breed of German race car and race car driver to help its propaganda machine instill national pride regarding the increased performance of these World War II era supercars.
Motorsport was an easy propaganda victory for the Nazis. In 1930s Grand Prix racing, the German drivers were dominating every race. Rudolf Caracciola the driver for Mercedes-Benz won three drivers’ championship in 1935, 1937, and 1938, while the dashing Auto Union Ace, Bernd Rosemeyer, won the 1936 title.
The Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen was an adaptation of the W125 that the Stuttgart manufacturer had used to win six from 12 races in the 1936 Grand Prix season. Its open-wheeled layout had been highly modified for its record attempt, and the W125 Rekordwagen now had a low-drag, closed-wheeled body that was developed in a wind tunnel used in the design of German zeppelins. Rudolf Caracciola set a public road and speed record of 268.9mph in this the car in 1938. This record remained unbroken for another 79 years!
The W125 had a water cooled engine with the radiator stored in a ice-filled chest built into the car to keep temperatures as low as possible.The original inline eight cylinder was replaced with a 736bhp V12, because it had more power, and could be mounted lower down in the car for a lower centre of gravity.This all aided in achieving the speed record
Although Mercedes-Benz was achieving great success the engineers at Auto Union were not to be outdone.Their speed record car was the Auto Union V16 Streamliner. The V16 was derived from a Type C Grand Prix racer. The Auto Union V16 Streamliner was the world’s first ground effect racer - although employing ground effects in a very rudimentary form it was a successful application of controlling the airflow around the car.
Auto Union engineers worked out that ground effect - a phenomena that sucks the car to the ground and increases downforce as it gathers speed - could substantially help it beat Mercedes in the pursuit to become Germany’s fastest car manufacturer with the country’s fastest driver behind the wheel Bernd Rosemeyer. Bernd Rosemeyer first burst onto the Grand Prix scene in 1935 aged 26. He was a Charismatic, good-looking, and albeit reluctantly - a member of the elite SS paramilitary organization, he won the hearts and minds of the German public after almost winning his second ever Grand Prix from Caracciola’s Mercedes. It was only a missed gear that denied the Auto Union driver in the final lap of the race.
When you combine Rosemeyer’s major celebrity status and Germany’s domination in the Grand Prix racing circuit, which was also massively covered in newspapers, and you’ve got a winning formula that will make people turn out to these races to watch their heroes in action.
The attendance grew as the winning increased and the Nazi Political machine took advantage of these wins on the road to show the population how much they were winning as a political entity, The Nazis helped to continue the narrative that Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were hated rivals. In this way they maneuvered the spectators to have a champion to cheer on and root for.
Hitler also used the radio and the press as a way to divide and contribute to the rivalry between Auto Union and Mercedes fans over the airwaves and in print. Hitler made use of these same tactics in his campaign to take over the leadership of the country.
The rivalry between Caracciola and Rosemeyer was painted as something bitter, but it couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, when Rosemeyer was killed in 1938, Caracciola was deeply saddened by his friend’s death. The land speed record was a matter of national pride and Rosemeyer was determined to bring it home for Auto Union. Rosemeyer took to the autobahn to have one final attempt at beating Caracciola’s 268.8mph in the Mercedes. In his previous run, he’d recorded a 266.5mph - fast, but given the competitive nature of the racing driver, not fast enough. With his vision blurred and feeling winded as a result of the ground effect sucking the available air stream around the car, Rosemeyer roared the car down the narrow black stretch of autobahn to a maximum speed of 269mph.Whether it was a gust of wind or disintegrating body panels that came as consequence of the enormous forces exerted on the Auto Union’s lightweight bodywork, Rosemeyer lost control of his machine.
The Auto Union veered wildly out of control. Experts claimed afterwards that the snaking tyre tracks that followed the wreck veered violently to the left, then the right, and finally into a grass bank.The car then somersaulted through the air, and sliced through several trees and a stone milepost.
Rosemeyer’s unmarked body was thrown 23 feet from the mangled car. He was just 28 years old leaving behind his wife and their two-month-old son.The crash site is marked today by a small wooden memorial.
You might think this would have have stopped the quest for the land speed record in Germany but things didn’t stop there. In their continuous pursuit for dominance and superiority, Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine took advantage of Bernd Rosemeyer’s death as a type of PR stunt. After having set the world record for the highest speed on a public road, the Nazi party’s lust for more motorsport victories swelled.
Rosemeyer’s death and hero status was used by the Nazis as a pretext to pursue Hitler's next ambition - the annihilation of the outright land speed record. At the time, this record was held by the England. The British driver John Cobb had the record set in August of 1939 with a fantastic speed of 367.91mph. Hitler wanted to take this record for Germany as an all out statement that Germany was in fact the predominant power in speed.
This was the stage for one of Mercedes-Benz most ambitious race cars ever - the T80. The T80 was an amazing design by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.
The project was overseen by Hitler himself, and those involved read like a who’s who of Nazi Germany’s motorsport elite.
The design was quite visionary and definitely keeping with the futuristic designs of the early Nazi era.
It featured a twin fuselage tail design which featured protruding wings.These were designed to create a large amount of downforce to keep the vehicle stable at high speed.The wings were inspired by the early Opel-RAK rocket cars these were a series of rocket vehicles produced by German automobile manufacturer Fritz von Opel, of the Opel car company in the late 1920’s.
The vehicle featured six wheels, three axles total of which two were powered and at over 27 feet long it was different from the earlier conceptions of what a land speed vehicle was. It was bigger, longer and lower than anything that had come before.
The T80 has an aerodynamic coefficient of just 0.18, better than most production cars made today. It also featured a 3,000. Hp V12 that Mercedes engineers took from a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter bomber.
The engine ran on a special mixture of methyl alcohol (63%), benzene (16%), ethanol (12%), acetone (4.4%), nitrobenzene (2.2%), avgas (2%), and ether (0.4%) with MW (methanol-water) injection for charge cooling and as an anti-detonant.The T80 was lightyears ahead of its time. The car was to be driven by Hans Struck and it was predicted to reach 400 mph but this was not to be because the Nazis had already attacked Poland and WW2 was well underway at the time the speed record was to be attempted in January of 1940.The T80 was a remarkable kit of futuristic engineering.The T80’s gigantic V12 was returned to the Luftwaffe, and the country’s top race car engineers were reassigned to the war effort.To this day, the T80 has never run, and it now serves as a showpiece inside the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.
Without a doubt, these Mercedes and Auto Union cars were, and still are amazing pieces of automotive engineering, Supercars, which were at least 40 years ahead of their time and in some ways they are timeless, embodying the drive that mankind has for the need for speed!