Taking the Benz

Battered but magnificent, the Mercedes-Benz W196 00006/54, driven to victory in the 1954 German and Swiss Grands Prix, broke records last month when it was auctioned for almost £20m. Simon de Burton reports

The W196 00006/54. Its open design was requested by racing supremo Juan Manuel Fangio, who liked to see where he was placing the wheels on the circuit
The W196 00006/54. Its open design was requested by racing supremo Juan Manuel Fangio, who liked to see where he was placing the wheels on the circuit | Image: Courtesy of Bonhams

The paintwork is chipped and scuffed, the engine cover is ill‑fitting and the tartan upholstery on the driver’s seat looks uncomfortably thin. On top of that, the engine hasn’t run for more than a decade and, even if this car were “on the button”, you’d need to be pretty smart to deal with its mind-boggling gearshift pattern, which hugely experienced racer Tony Dron has likened to “performing a familiar action back to front while looking in a mirror”.

Despite this, the Mercedes-Benz W196, chassis number 00006/54, caused excitement in the car collectors’ world in advance of its sale on July 12 at Bonhams’ annual Goodwood Festival of Speed Auction, where it was expected to fetch in excess of $10m. This slightly battered but still magnificent old-stager was billed as the most historic grand-prix car ever offered at auction, even before it sold for the unprecedented sum of £19,601,500 (almost $30m) – and here’s why.

Back in 1954, Mercedes-Benz had been out of serious competition for a decade and a half, having swept the board during the prewar years with its series of state-of-the-art racing cars – the original “Silver Arrows” – which won the European Grand Prix Championships in 1935, 1937 and 1938 in the hands of drivers such as Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hermann Lang. The team went on to win another three grands prix in 1939, too, but the outbreak of hostilities resulted in the abandonment of that year’s championship without the title being awarded.

Postwar austerity subsequently kept Germany away from the racetracks, until Mercedes-Benz confirmed the long-held fears of Maserati and Ferrari by returning to the fray to contest the 1954 Formula One Championship under newly established regulations. These dictated that only unsupercharged engines of no more than 2.5-litre capacity and supercharged ones of no more than 0.75-litre capacity would be eligible to compete.

The car’s single-seater chassis
The car’s single-seater chassis | Image: Courtesy of Bonhams

Keen to achieve Teutonic perfection, the team missed the first two World Championship rounds in Argentina and Belgium; but by the time of the French Grand Prix on July 4, it was ready to wheel out its much‑anticipated secret weapon: the W196. With its all-independent suspension, lightweight spaceframe chassis, in-board brakes and a canted, eight-cylinder engine with desmodromic-valve gears, it was the most advanced Formula One design in existence.

The race at the Reims-Gueux circuit might have been the maiden outing for the W196 design, but that didn’t stop the Argentine ace Juan Manuel Fangio storming to victory – closely followed by his team‑mate Karl Kling in an identical car. “Mercedes is back!” screamed the newspaper headlines.

For that first race, the W196s wore stromlinienwagen (streamlined) bodywork with enclosed wheels – a design that improved aerodynamics but with which Fangio failed to find success at the next event, the British Grand Prix, at the twisty Silverstone circuit. Fangio, who drove with pinpoint accuracy, said the enclosed design made it difficult to place the wheels where he wanted them. “When I was in a racing car, I always liked to see exactly where the wheels were pointing,” he later recalled. “I asked for a version with no bodywork covering the wheels for the Nürburgring race and, in no time, Mercedes had built one.”

That Nürburgring race was, of course, the German Grand Prix – undoubtedly the one fixture on the list that meant more to Mercedes-Benz than any other in the Formula One World Championship. The cars swiftly tailored to Fangio’s recommendations were the W196 00005 and W196 00006 – the latter being the model about to be offered by Bonhams.

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The race, which comprised 22 laps of the 14.2-mile Nürburgring circuit, with its more than 170 turns, was the toughest test yet for the W196s. It lasted three hours 45 minutes and was the longest Formula One race in history, until the Canadian Grand Prix of 2011. But true to form, Fangio converted his pole position into another victory, with Kling taking a respectable fourth place in the 00005. Of 23 starters, only 10 cars finished the race.

That momentous win alone would have been sufficient to warrant the 00006’s place in the history books but, three weeks later, on August 22, Fangio lined up at Bremgarten in Switzerland, along with team-mates Kling and Hans Herrmann, and notched up another victory. This time, the Argentine lapped every other car in the race up to second place, finishing almost 58 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Ferrari driver José González, and leaving Herrmann to collect third after Kling retired with fuel trouble.

Fangio’s win in 00006 clinched him the second of his five World Drivers’ Championship titles, adding to the car’s extraordinary provenance. During the 1954 and 1955 seasons, the 14 W196 cars built raced in 12 World Championship Grands Prix, winning nine of them.

These victories, combined with a string of Sports Car World Championship wins in the road-going 300SLR racers, had cost the factory a vast amount of money. They had also put Mercedes-Benz in the potentially awkward situation of having to attain a similar level of success the following season – a problem that was swiftly solved by the company’s decision to announce that it would pull out of motor-racing for “several years”.

Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1954 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, driving the winning Mercedes-Benz W196, chassis 00006/54
Juan Manuel Fangio in the 1954 German Grand Prix at Nürburgring, driving the winning Mercedes-Benz W196, chassis 00006/54 | Image: The Spitzley/Monkhouse Collection

By the end of 1955, the 00006 was in the care of the Daimler-Benz exhibitions department and was run out regularly for the next 15 years or so, until being loaned to Britain’s National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. That loan subsequently became a “donation”, shortly after which the museum sold the car (controversially at the time) to Sir Anthony Bamford of JCB fame in order to finance the building of a new library.

In 1989 – when the classic-car bubble was at its most inflated – the car was again sold, to French collector Jacques Setton, for an alleged $20m, before passing into the hands of German industrialist Friedhelm Loh, who is believed to have been the last person to have had it running when he rolled it out for display drives at the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique and the Goodwood Festival of Speed, in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

For the past 12 years, the whereabouts of the car, and the identity of its owner, had been shrouded in secrecy (although it is widely believed to have been part of a Middle Eastern collection). So its appearance on the open market was a rare event. Just 10 W196s survive – six preserved by the factory, three in national museums and the 00006, which remains in private hands following the auction.

Equally remarkable is the car’s originality. Nothing significant is believed to be missing and, according to Bonhams chairman Robert Brooks when I spoke to him before the sale, it was examined with a fine-tooth comb by Mercedes-Benz technicians, who compared it with the carefully preserved original build-sheets and confirmed that it is, more or less, just as it was when it was last raced by Kling back in 1955.

The car’s 2.5-litre straight-eight engine
The car’s 2.5-litre straight-eight engine | Image: Courtesy of Bonhams

But why did the buyer and his rivals want such an exotic and expensive machine, with all its foibles, technical intricacies and decidedly singular reason for being?

“The fact is that the car is a masterpiece in its own right. It is not just a W196 – it is the W196,” opined Brooks, who had recently returned from visiting potential bidders in places as diverse as Hong Kong, Japan, Australia and America. “This is the car that brought Mercedes-Benz back to racing dominance on home turf,” he continued, “and it did so with none other than Fangio behind the wheel – arguably the greatest driver of all time. Most of the really serious interest we have had has been from very well-established collectors, some of whom we had assumed had become dormant, when they were, in fact, simply waiting for a truly exceptional car to come along.”

While working for Christie’s in 1987, Brooks famously sold the Kellner Bugatti Royale for a then record £5.5m. He had every intention of obliterating his own “personal best” when he personally took to the rostrum to extract the highest possible bid for the W196 – though he obviously hadn’t realised just how high it would go.

“There is no doubt that the car is very much being offered for sale,” he said. “We are not holding out for a loopy price, but we’re fairly confident that it will comfortably reach $10m, possibly $15m. Regardless of who buys it, however, we very much hope that they follow our recommendation and send it straight to the Mercedes-Benz factory to be properly recommissioned.

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“It’s a car that everyone would love to see being driven again and one that is going to attract incredible attention wherever it goes. To handle its sale could well mark the pinnacle of my career.”

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