Peeking Under The Hood At The Mercedes-Benz Classic Workshop In Stuttgart
Photography by Robb Pritchard
For well over a hundred years Mercedes-Benz, has been the automotive industry leader in almost every definable aspect, from safety, style, economy, reliability, performance, and luxury. And, just as many other high end manufacturers, they use that illustrious history of innovation to promote their current models—a brand cannot purchase provenance, but having it certainly helps sell the new models.
The famous and award-winning museum in Stuttgart is the place to see a mind-blowing array of ancient carriages, classics, prototypes, and racing cars wearing the three-pointed star, but that’s just a small part of the amazing collection at Mercedes-Benz’s headquarters. They also have an astounding count of 1100 cars used for demonstrations at various shows and festivals around the world, stored in what has earned the apt nickname, the “Holy Halls.”
To keep such a huge number of valuable and unique vehicles in perfect running order a dedicated team of twenty five people work on a complicated schedule of maintenance, repair, and restoration. I was lucky enough to go on a tour of this special workshop with the head of Mercedes-Benz Classic, Klaus Reichert, who showed me some of the most important examples of the marque’s motoring history being kept in perfect condition.
We didn’t have to go to far to see the first priceless artifact, as the bay nearest the door was occupied by a 1934 W25, the very first car to be called a Silver Arrow. In 1934, to get the top speed of the Grand Prix cars down, the regulations were changed to give the cars a maximum weight of just 750kg, the idea being that teams would be forced to use much smaller, and therefore less powerful, engines. Now pure racing cars—unrelated to anything on road—the new category was the first step towards the Grand Prix and later F1 cars of the modern era. Mercedes-Benz were of course at the forefront, but as the story goes, when they rolled up to the weigh station at the first race of the season at the fearsome Nürburgring they were a kilo over the limit.
Touching a reverential finger to the bare metal bodywork, Klaus explains what happened. “The only thing that could be removed to save those precious grams was the white paint, and so the team took knives to the body to scrape it all off.” With their gleaming bare aluminum on display, the cars were a hit with the crowd, and soon the nickname became the German national racing color as Audi also adopted silver to go with the British greens, Italian reds, and French blues.
With a huge 430bhp output from the eight-cylinder 3.4L engine and a top speed just a little shy of 200mph, the 750kg formula did nothing to hamper performance and speed. With what is now seen as rudimentary suspension, stick-thin tires, drum brakes, no idea of aerodynamics, and also a generation before any concept of safety such as a roll cage (or even a seatbelt) it tests ones belief to think that men could hurtle cars like this around at such speeds in racing conditions. “It was a different time,” Klaus nods in agreement.
Mercedes-Benz owns both of the W25s that were made. One is kept untouched in the museum, while this one pictured is used for demonstration driving duties at selected high profile events, usually with a well-known driver at the wheel, such as Mercedes racing legend Jochen Mass, or current F1 drivers from the team.
Beside the W25 was a huge SS model from the early ’30s. At the time of my visit this massive car hadn’t been seen in public since it had a three-year long refurbishment over a decade ago. But even when they aren’t needed for any showings, all the cars in the collection have a schedule of attention, as even just being left to stand too long can cause damage, as Klaus explained. “For example, if an engine goes without oil circulating through for too long, the seals can dry out and deteriorate and simply starting the engine like this can cause a catastrophic failure.”
To the untrained eye, the Mercedes-Benz 600 above may be the least impressive car in the workshop, but as most people who know what it is they are looking at, Klaus has a keen appreciation of the art of engineering in this über sedan. And even today, the 600 is an engineer’s dream car. Klaus smiles as he tells me about the ride quality the air suspension creates, and how the seats, windows, and trunk are all hydraulically operated, as well as how gloriously complicated it is to repair the high pressure system. “It’s one of the best cars ever made,” he says, which means a lot when said in the company of the cars that surround us.
The 600 model had a very long production run—between 1963 to 1981— but was always exclusive, and only 3000 examples were hand built for those able to afford one. This example was wheeled straight into the collection as soon as it was made, so although no world leader (or third-world dictator) ever sat in its comfy rear seats, it’s one of the best preserved 600s in the world.
Another car whose contribution to Mercedes’ history cannot be overestimated is the Simplex, shown above. With pivoting wheels rather than the whole front axle, forward-facing seats and a front-mounted, water-cooled engine, it is regarded as being the first true modern car. This lovely white one dating from 1904 had just come back from some promotion work in France along with the upcoming EQC automobile. “Both are related, as they are completely new ideas,” Klaus explained. “The Simplex dropped the horse for the engine, while the EQC will drop that engine for electrical power. Both were constructed from a white page.”
It might be celebrated for its relative modernity, but there are still some gloriously archaic systems to enjoy in the Simplex. For instance, the four pedals scattered rather randomly at the driver’s feet include two brakes, one for the crankshaft and the other for the half-shaft, and it has the manual timing adjustment levers on the steering wheel for cold starts and fast driving.
It’s the dozen or so little vials lined up on the dashboard that really grab your attention though. All need filling with oil that gets piped off to various places in the engine, but it’s a loss system so every thirty miles or so it has to be collected from the sump and replaced before it causes problems with the crankshaft. “With the model before, you had to stop every ten minutes with a can to lubricate lots of different parts of the engine, so this is actually much simpler,” Klaus informs me. It needs a manual pressurizing of the fuel and oil systems to start, and once it’s running a little exhaust gas is siphoned into the tank to create fuel pressure. Apparently a misfire isn’t as dangerous as it would seem.
Moving along, whereas the W25 mentioned previously was the very first Silver Arrow, the 1939 W154 is the last, seeing as its final championship race took place just ten days before the outbreak of hostilities. The previous 750kg formula had proved ineffectual in keeping the top speeds down, so the next rule change was to limit the size of the engines, to 4.5L for normally aspirated ones and three for compressor-fed variants. The W154’s 3.0L V12 put out 483bhp, and of the four European championship races in 1939, it won three of them.
This first era of Mercedes-Benz’s Grand Prix domination came to an end with Herman Lang heading a 1-2-3 finish in Switzerland, although the championship was never officially decided due to some serious miscommunication regarding the score system… and the fact that the Second World War had just broken out.
The last race for the Silver Arrows was a non-championship event on the streets of Belgrade, which was run on the weekend that Germany invaded Poland and where no British or Italian teams were present. In the race, Manfred von Brauchitsch took second place in Mercedes’ last Grand Prix until the short-lived W196 of 1954 and 1955.
This example of the W154 had just come back from some exercise at Goodwood at the time of my visit, and was having its drum brake system checked. Unlike the slightly older W25, no issues were reported, and once all the oil and other fluids are drained it will be wheeled back into storage again.
Next to it sat another iconic Mercedes, a prototype that was never put into production. The C111 will be eternally famous for being one of the best known prototypes of the 1970s, and one of the more prolific. In fact sixteen versions were made, at first powered by specially designed Wankel rotary engines. Later ones were fitted with diesels which took many endurance driving world records in the late ’70s when economy and reliability were key words for auto manufacturers.
Despite being instantly popular with the public after it was displayed at the 1969 Frankfurt Motor Show, and the office receiving blank cheques from those who wanted to be at the head of the queue, Mercedes never put the car into production, and not a single one has ever had a private owner. “Personally, I think it’s a pity,” Klaus muses, “It would have been a real supercar and of course was a decade ahead of Porsche’s similarly capable 959 and the Ferrari F40.”
Perhaps the most unexpected car I saw during my visit to the Mercedes-Benz Classic workshop was the rather garishly painted G63, but most cars in the collection were acquired when they were brand new with just test miles on the clock, and the bright yellow G-Wagen from the Crazy Colors series is a similar story. “We have the duty to preserve what was in production, so in the future when it’s the 75th anniversary the next generation running the Classic Center will have vehicles like this for their displays.” Whether or not we will look back fondly on G-Wagens like this is up for debate.