More than eight metres long, powered by a Daimler-Benz aircraft engine developing up to 2,574 kW (3,500 PS) and designed for a speed of up to 650 km/h: the Mercedes-Benz T 80 of 1939 was the automotive dream of the absolute world land speed record. The vision of breaking the record never became a reality. The Second World War prevented the planned record-breaking runs from taking place. But the fascination with the T 80 still endures even eight decades later. For many years it has been represented by the original body and wheels exhibited in the Mercedes-Benz Museum.
As it has been displayed on a wall since 2006, on the banked curve at the end of the “Legend 7: Silver Arrows – Races and Records” display area, only the original body with its spaceframe and original wheels is exhibited. For weight reasons, the externally not visible chassis was not included in the display.
But in future, visitors to the Museum will have a completely new view of this giant record-breaking car: the specialists at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center have turned the original chassis of the T 80 with its major assemblies into a fascinating exhibit. This also includes an authentically reconstructed spaceframe and a cutaway model of the DB 603 engine. The impressive exhibit celebrated its world premiere at the 25th Goodwood Festival of Speed in England in July 2018.
The experts at Mercedes-Benz Classic reconstructed the spaceframe, which acts as a substructure for the body, on the basis of original drawings. Constructing it with around 150 metres of steel tubing at the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center took around three months.
The overall restoration project began in 2016. Unrivalled expertise and painstaking care resulted in complete success: the inner workings of the T 80 are presented just as they were engineered and built by Mercedes-Benz eight decades ago – and as they appear in contemporary photos.
150 metres of steel tubing welded by hand: precision work for the T 80 in the Mercedes-Benz Classic Center.
Inspiration, construction and organisation: racing driver Hans Stuck had the idea for the Mercedes-Benz T 80 record-breaking car, engineer Ferdinand Porsche produced the design and Daimler-Benz chairman Wilhelm Kissel made the project a reality in his company (left to right).
The idea for the Mercedes-Benz T 80 record-attempt car came from racing driver Hans Stuck. At the end of the 1930s, his dream was to break the absolute world land speed record. Stuck approached three highly influential people with his plan: Wilhelm Kissel, the Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG, the engineer Ferdinand Porsche and the air force general Ernst Udet.
The planning work began in 1936. The aim was to build a record-breaking car that was faster than any other land vehicle. This was a highly ambitious undertaking: British racing drivers in particular were setting record after record in the 1930s. On 23 August 1939, John Cobb established a new record of 595.04 km/h over the flying kilometre with the “Railton Special”. Because of these new records, which were achieved in the United States, the target speed of the T 80 was successively revised upwards during the design and construction phase: from 550 km/h to a final 650 km/h.
These were completely new dimensions even for Mercedes-Benz, although the Stuttgart-based brand had immense experience with speed records. The highlight to date was the world record on public roads established by Rudolf Caracciola on 28 January 1938: he reached a speed of 432.7 km/h with the record-breaking Mercedes-Benz W 125 on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn.
Nonetheless the T 80 project was not without its critics within the company. Why should the Auto Union driver Stuck achieve an absolute world record for Mercedes-Benz, and not the in-house Silver Arrows driver Caracciola? However Stuck’s connections with the Stuttgart brand went back a long way: in 1932 he became international Alpine champion and Brazilian hill-racing champion in a Mercedes-Benz SSKL.
44.5-litre displacement for the world record-breaking car: in the end the T 80 was equipped with a Mercedes-Benz DB 603 aircraft engine. The photos show the vehicle at the end of the 1930s, with the test engine from the development department.
In 1936 a telegram from Stuck to Kissel started the T 80 project. In 1937 Daimler-Benz AG concluded the design contract with Porsche. At the same time, the search began for the perfect power unit. The Mercedes-Benz DB 601 aircraft engine was an obvious contender: in flying records established in 1938 and 1939 it developed up to 2,036 kW (2,770 PS).
An aircraft engine could only be used if the ministry of aviation gave permission. In February 1937 Mercedes-Benz obtained official approval for installation of a DB 601. Meanwhile, Porsche had made considerable progress with the vehicle concept. The car for the record attempt was to have three axles and a centrally installed aircraft engine with overhead cylinders. Porsche calculated that for a record speed of 550 km/h after a distance of five kilometres, an engine output of at least 1,618 kW (2,200 PS), or better still 1,838 kW (2,500 PS), would be necessary.
In 1939 Mercedes-Benz decided to equip the T 80 with a DB 603 engine. This model variant was still in the test stage, and only entered series production in 1941. However, the engineers were confident that the 44.5-litre V12 engine would be capable of developing up to 2,574 kW (3,500 PS) at 3,200 rpm during a record-breaking attempt. To this end it was to be powered by a mixture of two special racing fuels.
Also in 1939, a scale model of the T 80 was tested in the Zeppelin wind tunnel in Friedrichshafen to optimise the downforce: strong enough to bring the entire engine power onto the road, but as low as possible so as not to overload the tyres with their thin tread surfaces. Following these measurements, the surface area of the downforce fins was reduced by another 3.65 square metres.
However, following the outbreak of the Second World War, the T 80 project was cancelled in spring 1940. Mercedes-Benz returned the DB 603 engine to the ministry of aviation. The vehicle was taken into storage.
After the end of the war, the T 80 record-attempt car was exhibited in the company’s museum at the Untertürkheim plant. It is also on display in the new Mercedes-Benz Museum opened in 2006 outside the gates of the Untertürkheim plant. Here the original body, spaceframe and wheels of the T 80 are at the head of a whole range of legendary Mercedes-Benz record-breaking cars – including the traces of the not quite completed 1940 project.
Now the original chassis can also be seen in all its thrilling splendour. Because the spaceframe created on the basis of design drawings from the 1930s not only shows the shape and dimensions of this spectacular vehicle – it also gives a clear view of the innards of the T 80. Apart from the technical components these include the complete cockpit with its leather steering wheel, pedal cluster and instruments, as well as the driver’s seat with its original fabric upholstery.
On the left next to the driver’s seat is the original model plate with the lettering “Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellschaft Type 80”, the chassis number and the order number. Together with its carefully and authentically replicated spaceframe and the likewise new spoked wheels, the chassis invites the visitor to take a time journey across eight decades – with the feeling of a record-breaking speed well over 600 km/h.