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Mercedes-Benz: “White elephants”.

Victory march of the “white elephants”.

In the decade before the first Silver Arrows, Mercedes-Benz caused a sensation with its now legendary supercharged sports cars.
Mercedes-Benz: Drawing of powertrain.

Daimler ‘invents’ the supercharger.

The history of the “white elephants” and their racing successes began in 1919. Paul Daimler, the son of company founder Gottlieb Daimler, embarked on initial experiments to raise the output of car engines using superchargers. The technology had its origins in aircraft engine production. At altitude, where there is a shortage of oxygen, superchargers were used to supply sufficient combustion air to the cylinders. On the ground, Daimler hoped that a supercharged engine would result in more efficient combustion of the fuel-air mixture with a consequent increase in output. The first Daimler supercharged models with 1.5-litre and 2.6-litre four-cylinder engines were unveiled in 1921 and went into series production in 1922. The supercharger featured a rotary vane blower of the kind originally conceived by the Roots brothers in the USA in 1860 as a blower for blast furnaces.

Victory thanks to supercharged power.

The forefather of the later victorious vehicles was the six-cylinder Mercedes 24/100/140 PS of 1924, which in 1928 was given the slightly catchier name of Model 630. In the original name, which consisted of three numbers, the first figure stood for the so-called “tax horsepower”, a number that was based only on the tax-relevant displacement and, in this case, meant a value of 6.3 litres. The second number stood for the engine output without supercharger, while the third stood for the hp output with the blower in operation. Rudolf Caracciola (1901-1959, here at the wheel) began his career in the 1.5-litre four-cylinder model and, from 1925 onwards, was also successful in races with the high-displacement six-cylinder models.

Mercedes-Benz: Type 630.

The co-driver's seat was occupied by the approximately ten years older Christian Werner, who celebrated many victories in that era as a successful works racing driver whose most spectacular triumphs included victory in the 1924 Targa Florio.

Mercedes-Benz: Model K.

Shorter, more agile, faster.

The Model 630 was also a touring car, which, with an output of up to 140 hp (when supercharged; the supercharger went into operation whenever the accelerator was fully depressed), was also suitable for use in sporting events. In 1926, the same vehicle served as a basis for the 24/100/140 hp Model K, an especially sporty model that was more clearly cut out for racing, ranking in its day as the world's fastest touring car. While the engine, which came with the complicated name M 9456, had an unchanged displacement of 6.3 litres, the output was raised to up to 160 hp thanks to higher compression and twin-spark ignition. The wheelbase and overall length were shorter, making the car more manoeuvrable.

The ‘K’ in the model designation stood for ‘kurz’ (German for ‘short’) and not for ‘Kompressor’ (German for ‘supercharger’). With a length of 4.74 metres and a total weight of up to 2600 kilograms, the racing tourers required excellent men behind the wheel. Rudolf Caracciola, for over a decade the most successful Mercedes works driver and one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, drove his Mercedes Model K to victory in the touring car class of the 1926 Semmering Race. At that time, following the merger into Daimler-Benz AG in late June 1926, the Model K was already available under the new brand name of Mercedes-Benz.

Mercedes-Benz: Model S.

Drum roll at the Nürburgring.

It was a double premiere: on 19 June 1927, following a two-year construction period, the Nürburgring in the Eifel was inaugurated with a car race. Designed as a “mountainous racing and testing track”, the circuit on non-public roads was 28 kilometres long, packed with curves and gradients and, according to Rudolf Caracciola after his first test drives, “extremely testing”. Mercedes-Benz used the occasion for the first outing of its new supercharged Model S. The name said it all: the S stood for “Sport”.

The Model S.

With its displacement increased to 6.8 litres, the supercharged Model S now boasted an output of 180 hp, the top speed being given as 176 km/h. The starting grid pointed to the differences from the previous model: at the front of the grid were the two new Model S racing tourers of Caracciola (start number 1) and Adolf Rosenberger (start number 2), with a Model K from the previous year behind them. Thanks to its redesigned frame, the Model S had a lower centre of gravity and paved the way for a superb one-two victory, Caracciola finishing ahead of Rosenberger, while von Mosch finished third in a Model K.

Mecedes-Benz: Nürburgring.
Mercedes-Benz: Model S on a mountain road.

The “white elephants”.

The Model S soon acquired for itself the reverential name “white elephant”, which was also given to its later versions. White was the internationally customary racing colour of German manufacturers. The Mercedes-Benz Model S was mightier of stature than its lighter rivals; yet even mightier was the output from its six-cylinder engine. The deafening howl of the superchargers at full speed also helped to impress spectators and competitors alike. Although Grand Prix formula racing existed in the 1920s, its weight and engine-size limits did not suit the Mercedes-Benz racing cars, which weighed over two tonnes. For that reason, the company chose to enter vehicles in the sports and touring car classes. In this era, Mercedes-Benz did not bring out any outright formula racing cars – the Model S and its successors were also available as customer vehicles, albeit with slightly less powerful engines than the works racing cars with their especially large-volume Roots blowers. In August 1927, Rudolf Caracciola in a Model S was also victorious in the Klausen Pass Race in Switzerland.

Mercedes-Benz: Model SS.
Mercedes-Benz: Model SS.

From Sport to Super-Sport.

Just one year after the debut of the Model S, an even more powerful car was entered in the Grand Prix races: the Model SS (“Super-Sport”). Mercedes-Benz had in the meantime introduced model series designations according to the still valid pattern: the Model SS belonged to model series W 06, while the engine went by the name M 06.

Thanks to larger cylinder bores, the displacement grew to 7.1 litres. On 15 July 1928, the new racers with up to 200 hp (the works versions had a supercharged output of up to 250 hp) dominated the German Grand Prix for sports cars. Mercedes-Benz entered five works cars at the Nürburgring, the Model SS finishing first, second and third. The winner was the team of Rudolf Caracciola and Christian Werner, who shared the cockpit in the high-speed race. As was usual in this class of racing, the seat next to the driver was occupied by a mechanic.

Mercedes-Benz: Mountain pass.

Kings of the mountain.

In these years, hill-climb racing was popular with organisers and spectators alike. The routes were seldom longer than 20 kilometres, leading uphill through countless curves and hairpin bends. Famous venues included the Semmering Pass in Austria, the Klausen Pass in Switzerland and the Schauinslandstrasse in Germany. This specialist discipline was regularly plagued by serious accidents.

The SSK’s agility and power made it a versatile car.

Almost contemporaneously with the Model SS, Mercedes-Benz brought out for such races the agile Model SSK (“Super-Sport-Kurz” – Super-Sport-Short), which, while benefiting from the same engine output, was shorter and lighter than the Model SS. In 1928, Rudolf Caracciola won several hill-climb races in the SSK, including on the SSK’s very first outing in the Gabelbach Race on 29 July and in the tradition-steeped Semmering Race on 16 September. The SSK’s agility and power made it a versatile car, Caracciola finishing third in the 1929 Monaco Grand Prix in the racing car class.

Mercedes-Benz: Model SSK.

In 1930, together with Christian Werner, Caracciola was victorious in his class in the Mille Miglia, which started and finished in Brescia.

Mercedes-Benz: Model SSKL.

Finale furioso.

In 1931, the final stage of evolution of the 'white elephants' was unveiled: the Model SSKL ('Super-Sport-Kurz-Leicht' – Super-Sport-Short-Light). While weight-reducing holes on the frame as well as on many vehicle parts lowered the weight of an SSKL to around 1350 kilograms, the output was also raised to up to 300 hp.

Only few units were produced, probably a total of just four. The designation SSKL was not used from the outset, the order books initially referring to the new vehicle as “SSK, Model 1931“.

Mercedes-Benz: SSKL Streamliner.

SSKL Streamliner.

At the wheel of an SSKL, Rudolf Caracciola in 1931 became the first non-Italian to win the overall classification in the Mille Miglia and – as in the year before – he was also European hill-climbing champion. In 1932, Hans Stuck won the Brazilian hill-climbing championship in an SSKL, while Manfred von Brauchitsch triumphed at the wheel of an SSKL Streamliner in the AVUS Race in Berlin in May 1932. The specially streamlined body, designed by the famous aerodynamics engineer Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld, was produced by the coachbuilder Vetter. In 1932 and 1933, Mercedes decided not to field a works racing team for economic reasons. It was not until 1934 that the company made a return to motor sport – the era of the “Silver Arrows” was to begin.

SSKL Streamliner.

At the wheel of an SSKL, Rudolf Caracciola in 1931 became the first non-Italian to win the overall classification in the Mille Miglia and – as in the year before – he was also European hill-climbing champion. In 1932, Hans Stuck won the Brazilian hill-climbing championship in an SSKL, while Manfred von Brauchitsch triumphed at the wheel of an SSKL Streamliner in the AVUS Race in Berlin in May 1932. The specially streamlined body, designed by the famous aerodynamics engineer Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld, was produced by the coachbuilder Vetter. In 1932 and 1933, Mercedes decided not to field a works racing team for economic reasons. It was not until 1934 that the company made a return to motor sport – the era of the “Silver Arrows” was to begin.

Mercedes-Benz: SSKL Streamliner.

Photo gallery.

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