Pop open any book discussing Mercedes-Benz racing history and guaranteed that book will include the story about how, faced with overweight W25 racing cars, the Mercedes-Benz racing team decided to strip all the paint from the aluminum-bodied cars, thus setting the precedent for silver to become the German national racing color. Except, according to a handful of historians fighting corporate PR and decades of tradition, it’s all hokum.
“It’s a great story, and it would be nice if it were remotely true,” said Don Capps, a longtime member of the Society of Automotive Historians who plans to discuss the German racing silver origin myth in an upcoming talk at the International Motor Racing Research Center. “But one of the problems with auto racing history is that once these things become established, it gets really difficult to bother people with the facts.”
So let’s start with the facts. In October 1932, the directors of the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus – the forerunner to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – decided that Grand Prix racing had become too fast and too dangerous so, rather than limit the size of competitors’ engines, they decreed a new formula for the 1934 season, essentially unlimited save for the 750 kilogram maximum weight, or about half the weight of most competitive race cars.
Theoretically, according to Louis Sugahara, who wrote and illustrated “Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Race Cars, 1934-1955,” reducing vehicle weight meant reducing engine size in an era before widespread use of durable lightweight alloys for engines; AIACR officials had hoped the weight limit would cap engine sizes at about 2.5 liters. That size instead became a basement for engine displacement among the various competitors.
At first, Mercedes-Benz had no intention to join the fray. The automaker officially suspended its racing program in 1930 as the Depression took hold and as its SSK cars were nearing the limits of their potential. Alfred Neubauer, who helmed the racing program, reportedly considered leaving Mercedes-Benz to join his old colleague Ferdinand Porsche at Auto Union, but remained after Mercedes-Benz board chairman Wilhelm Kissel promised the company would soon return to racing.
That return came in 1933 after Jakob Werlin, who served as Mercedes-Benz’s liaison with the Nazi party, convinced the German Ministry of Transport to subsidize the company’s Grand Prix efforts to the tune of half a million Reichsmarks per year. Though that money would later be split between Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, it still provided sufficient incentive for Mercedes-Benz engineers Hans Nibel and Max Wagner to begin work on a modern aerodynamic racing machine, the W25, powered by a 3.36-liter 32-valve supercharged double overhead-camshaft straight-eight located ahead of the driver.
As before, Neubauer led the racing team and while he couldn’t get Rudolf Caracciola to immediately return to the team due to an injury, he did get Manfred von Brauchitsch, another proven Mercedes driver, to sign with the team again. Despite promising early tests, the W25 wouldn’t be ready to actually start a race until June 1934, when Neubauer and his team showed up at the Eifelrennen at Germany’s Nürburgring.
For purposes of illustrating the myth, here’s what Sugahara had to say about what transpired there:
On the eve of the race, the Mercedes team discovered that the weight of the W25 was one kilogram above the 750 kg regulation. Apparently, weight control had been neglected somewhat during the repeated modification work. On the night before the race, everyone was in a somber mood, as they all knew it would be almost impossible to shed one kilogram. It was then that von Brauchitsch shouted in desperation, “How about filing down the paint?” This inspired Neubauer, and the team worked throughout the night, carefully filing off and polishing the aluminum skin until they had barely succeeded in reducing the weight by one kilogram.
From then on, the factory color of Mercedes became metallic silver, and the race cars were nicknamed “Silver Arrows.” Auto Union, too, decided on the same silver color, eventually making silver the national racing color of Germany. After the war, Porsche painted its race cars silver, too.
(Other passages recounting the story often give sole credit to Neubauer for the idea, which is not surprising for reasons we’ll see shortly.)
A critical reading of that passage should raise all sorts of red flags. If the team had indeed neglected weight control on the cars, it shouldn’t have caused them much consternation to find a kilogram here or there. And if it were up to the racing teams to decide their nation’s racing colors, it’s far from likely that Auto Union, furiously competing against Mercedes-Benz for Nazi Reichsmarks, would just go along with whatever color Mercedes-Benz haphazardly chose.
Instead, as Capps pointed out, AIACR assigned racing colors to the various countries in 1908 or thereabouts: France got blue, Belgium yellow, Italy red, the U.K. green, and Germany white. However, due to white and silver sharing the same heraldry tincture, Mercedes-Benz had a long history of using the colors interchangeably on its race cars.
“We have photos back to 1924 of cars raced by the factory painted silver,” Capps said. “And we have photographic evidence directly from the Mercedes-Benz archives that shows the W24 cars were painted silver before the June 1934 race.”
Indeed, as historian Doug Nye pointed out, von Brauchitsch’s silver-painted Mercedes SSKL was described as a “Silver Arrow” in 1932 and a Mercedes-Benz press release from March of 1934 used the same terminology to describe the W25.
The story about sanding off the paint prior to the Eifelrennen, according to Capps, likely originated with Neubauer himself, who published his biography in German in 1958 and again in English in 1960 (as “Speed Was My Life“). “Prior to that, there was no mention of the story anywhere,” Capps said. “Then after 1960 or so, the story pops up all over the place.”
Neither Capps nor Nye are the first to call the story out. In fact, DaimlerChrysler convened a symposium in 2007 to discuss that era and to open up the company’s archives to historians. However, despite the evidence to the contrary, Capps said the company – which celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Silver Arrows in 2009 at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance – still includes the Neubauer myth on placards at its museum, and the company continues to repeat the myth in current press and promotional literature.
Correcting the historical record is “easier said than done,” Capps said. “Mercedes-Benz has made it very clear that they enjoy the myth and don’t bother them with the facts.”
Which is not to say Capps concedes. Instead, his talk at the IMRRC, which he describes as a followup to the 2007 symposium, will delve into the evidence that debunks the myth and show how automotive historians go about researching such topics.
“The Silver Arrows: The 1934 Eifelrennen and Neubauer’s Dilemma?” will take place at 1 p.m. June 9 at the IMRRC in Watkins Glen, New York. For more information, visit the Facebook event page or RacingArchives.org.