Crippled by an ailing global economy, Mercedes-Benz divested itself from racing after 1931, the year that Rudolf Caracciola became the first non-Italian driver to win the Mille Miglia, behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz SSKL. In 1932, however, privateer racer Manfred von Brauchitsch debuted a streamlined SSKL at Avus, its alloy body accurately predicting the future of race car design. The original von Brauchitsch car has been lost to history, but in honor of its 125th anniversary in motorsports, Mercedes-Benz Classic is recreating the 1932 SSKL Avus.
Launched in 1928, the Mercedes-Benz SSK (for Super Sport Kurz, denoting the car’s shortened wheelbase compared to the Type SS) was a do-it-all sports car aimed at the gentleman racer. Powered by a 7.1-liter, overhead-camshaft inline six-cylinder engine, the SSK originally produced 160 horsepower in naturally aspirated form, or up to 200 hp with the optional supercharger. By 1931, power had increased to the point where the base SSK made 240 hp, with supercharged versions producing 300 hp in road-going trim, and even more in race tune.
The SSKL Avus replica under construction.
The Mercedes-Benz team cars were painted white, the German national color, and internally, the factory began referring to the supercharger assembly as “the elephant” for its power and noise. Hence, the SSKs campaigned by the German squad were called the “White Elephants,” though the cars proved successful in a number of races across the globe. Caracciola’s 16-hour drive with Wilhelm Sebastian in an SSKL (a lightened variant of the SSK) at the 1931 Mille Miglia not only produced a win for Mercedes-Benz, but set an average speed record of 101.1 km/h (63.7 mph), one that would stand until 1955. It would be another Mercedes-Benz, this time a 300 SLR driven by Stirling Moss with Denis Jenkinson, that would raise the bar to a 99 mph average.
A “conventional” 1931 Mercedes-Benz SSKL.
Mercedes-Benz built just 33 SSKs, and of this population, only a handful were converted into SSKLs. Visually, the SSKLs were identifiable by their drilled frames, and in conjunction with other weight-saving measures, the lightweight cars shed 275 pounds over their production counterparts. Technically speaking, Mercedes-Benz didn’t have a factory racing program for 1931, though its support of privateer teams (and driver Caracciola) included both cars and personnel. By 1932, however, even this level of funding couldn’t be maintained, and Caracciola gravitated to the Alfa Romeo team for the season.
Baron Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld next to the Mercedes-Benz SSKL racing sports car with streamlined body for the Avus race in Berlin on 22 May 1932.
Enter von Brauchitsch, a privateer racer from a well-heeled German family. After acquiring an SSKL, he enlisted the help of Baron Reinhard von Koenig-Fachsenfeld a motorcycle racing champion who later studied vehicle aerodynamics with Paul Jaray and designed aerodynamic bodies for road and racing cars. The drawings from von Koenig-Fachsenfeld were sent to coachbuilder Vetter in Cannstatt, which crafted the replacement body out of a light alloy material. Ultimately, this shape produced 25-percent less drag than a standard SSKL, adding another 20 km/h (12.4 mph) to the top speed.
Manfred von Brauchitsch’s 1932 victory at Avus also set a class world record with an average speed of 194.4 km/h (120.5 mph) over a distance of 200 kilometers (124 miles).
The unusual car prompted Berlin residents on hand for the 1932 Avusrennen (Avus Race) to dub it “The Gherkin,” for its (supposed) resemblance to a pickle. No one was laughing when the streamliner fought is way to the front of the pack during the May 22 race, and after a brief battle with Caracciola’s Alfa Romeo, von Brauchitsch was victorious. His win caught the eye of Mercedes-Benz, too, and when the company reinstated its racing program with the legendary Silver Arrows in 1934, von Brauchitsch was named a team driver alongside former rival Caracciola.
Though not officially a Mercedes-Benz team car, the streamliner represented an important piece of the marque’s racing history, as it bridged the gap between the conventional “White Elephants” and the aerodynamic “Silver Arrows.” The original had long been lost to history, so Mercedes-Benz Classic made the decision to recreate the car, retaining as much originality as possible. After extensive research, the go-ahead for construction was given in January 2019, with the ambitious goal of having the car ready to show at the 2019 Goodwood Festival of Speed, just six months later.
Mercedes-Benz Classic met this deadline, displaying a static version of the prewar racer in its paddock at Goodwood. Plans are to turn the car into a fully-functional vehicle, capable of driving exhibition laps at future events alongside its “White Elephant” and “Silver Arrow” brethren.