When a Mercedes W196 Grand Prix car sold this month for a record setting $30M at Bonhams, the world took notice. To the uninitiated, the beast’s value and significance, much of which is mostly stowed in it’s exclusivity, is much less self-evident when compared to contemporaries like the beautiful Bugatti Atlantic or the Ferrari GTO. But for the informed, the vehicle is the automotive equivalent of a Da Vinci painting that somehow isn’t in the Louvre or the Uffizi; Bidding on the only available example not in a museum was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a collector. While there are 32 surviving Ferrari GTOs, and 2 genuine Bugatti Atlantics, there will ever only be one W196 on the open market.
The W196 was the car with which Mercedes-Benz returned to the Grand Prix racing after a miraculous rise from the ashes of war. With the prewar Silver Arrows racing machines still fresh in their minds, it was vitally important that Mercedes should uphold its reputation for technical superiority, and the engineers, led by the legendary Rudi Uhlenhaut, were given free rein to develop cars that utterly dominated Formula 1 in 1954 and 1955, winning 9 of the 12 races they competed in. Among the innovations present in the W196 was the first use of fuel injection—a wartime aviation innovation that had yet to be used in racing cars, – a sophisticated inboard braking system to reduce unsprung weight, and an engine canted to the side to lower the center of gravity and reduce frontal area.
While the car that was auctioned is in the later open-wheeled configuration, the early W196 bore fully enclosed streamlined bodywork that might lay rightful claim as the most beautiful shape ever created for any racing car in history. These graceful stromlinienwagen were at home on the vast high speed circuits of the day, such as the French Grand Prix circuit at Reims, where it finished 1-2 first time out. This exquisite bodywork soon became a liability at the shorter, tighter tracks, so the open-wheeled version was prepared for the German GP at the famous Nurburgring, where it also won.
Photo of the 1954 Mercedes W196 that recently sold at Bonhams
Beyond the aesthetic perfection of the W196 and its redoubtable technical prowess, the car was also associated with the finest driving talent of the time as well. Five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio as well as the legendary English driver Stirling Moss both campaigned the W196 with great success in 1954 and 1955. It’s no coincidence that when the best drivers also have the best car, the competition stands little chance of success. That is why the W196 became so iconic. And like all icons, its lifespan was cut short. At the peak of success, Mercedes-Benz suddenly withdrew from racing in the wake of a tragic accident at the Le Mans 24 hours in 1955. It was a real loss for the sport, but also cemented the legend of the W196 forever as the greatest car of the era that only ran 12 races.
Words by: Bradley Price, a New York-based designer, car nut, racing history buff. He founded the Autodromo brand in 2011, and divides his spare time between his stable of vintage Italian cars and running the car blog Automobiliac.