By on September 3, 2009

On September 1, the Collier Collection of Naples, Florida, brought to Lime Rock its 1939 Mercedes-Benz W 154 Grand Prix car. (Yes, Collier’s is a collection, not a museum. Don’t bother looking for a website; visitors by invitation only.) The word from Lime Rock’s PR person: this would be the first time the engine had ever been started on a racetrack in 69 years and 363 days, having last run in anger at a minor street race in Yugoslavia on September 3, 1939, two days after the start of World War II. Two ringers from Stuttgart had been sent to Connecticut to help with this historic ignition, as had the British restorer who’d rebuilt the engine. The Collier guys also planned to run the car on the track briefly, which, it was said, would also be a 70-year first.

Legend has it that this car, the last of the 15 W 154s built, was one of two found in 1945 in Austria by the steamrollering Soviets, who put them on a train to be shipped back to Russia. The cars got as far as Romania, where the troops running the train traded them for liquor, food, local goods and probably a few cute Romanian girls.

I missed that phrase “on a racetrack” in my quick reading of the invitation to attend, so I hustled up in my nearly-as-ancient 911 to see and hear what I figured would be something as momentous as being present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb. Would it start? Would it grenade? Would they need a spritz of snowblower ether to bring it to life?

Well, it was fun but not quite as historic as I’d expected. Turns out the car had actually raced several times well after World War II, the last time in a hillclimb where it wrecked. And when the engine started with a brain-melting bark on the second turn of the crankshaft, it immediately became obvious that Mister W 154 had been run, after an extensive rebuild, plenty long enough to jet and tune its V12’s supercharged carburetors. Just not “on a racetrack.”

While dozens of us crowded around, snapped pictures and generally got in the way, plugs were pulled, a crystal-meth lab’s worth of fuel was poured, the engine was spun to build oil pressure, plugs were replaced (without a torque wrench in sight, by the way; these guys have calibrated wrists). A friend who was with me laughed and said, “I have to go through this every time I start my ’40 Fleet biplane, but nobody’s ever around.”

Came the big moment and instantly the air was filled with unbearable noise and the smell of a model-airplane meet. Emissions? You betcha: little did the tiny village of Lakeville, Connecticut, know that it had briefly become an EPA Superfund site. The engine burns a blend of methyl alcohol, nitrobenzene, acetone and sulphuric ether that would probably burn through concrete.

After five minutes of WHAP . . . WHAP . . . WHAP . . WHAP back and forth to 4,000 rpm (to keep the hot start-up plugs clear), the entire car was gently smoking as restorative paint melted here and there, asbestos wrapping burned off the two tailpipes and glycol began to bubble into the tray under the car.

In go the cold plugs, from a gray wooden box on a cradle fitted to the curve of the car’s cowling and lettered “von Brauchitsch,” who drove it at Belgrade that September day in 1939, starting on the pole and finishing second to Nuvolari in an Auto Union Type D.

The car is pushed to the end of the pit lane while a dozen well-heeled Lime Rock Park Club members wait impatiently for their turn at the track. One of them, trim in his tailored shorts and Ralph Lauren shirt, in an accent that we used to call Locust Valley lockjaw, had earlier asked me, “Are you here for the track day?” I told him, “No, I am a writer, waiting for the Mercedes.” “Yes, I figured,” he said as he eyed my stock Levi’s.

The W 154 did a few racketing but careful laps on its cold, skinny tires, the Mercedes Classic Center factory driver obviously well aware of the I’m-guessing $20 million value of the car. If you want to see this Silver Arrow do it again, go to the 27th Annual Lime Rock Park Vintage Festival this Labor Day weekend. It’ll be there. Bring earplugs. Or watch the video here.

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18 Comments on “Editorial: The Last Silver Arrow...”

  • avatar
    Andy D

    I’ll be there,carousing with my fellow E 28ers. It is the last event that draws us together. Previously in ’09, we met at Mt Airy, NC for [email protected], and Tedfest in Mississauga, ON.
    BTW, there was a Pierce Arrow of the same name produced for the 1934 NY auto show. It is a rare beauty too.

  • avatar

    What a magnificent machine. In the video it’s practically begging to be driven hard – seems almost cruel to rein it in that way.

  • avatar

    I’m SO going over there after lunch today.

  • avatar

    Great to see you here again, Stephan!

  • avatar

    My friends dad has a 50’s speedboat (english maker,not sure of which one) with a RR V12 supercharged Merlin engine (P-51 Mustang Fame). I imagine hearing the W154 produces a similar feeling.

  • avatar

    I love these glorious old cars but it’s painful to see a rich douchbag making a big deal about putting it “on a track” then driving it more gently than I drive to the grocery store.

    There are no great monuments built for eunuchs.

  • avatar

    @pnnyj: Well said.

    Thank you for the article, Mr. W.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Wonderful article, wonderful topic — and a fantastic noise on the video! Thank you, Mr. W.

  • avatar

    What a wonderful noise!

    I’ve seen this car before, but never heard it until I watched that video just now. Too bad I’m 3000 miles away from Lime Rock.


  • avatar

    I love these kind of ‘leading edge of technology’ machines’…. the technology changes but the spirit remains the same.

  • avatar

    You want classic ear-splitting racing? Go to Mont Tremblant’s Summit of Legends north of Montreal. You will wander through a paddock of billions of dollars worth of stuff from the 30s to the present. Then you’ll see them get properly flogged around the track – against each other. No pansy parade laps (well, some), but real gentleman racers duking it out in their classics. Where else will you see a birdcage Maserati next to a McLaren F1 GT-LM (ex BMW works car), or watch Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari race Mario Andretti’s JPS livery car, or see a bright orange 930 racer spew three foot flames on overrun? All in the same hour?

  • avatar

    Interesting and sounds nice sure, but I’m sorry I can’t fawn over a car that was built primarily as a Nazi propaganda tool.

  • avatar

    rnc: “RR V12 supercharged Merlin engine (P-51 Mustang Fame)”

    If it is from a P-51, or a host of other (and British planes too), then it is Not a RR, but a Packard, Merlin (based on the RR, but significantly re-engineered by (first) Ford, then (secondly) Packard for durability, reliability, and high-volume mass production by Packard in its plant in Detroit.

    Look closely on the blocks of these engines, and one can find the Packard logo, and the words “Packard Merlin”…

  • avatar

    “Legend has it that this car, the last of the 15 W 154s built, was one of two found in 1945 in Austria by the steamrollering Soviets,”

    Just a small point of order, this was the fourteenth and thus second last built. It was the last PRE-war car built, the 15th car was built after the war.

  • avatar

    I think I saw Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel of a Silver Arrow, to celebrate it’s 75th anniversary. Don’t know if it was this model or another one.

    Edit: Here we go –

  • avatar
    Stephan Wilkinson

    Nicodemus, you may be absolutely right, I have no idea, but every resource available says it was chassis #15, including the Collier Collection, which owns it. I have never seen it written that it was chassis 14. It’s interesting in any case that W 154s were built after WWII. I know Mercedes sent some to race–unsuccessfully–in Argentina after the war, but did they really manage to build another one amid the rubble of Stuttgart in the late ’40s? Pretty amazing if so…and not hard to believe, since they were routinely building Porsche 356s and expensive touring Mercedes not long thereafter.

    And we can’t even pump cellars dry after Katrina an equivalent length of time later.

  • avatar

    This is indeed chassis #15, but that doesn’t mean it was the 15th built. You see, there was no number #13. The 15th built was #16 if you see what I mean.

    A W154 was raced at Indy after the war, not very successfully though.

  • avatar

    Great car, pity it’s stolen property!!!

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