Editorial: The Last Silver Arrow

Stephan Wilkinson
by Stephan Wilkinson

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.

Stephan Wilkinson
Stephan Wilkinson

I'm the automotive editor of Conde Nast Traveler and a freelancer for a variety of other magazines as well. Go to amazon.com and read more about me than you ever wanted to know if you do a search for either of my current books, "The Gold-Plated Porsche" and "Man and Machine." Been a pilot since 1967 (single- and multi-engine land, single-engine sea, glider, instrument, Cessna Citation 500 type rating all on a commercial license) and I use the gold-plated Porsche, a much-modified and -lightened '83 911SC, as a track car.

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  • Nicodemus Nicodemus on Sep 05, 2009

    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.

  • Beltway Beltway on Aug 29, 2010

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

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.
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