Monday, February 28, 2011
1912 Daimler "Mercedes" Grand Prix
In 1912, the automobile was still a relatively novel idea for many people. Even though most people could not afford a car, motor racing was becoming very popular. For those constructing vehicles in those days, the sport offered an opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of the machines they were offering to those who were fortunate enough to be able to purchase one.
At that time, the "Mercedes" brand, owned by Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, was still a separate entity from Benz & Cie. (The two would not merge until 1926) and both companies were utilizing the marketing possibilities of racing to full extent - both would be quite successful as well.
The Mercedes shown here was built nearly 100 years ago, but it would not be unfair to say it was just as radical then as say, a Mercedes MGP W01 Formula One car today. It has been seen running at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix (among other events) for the last several years now, and remains quite a machine to behold and admire.
Its history is a little hazy. As the placard accompanying the car owned by Hal Fillinger states, the chassis was discovered in Australia. At that time, the body fitted was that of a "sports racer" and in place of the original Daimler Flugmotor was a 1915 WWI four cylinder Hall-Scott aero engine. It seems unclear what the full extent of the car's racing career was, or, how it ended up in Australia. Regardless, these are rare beasts.
The body currently fitted to the chassis is a 1914 Mercedes GP body. To some, it may seem like such an historic car should be restored to the exacting specifications that Daimler intended, but we must remember, even the replacement engine in the car is a bit of history itself. These cars were often modified heavily and continuously throughout their careers. After all, the technology did not change so rapidly as today and such a vehicle was quite an investment. (According to a recent article in Autoweek about this very car, it would have cost roughly 40,000 Marks when new - that would work out to roughly $9,500 - a princely sum in 1912)
The current Hall-Scott powerhouse of the Mercedes produces about 100hp from 9.5 liters. A hefty amount of horsepower for the time. Having seen this car run, I can tell you that its massive engine isn't exactly a screamer. That being said, with a narrow rev range similar to a German U-boat engine, and a displacement larger than an average Manhattan apartment, it's got to have some serious torque. One can assume that the original Mercedes engine was either replaced due to mechanical malfunction, or, perhaps the Hall-Scott proved to be more powerful or offer a better power to weight ratio.
To hear the engine run is not unlike imagining an old WWI bi-plane idling on the tarmac. Under power, the noise from the car isn't overly deafening, but pretty damned attention getting.
One can only assume that with such power and mass, the two hand-lever operated drum brakes on the Mercedes are one of its weak points. Also bear in mind that with such narrow tires, there's probably less than 10 square inches of rubber holding it on the road.
To be behind the wheel of this massive car 100 years ago must have been as exciting as it was terrifying. Driving such a vehicle on sub-standard roads at 100 mph (and they could do it too) would not be for the faint of heart.
While parked in the paddock at Schenley Park, I was able to get a close look at the details of the car. The craftsmanship is really quite astounding. Little details everywhere, even down to the manufacturers plates and three-pointed stars on the pedals, are a delight to examine. To say one could spend several hours just looking at this Mercedes is not an exaggeration.
Finally, we must be thankful to people like Mr. Fillinger who bring these cars out to be driven and shown off. They are some of the finest pieces of automotive history out there, and to see, hear, and even smell a 1912 Mercedes race car nearly a century after it first wowed the public is an experience that a static roped-off display in a museum simply cannot offer.
Photos by Ian Rothwell @ the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix, 2009 & 2010