Only the perfection-driven minds at Mercedes-Benz could conceive of such a project, much less carry it through to completion.
The goal: Construct a special vehicle to carry a racing car to and from events throughout Europe and make it the fastest and most recognizable transporter the world had ever seen.
But what could possibly possess the company to invest vaults of money and countless hours in the design and construction of such a one-off commercial carrier? Wouldn’t any existing large van suit the purpose?
The story behind the transporter’s creation is a blending of pride, passion and practicality.
Before World War I, Mercedes-Benz had been locked in fierce competition with the German Auto Union racing teams. Mercedes’ 3.0-liter V-12-powered W 154 proved the car to beat, however, as it won 12 of the 17 events leading up to the war.
It wasn’t until 1952 that Mercedes-Benz management made the decision to return to Grand Prix racing, beginning with the 1954 season.
To trumpet its comeback, Mercedes-Benz decided to build a special truck to haul its all-new W 196 racer, a car that was piloted by Argentine ace Juan Manuel Fangio.
The carrier had to look unlike any other on the road while being instantly recognizable as a company-designed vehicle. It also had to be faster than all similar-sized rigs as well as most of the cars that plied the highways of western Europe (not to mention the no-speed-limit German Autobahn). Why? Getting the car to the race track faster and sooner meant more preparation and practice time. It also meant that a damaged racer could be returned to the plant for repairs and returned to action in record time.
Technically, the transporter incorporated the best that Mercedes-Benz had to offer. The extended X-shaped frame was based on the automaker’s full-sized 300 S sedan while the 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine and four-speed manual transmission were similar to those installed in the automaker’s 300 SL gullwing sports cars. Power-assisted hydraulic drum brakes were fitted at all four wheels.
However, by far the transporter’s most unusual feature was its breathtaking bodywork. Many of the steel panels were based on, or modified from models that existed at the time. The doors and front glass, for example, were borrowed from the 180 sedan, as were most of the interior finishings. Between the front and rear fenders was space for two spare tires, loading ramps as well as tools and other equipment for the race car.
The entire cab area was positioned low to the ground in what appeared to be a precarious position, well ahead of the front axle. Odd to be sure, but unmistakably Mercedes-looking.
The finished product, painted in factory blue, was more than just an eye-catching success. It was a truck that, despite a fully loaded weight of about 6,600 pounds, was capable of more than 100 mph, fast even by today’s standards.
The transporter took to the road in mid-1954 and was an immediate hit at tracks in Europe as well as North America. In fact, many of the crowds that flocked to it were far greater than those that surrounded the race cars it carried.
Mercedes-Benz withdrew from racing following the tragic events of the 1955 French 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race after a privately entered M-B 300 SLR crashed, killing 80 people. By the autumn of that year, the entire racing division, including the transporter, was retired.
Although plans were made to place the vehicle and its precious cargo in the company’s museum, its weight proved too much for the building’s floors and the idea, as well as the transporter itself, was scrapped.
In the years following its demise, Mercedes-Benz received so many inquiries from fans of its magnificent machine that, in 1993, it was decided to build a replica. Using an outside fabricator and working only from a few sketches and photographs (no original blueprints were located), the vehicle was finally completed in 2000.
A brief, but glorious page in Mercedes-Benz racing history had been miraculously returned to once more amuse and amaze both new friends and old alike.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by clicking the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.