Doug Nye reveals the myth behind the livery of Mercedes-Benz racers - often referred to as the Silver Arrows
This has been a motor-racing annus horribilis, not only for McLaren but also for its major shareholder, Mercedes-Benz. Around the time the “Ferrarigate” espionage story was breaking, a fuss of a different kind was enveloping DaimlerChrysler.
This year’s vulgar McLaren-Mercedes livery has evolved from their previously gorgeous silver-grey, which dates back to the works Mercedes that dominated grand prix racing from 1934-39 and again from 1954-55, building the legend of the “Silver Arrows”.
Mercedes’ contemporary racing manager was Alfred Neubauer. In 1958 he related rollicking tales of his racing years in Quick magazine, the German equivalent of Picture Post. Ghosted by a young journalist, Harvey T. Rowe, Neubauer’s story was later edited into an autobiography, published in English as Speed Was My Life, which included the tale of how he had saved Mercedes’ bacon during the debut of the Nazi-backed W25 grand prix car in 1934.
A new grand prix formula had just been launched, including a maximum weight limit of 750kg. With financial support from Germany’s National Socialist government, powerful cars were developed by both Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union.
The rear-engined 16-cylinder Auto Unions raced first at Berlin’s Avus track in May, but Mercedes ignominiously withdrew its new front-engined eight-cylinder cars before the event. Neubauer told how these white-painted W25s then proved overweight during scrutineering for the next race, the EifelRennen at the Nürburgring in June. Another non-start was unacceptable; in Berlin, a former house painter was expecting a return on his government’s investment.
What to do? Neubauer had a brainwave: “Scrape off the paint!” Next morning, in bare metal, the new cars met the 750kg limit and works driver Manfred von Brauchitsch won the race. “And so silver replaced white as the German national racing colour - the Silver Arrows had been born.” This became the legend, which in recent years Mercedes-Benz has promoted globally. However, the German journalist Eberhard Reuss took exception to this and published an article that debunked the much-enhanced story as a lie. A huge fuss mushroomed, assuming such serious proportions that DaimlerChrysler convened a symposium in Stuttgart to re-examine the legend.
Reuss brandished the 1999 testimony of 1934 team mechanic Eugen Reichle: “The cars had never been painted white, so there was no paint to grind off.” But the autobiographies of Neubauer (1959), Brauchitsch (1964) and a 1980s interview with mechanic/driver Hermann Lang all repeated the paint-stripping story. The ring of truth was added by the respected (late) Mercedes engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut. Four to one was surely confirmation?
However, Reuss pointed out that Uhlenhaut wasn’t even with the team before 1936, that white as the German racing colour had previously been ignored in favour of silver not only by Auto Union at Avus in 1934, but also occasionally by Mercedes over the preceding 10 years. Photos of the W25 practising at Avus in 1934 indicated it was silver, as Reichle recalled, not white, so why should white paint be stripped off at the Nürburgring the following month?
A consensus emerged that Neubauer was more likely to embroider than to lie. His reputation was vigorously defended by the admirable Harvey T Rowe. He recalled how in 1958 he had asked Neubauer only one question before the great man began barking a torrent of machine-gun recollections into the microphone without pause until the tape ran out. “I never did manage to ask a second question,” said Rowe wistfully.
Mercedes’ trawl through its archives had produced crucial documents but nary a mention of paint removal. Critically, as early as March 1 1934, the company’s original press release for the new W25 GP car described it as “ein silberne Pfeil” - a silvered arrow. Even more stunning was a radio commentary covering the 1932 AvusRennen in which Paul Laven, Germany’s Murray Walker, described Brauchitsch’s Mercedes-Benz bursting into sight: “Hier kommt der silberne Pfeil.” Meanwhile, posts on Autosport magazine’s online “Nostalgia Forum” pointed out that the EifelRennen race was not run to the 750kg formula at all, but a free formula that rendered weight irrelevant. However, it was still argued that Mercedes knew weight would be critical in that year’s major grands prix, and so in rehearsal at the Nürburgring the 750kg target still had to be met. Other posts cite precedents for last-minute paint-scraping as early as 1904, suggesting perhaps that Neubauer had either confused events or made himself the hero of an old anecdote. The Stuttgart symposium’s review of contemporary factory photographs finally proved compelling. Photos since used as evidence that early W25s were painted white proved to have been heavily retouched, and the original negatives yield plain evidence of a silver finish. If the cars were ever stripped, it was of silver paint - and the heavy leaded filler beneath it - not white. And not, it appears, at the Nürburgring.
Photo taken during the 1934 Eifelrennen. Silver cars, white wheel.