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Overall length was 6,750 mm, or 1,100 mm longer than a Chevrolet Suburban and about the same width, but its height of 1,750 mm is 200 mm lower. Weight was just under 3,000 kilograms and the color MB blue. (Daimler AG, press department/Daimler AG)
Overall length was 6,750 mm, or 1,100 mm longer than a Chevrolet Suburban and about the same width, but its height of 1,750 mm is 200 mm lower. Weight was just under 3,000 kilograms and the color MB blue. (Daimler AG, press department/Daimler AG)

Classic Cars

Mercedes team moved fast – even off the track Add to ...

When racing legend Sir Stirling Moss began making his name known on European circuits in the early 1950s, his H.W.M. team racers were transported across the continent in a double-decker bus that could manage a top speed of 32 mph and crawled up Alpine passes in first gear.

But when he scored his first Grand Prix victory in the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1955 (becoming the first Brit to do so), the Mercedes-Benz team he was driving for had at its disposal the world’s fastest race car transporter, The Blue Wonder, which could cruise at more than 100 mph with his W196 GP car strapped on its open rear deck.

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It was a big day for Brit fans at Aintree when Moss finished ahead of teammate Juan Manuel Fangio, but it was to prove even more memorable for one in particular. Jim Hayes – now of Georgetown Ont., but then an apprentice tool and die maker – was on the pillion of a pal’s very fast Vincent Black Shadow on his way home to Blackpool after watching Moss win when a Mercedes-Benz juggernaut blew by on the North Lancashire Road. “And we were flying. It looked great, very streamlined and that one car on the back.”

No wonder Hayes describes he and his mate as being “awestruck” by the experience, at the time there was nothing like the MB car-hauler on the road, most teams making do with more prosaic and certainly slower transport, although Moss’s early hauler might have been an exceptional example.

Moss’s mechanic, Polish ex-pat Alf Francis, later related the tale of a run to Monza during the 1951 season in the team’s diesel A.E.C. bus, which carried two cars, an extra 100 gallons of racing fuel, 20 wheels and tires and all sorts of spares and tools.

After “clanking” across France, they arrived at the Alps to find the Mt. Cenis Pass closed by snow. A 130-mile, 18-hour detour took them to a route that climbed across Mt. Genevre on a single snow-plowed track with banks as high as the bus windows. “It was a devilish climb, in first gear most of the way, with the back wheels spinning most of the time,” he said in his memoir.

And he didn’t dare stop even when the bus’s engine overheated. “The radiator boiled like a kettle on the hearth most of the way, there was so much steam inside the coach it was like a Turkish baths, and it was impossible to see through the windows. In any case there wasn’t much to see as the clouds were low and dense as fog.” Going down the other side was even more hair-raising.

When they finally arrived at the Monza Autodrome after their heroic marathon drive, they were flagged down by Moss, who’d arrived by less-harrowing means, who shouted “Where the hell have you been?” A show of blistered palms brought a prompt apology.

MB’s transporter by contrast was a rocket that blistered pavement rather than its driver’s hands.

But H.W.M. was operated on an impossibly flimsy shoestring by keen amateurs. When a resurgent Mercedes-Benz decided to get back in the racing game, it did so with the same level of domination in mind its big-budget Silver Arrows team had created in the 1930s.

Behind the effort was legendary Alfred Neubauer, who had become Mercedes’ racing manager in 1926. The new generation of Silver Arrows racers were born in 1954 and, according to plan, Fangio won the 1954 and 1955 World Drivers Championships.

It was Neubauer’s full-court-press approach to racing that led to the creation of a super-fast single-car transporter that could rush a newly modified racer to the next event, or return one that had suffered mechanical or crash damage for rapid repair.

He handed the job to MB’s test and prototype department, which started with the X-frame from a 300S Roadster and extended it at each end, fitting double-wishbone front suspension and a swing-arm setup at the rear. Boosted drum brakes were installed plus a disc-brake on the propeller shaft, along with suitable springs and shocks as it was going to have to handle while going fast.

The going-fast part was handled by installing a fuel-injected 3.0-litre inline-six borrowed from MB’s new 300SL Gullwing sports car, detuned a bit to 195 hp for reliability, and likely improved torque. Plus a four-speed all-synchro gearbox.

The transporter’s unusual front-end treatment with its dramatically overhung cab was based on the structure of a 180 sedan. It looks almost like a cab and trailer, but is actually all one piece with the rear car deck stretching back to aero-curved rear fenders. Overall length was 6,750 mm, or 1,100 mm longer than a Chevrolet Suburban and about the same width, but its height of 1,750 mm is 200 mm lower. Weight was just under 3,000 kilograms and the color MB blue.

And it was fast, with a top speed of 170 km/h, although not likely with a race car aboard. It created a sensation on the roads of Europe when it appeared in mid-1954. Hayes and his friend likely weren’t alone having one blast past unexpectedly. But within a brief year and a half , it was sidelined, along with MB’s racing program.

The Blue Wonder was shipped to the United States in 1956 where it toured the car show circuit and returned to Germany in 1957 where it was supposed to find a home in the Mercedes-Benz museum. It proved too heavy for the aging structure and served out its time as a test department hack before being scrapped in 1967.

In 1993, Mercedes management decided this fascinating piece of its heritage should be recreated and chose a speciality firm to do the job. As a hand-built vehicle, there was little available in the way of drawings, but plenty of photographs and after 6,000 hours spent over seven years the reproduction was completed.

It now shares museum space – and occasional outings – with a more recent restored mid-30s transporter like those that hauled the original Silver Arrows racers around.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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