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1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R ex-Fangio racer. (James Mann/Bonhams)
1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R ex-Fangio racer. (James Mann/Bonhams)

Classic cars 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196R racer

F1 racer sells for record $30.77-million Add to ...

The price of “virtual invincibility” in Formula One racing for Mercedes-Benz during its back-to-back, championship-winning, 1954-55 campaigns, was such a commitment of company resources it likely wasn’t measurable in monetary terms.

But the current going-rate for the W196R racer that clinched the 1954 driver’s championship in the hands of legendary Argentinian ace Juan Manuel Fangio, and gave Mercedes its first Grand Prix wins since 1939, certainly can be. And get ready to voice a silent “wow” when you read the number.

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The new owner of the only Mercedes W196 Grand Prix rennwagen “out of [museum] captivity” paid a record-setting £19,601,500 ($30.77-million) July 12 to acquire the car at Bonhams’ auction, held in conjunction with last weekend’s Goodwood Festival of Speed in England.

Although looking slightly tatty-and-battle-scarred, the W196 was undoubtedly the most anticipated lot in the Bonhams auction, and possibly any other auction held so far this year, and with good reason. This is the car Fangio drove to wins in the German and Swiss Grand Prix, one of 10 survivors of 14 built, and the only one in private hands. Bonhams boss Robert Brooks, who has seen more than a few fabulous cars knocked down over the years, says the W196 “is one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all, competition cars. It won races in an era when there was high competition. But it didn’t just win, it dominated, in the hands of the greats of the time, most notably Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss.”

“El Chueco,” the bandy-legged Fangio is gone now, but Sir Stirling and the W196 were on hand for the recent Formula One race at Silverstone, to see Nico Rosberg give Mercedes its first British Grand Prix victory since a newly-hired Moss managed the feat in a sister W196 in 1955, his first Formula One win.

In two memorable seasons, Mercedes’ W196 racers won nine of the 12 Formula One races they competed in, six out of seven in 1955, and Fangio two of his five Formula One World Drivers’ Championships. Moss also added the World Sportscar Championship in 1955, driving the 300 SLR, which was derived from the W196.

Mercedes then abruptly said “auf wiedersehen,” not to return as a Formula One constructor until 2010, more than content it had made the statement it set out to make a few years earlier. Perhaps wisely, in legend-creation terms.

Crusty Grand Prix historian Doug Nye doesn’t concede Mercedes established “total” dominance. After all, it was beaten three times out of the dozen races. Advising readers, “don’t swallow the legend of unbeatability; not whole anyway…”

He writes in his History of the Grand Prix Car that “it was the way Mercedes went racing that really rocked the racing world. None could match its vast commitment in men, money and material.” Its racing department budget “wasn’t open-ended, but by the standards of any contemporary rival, it seemed that way….”

A recollection by Moss illustrates Mercedes’ leave-no-nut-unlock-wired approach. At his cold and wet introductory test of a W196 at the Hockenheim, “I clambered out of the car, rummaging in my pockets for a handkerchief or rag to wipe my face; a mechanic suddenly appeared bearing hot water, soap, a flannel and a towel. Out there in the desolate Hockenheimring, this was forethought I could hardly credit.”

The W196 was the result of a virtually “unfettered” budget to develop a world-beater for the new 2.5-litre formula that came into effect in 1954.

The highly innovative W196 was built around a tubular space-frame chassis, with independent front and rear suspension and huge, inboard-mounted, aluminum drum brakes. The engine was a 2.5-litre, straight-eight with roller-bearing crank, canted over on its right side to lower the hood-line, featuring desmodromic (mechanically opened and closed) valve gear, fuel injection, and a five-speed transaxle. It initially produced 257 hp, later upped to 290 hp, giving a W196 a top speed of 300 km/h.

The W196s missed the first two races of the 1954 season, finally appearing in July for the French Grand Prix at Reims, clad in aerodynamic, all-enveloping, sports-car-like bodywork. Fangio took the pole, and went on to win. In its next outing, at a wet Silverstone, Fangio kept bouncing the bodywork of his “stromlinienwagen” off trackside marker barrels, resulting in the rapid development, at his insistence, of the open-wheel versions.

Chassis number “treble-oh-oh-six” as the just-auctioned car is known, was the first open-wheeler to win a race, and the only survivor to have won two. In 195,5 it was used mainly for testing purposes, but was wheeled out for its final race in the Italian GP at Monza. Karl Kling was running second behind Fangio when its prop-shaft broke.

With Mercedes then on the racing sidelines, it was assigned to the exhibition department, and, in the early 1970s, presented to the British National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, which later sold it to a wealthy British “Sir” to fund an expansion. It then passed through the hands of a French collector – who reputedly paid a “world record for any motor car” price for it – and then a German who ran it in historic events.

Sold yet again, it went into hiding for many years, emerging in its current “unspoiled, almost barn-find” condition, mechanically virtually just as it left the Mercedes Rennabteilung (race workshop) in 1955.

You won’t likely find any vintage-era, oily-handed mechanic’s fingerprints on it though, they’d have been painstakingly polished off.

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