GRR

Thank Frankel it's Friday: A 1.5-litre car is the best I've ever driven at FOS

19th July 2018
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

There’s nothing quite like not going to the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard to make you focus on the Festival of Speed, especially if you earn your living as I do and therefore cannot escape the torrents of tweets and texts from friends and colleagues who did not miss the Festival of Speed and therefore, almost by definition, were having a damn sight more fun than me.

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It made me all nostalgic for and thoughtful about all the incredible cars I’ve driven up the hill over the years and which of them, to me at least, was the most memorable. I’ve not been lucky in the array of equipment that’s been put at my disposal over the years, I’ve been blessed beyond the bounds of all expectation. I’ve driven Le Mans-winning Jaguars and Porsches, some of the rarest Alfa Romeo racing cars and even the odd Ferrari. But the one that keeps coming back to me as the most special of all, was a little 1.5-litre pre-war Mercedes-Benz. Looking back at it, it still seems the stuff of dreams that I even got to sit in it.

Many of you will know the story of the W165 Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix car. If not, it was one of the most extraordinary devices ever created, not least for the reason it was conceived.

In short, by 1939 Mercedes-Benz was the utterly dominant force in Grand Prix racing and, with Auto Union, had been since the mid 1930s. In Tripoli – then an Italian enclave – Marshal Balbo didn’t much like the idea of Mercedes’ winning its Grand Prix for the third time running, so he said only cars with 1.5-litre engines would be eligible of which Alfa Romeo and Maserati had plenty, and Mercedes precisely none. So Mercedes designed a brand new racing car with a brand new engine from scratch and in total secrecy, turned up at the docks with two of them which promptly came first and second in the race and never raced again. Today one is a permanent exhibit in the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart, but the other car – the winning car – actually works. And back in 2011 after a successful test in Germany, I was invited to drive it at Goodwood.

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So just put yourself in my shoes for a second as you sit on the start line in this car. It is really quite important to bear a few things in mind. First, the accelerator pedal is in the middle, the brake on the right. Second, the gearbox puts second directly below third and fourth directly below fifth, so if you do what comes naturally either changing up from third or down from fifth, you will blow one of only two such gearboxes ever created to smithereens. Third, the engine runs on a brew of nitro-methanol, methanol, ether and water and if it’s not kept running between 4,000-7,500rpm at all times, it oils its plugs and stops working. Fourth this little old pre-war 1.5-litre motor is also a quad cam, 32-valve supercharged V8 developing 275hp in a car that weighs the same as an empty bag of crisps. Fifth, to spare the transmission and keep the revs up, I am instructed to drop the clutch at 6,000rpm to make absolutely certain I spin the rear wheels. Sixthly and finally, the engine has been checked and rechecked over the years – but it has never been rebuilt. Every internal component is the same at that which powered Lang over the line in Tripoli almost eighty years ago. The only other parts that exist are in its sister car that has not run in decades.

What do I remember? The outrageous, deafening snarl of the engine, like I imagine a sabre-tooth tiger about to rip your head off might sound, the eye watering smell and taste of fuel made out of what seemed to be liquid dynamite, the utter terror of missing a gear or, worse, getting the wrong one, the absolute necessity to drive it fast because if you just hung onto high revs in a low gear it would overheat in an instant, and the sense of almost shattering relief when I got it to the top completely unharmed.

So while the most fun I ever had driving up the hill was in a Targa Florio-winning Porsche 908/3, the greatest sense of occasion in the ’88 Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9LM, my favourite Festival of Speed weapon has to be the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix-winning Mercedes-Benz W165. Even now, seven years later, if I didn’t have the photographs, I’d probably not believe it happened.

Tripoli image courtesy of Motorsport Images

  • Andrew Frankel

  • Mercedes-Benz

  • W165

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