Standing majestically near the centre of the exhibition and demanding close scrutity from all who pass-by is the simply jaw-dropping 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K Streamliner.
We approach its custodian from the M-B museum Lars Niehaus and, risking a polite refusal, we ask if we could take a look inside. ‘Sure,’ came the reply, accompanied by a knowing grin. We climb up on the platform with Lars as he unlocks the door and affords us a very privileged view. The crowd almost doubles within seconds.
Built in 1938 for the ill-fated Berlin-Rome race, the Streamliner actually spent some time as a high-speed test mule for Dunlop before eventually finding its way back to Stuttgart. ‘The body was ruined when it came back,’ Lars tells us. ‘It was disassembled and kind of forgotten about until five years ago when someone spotted the chassis and started asking questions as to what it was!’
The unique car was fully rebuilt to a the breathtaking standard you see here, and today is being shown to the French public for the first time. I ask Lars if it’s coming to the Festival of Speed, but all I get is the knowing grin accompanied with a Gallic shrug. I tried!
Sharing space on the stand with the Streamliner is something I recognise. ‘An early Rennsport SL!’ I exclaim at the sight of the car which carried-on the Mercedes-Benz streamliner study after the war. ‘The earliest,’ Lars interjects. It turns out that this is indeed chassis number two and therefore the oldest in existence after the first car was destroyed in-period.
‘This one raced in the Mille Miglia,’ Lars explains. ‘The car was designed with the small doors you see here. It was only when the team got to Le Mans that they realised they needed bigger doors to facilitate getting in-and-out at the driver changes. The Gullwing was born!’
Sitting next to the (priceless?) SL is something straight out of the Seventies and dripping with cool; one of the Wankel-engined C111s. ‘These cars were very powerful for the time,’ Lars says of the orange wedge. ‘The plan was to sell them, but problems with the motors and then the oil crisis stopped the whole idea; the Wankel used a lot of fuel. But when it was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1970 people were just leaving blank cheques!’
Sadly, none of the Wankel cars are in running order ‘…although we do have one with a 3.5-litre V8 in it which still drives,’ Lars adds.
Predictably, we could have stayed gazing at these cars and the contemporary AMG GT and S63 AMG which neatly bring the concept of aerodynamic efficiency and high speed up to date, but we’ve seen even more cool stuff!
More to come …
Photography: Tom Shaxson