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  Mercedes 140 hp Grand Prix

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Country of origin:Germany
Produced in:1908
Numbers built:3
Author:Wouter Melissen
Last updated:December 26, 2007
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Click here to download printer friendly versionWithin a few years motor racing in Europe progressed from the latest past time of the brave and adventurous to a serious rivalry between three big countries; France, Germany and Italy. The main race on the calendar each year was the Grand Prix held on a French track. Renault had taken victory at Le Mans in 1906 and Fiat had successfully defended Italy's honour a year later at Dieppe. Germany's main representatives Benz and Mercedes were determined to set things straight in 1908. Especially for the once dominant Mercedes the pressure was on to score the first major international win since the 1903 Gordon Bennett victory.

A whole new generation of Mercedes Grand Prix cars had been developed by Paul Daimler for the 1907 Grand Prix. Only one car managed to make it to the finish and in a lowly tenth position. The 1907 cars could not be used again in 1908, not only because they had proven inadequate, but also because the Automobile Club de France had imposed new regulations in attempt to cut performance. The Grand Prix organziners set a weight minimum of 1100 kg and limited the bore to 155 mm. At the time it was believed that the bore was the determining fact in engine performance.

Daimler redesigned the massive four cylinder engine of the 1907 car with a bore of 154.7 mm and a stroke of 170 mm, giving a displacement of 12.8 litre. The engine was cast in pairs and featured overhead intake valves and side exhaust valves. Each set of valves was actuated by a lateral camshaft fitted in the crankcase. The approximately 130 bhp was transferred to the rear wheels through a separate four speed gearbox and by massive chains. The drivetrain was installed in straightforward pressed steel ladder frame, which was suspended all-round by live axles and semi-elliptic leaf springs. Fitted with very minimalistic bodywork, the completed car weighed in just over 1100 kg minimum.

With the company's and country's honour at stake, Mercedes left little to chance. The new cars were seen testing at the Dieppe track three months before the Grand Prix. On race day three meticulously prepared examples of the '140 hp' were lined up. The pit crew was also well prepared to handle the many tyre/wheel changes expected due to the poor track surface. The cars were fitted with revolutionary one-bolt wheels and the pit crew had pneumatic jacks to further speed up the work. The total number of cars entered was an unprecedented 48 and half of them were French.

One of the three cars was rumoured to be fitted with a longer stroke engine, which might explain why Salzer took off to a flying start by recording the fastest lap on the opening one. He retired shortly after with mechanical problems. Fortunately Christian Lautenschlager came through to take the lead shortly after. Alomst seven hours and eleven tyre changes later, Lautenschlager came through to take Mercedes' first Grand Prix. It was an amazing feat on its own, but even more so considering that this was the factory's official test driver's very first race. He beat the closest competition, two Benz, by over nine minutes.

The regulations were once again changed for 1909, rendering the 1908 cars obsolete. It did not matter much because no Grand Prix was held between 1909 and 1911 as the manufacturers and governing body argued about the most suitable restrictions. The Grand Prix cars were briefly raced in minor events in Europe and then shipped to the United States. Both the 1912 Vanderbilt Cup and the Elgin Trophy were won. Ralph de Palma subsequently entered an example fitted with a later engine in that year's Indy 500. He led all but the first two and the last two laps, earning him a spot in the history books for the driver leading the most laps and not winning. He led by 10 miles when a piston failed.

At least one of these massive racing cars has survived and in remarkably unscathed condition. It could very well be the most original Edwardian Grand Prix in existence today. It is part of a collection of a great enthusiast of early Grand Prix, who fortunately is more than happy to show his machines at a very regular basis. The 1908 Grand Prix Mercedes is seen above at the 2007 Goodwood Festival of Speed and Revival meetings. It was subsequently to the Mercedes-Benz museum at Brooklands were it was displayed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company's first Grand Prix win.

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