Audi and Mercedes-Benz will celebrate this weekend’s Goodwood Revival event with a rare running of the iconic German pre-war Silver Arrow racing cars. Among the mix will be Audi’s newly acquired Auto Union Type D, as well as a host of other originals and painstakingly accurate replicas. To help celebrate, Mercedes-Benz’s historical department has released a large collection of photos from the era.
As the world marched toward global conflict, Germany embraced auto racing as a source of national pride. The Germans were on the forefront of many technologies at the time and race cars were very much part of this. As a result, the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz cars of the time came out and dominated the world Grand Prix circuit.
Following the war, Mercedes-Benz remained in Western Germany while the Auto Union werks in Zwickau fell into the Soviet zone. As a result, most of the cars and much of the other support materials were lost. As news of Audi’s latest Type D acquisition has proven, Ingolstadt has had to carefully reacquire what was left and in some cases recreate from what blueprints and photography can be found.
The rarity of photos from this period due to the strife of war and also the exotic nature and rarity of cameras in the 1930’s means that shots from the time period are much harder to come by. Many are in private collections or kept on a short leash when it comes to publication, though you can find many in books about the era. Less can be found online. We strive to publish everything that is released for our use, but this is still far from what readers come to expect in this digital age of photography. More photos will likely be taken by Audi Sport photographers during qualifying for this weekend’s WEC round at Sao Paulo than comprise the entirety of Silver Arrow photography in the archives at Audi Tradition.
When we saw Mercedes release their collection this week, we jumped on it. Unlike Audi’s own upheaval in the days after World War II, Mercedes-Benz was kept essentially intact. As such, Stuttgart’s photo archives from the time are some of the richest around. We’ve culled through what they released and have focused on the Auto Unions seen in those shots. Clearly Mercedes’ own emphasis is on their own brand, though there’s plenty of Auto Union content in the mix due to the strong rivalry and competition of the time.
We’ve added most of these photos to our own Silver Arrow era photo gallery. These can be seen organized out by racing season and event with other photos we’ve already published. That gallery can be found HERE. The photos with Auto Union specific content can also be seen at the bottom of this story so you don’t need to surf through many file folders.
In laying out this story, we decided to include several photos from those released that we found most interesting. This shot from the 1937 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring shows what looks to be a battle between a number of Mercedes and Auto Union Silver Arrows. In the shot, the #16 Mercedes-Benz appears to lead. Look closer at the photo and you’ll see the third car in this pack is the #4 Auto Union seemingly in mid drift and setting for a pass on the outside.
While these cars had as-of-then unimaginable levels of horsepower, they were very much limited by the mechanical grip of the period tires. Drifting and constant steering correction are said to be hallmarks of the racing styles and particularly for the mid-engine Auto Unions. Bernd Rosemeyer was an ace at this, and this photo shows him on the working end of that skill set.
Looking back on race reports from the time, we can tell that the #16 Mercedes began the race driven by Luigi Fagioli. After a retirement due to fuel pump failure, Mercedes top dog Rudolf Caracciola took the wheel of Fagioli’s car – a move that was within the rules of the time. Perhaps this shot depicts Caracciola fighting hard to come back. He’d finish one lap down while the drifting Bernd Rosemeyer would win the race and also set the fastest lap at 9:53.4 seconds doing an average speed of 85.57 mph… all without a helmet, seat belt or fire proof suit.
Tragically, Rosemeyer’s teammate Ernst von Delius was killed from an accident during that 1937 race.
Regarding accidents, it is important to remember what a dangerous sport this was. The lack of safety equipment and cars with power levels well ahead of tire, aerodynamic or safety technologies of the time made the death of racers a relatively common occurrence. Even the proximity of fans in these photos shows a world almost alien to today’s common practices.
One practice that is very uncommon for a manufacturer is to show their cars wrecked or damaged. While accidents are still a part of the sport, this side is seldom shown when images are sourced from the factory. We were most surprised then to dig up this shot in the Mercedes Archive. It is from Spa in 1939 – an accident at the Belgian Grand Prix. In the race, British-born factory driver Richard Seaman lost control of his Mercedes and hit a tree. The car was engulfed in flames and Seaman was fatally wounded. This photo depicts the car still aflame and sandwiched around that tree.
Rosemeyer was also killed in 1938 while attempting a high-speed record run at an event held on the German autobahn near Darmstadt.
Shots added to our gallery can be seen below. Information for this story was attained from two books: Racing the Silver Arrows by Chris Nixon and Silver Arrows in Camera by Anthony Pritchard