The 1930s were an era of fierce competition. Technological advancements and rivalry between countries, fueled by nationalism, resulted in a race to the become the world’s fastest on land. Great-Britain, at the time the one to beat was challenged by Nazi-Germany, which has just developed its own racing program. The Germans had set their eyes on the world land speed record, but the road towards it wasn’t an easy one.
German chancellor Adolf Hitler understood the symbolism behind racing cars as it could serve a prime example of German technological superiority. At the 1933 Berlin Motor Show, he announced a state-sponsored motor racing program to develop a “high speed German automotive industry”. Huge sums of Reichsmarks were poured into the program, resulting in a fleet of Silver Arrows – as the Mercedes and Auto Union teams were known ‒ which became the dominant Grand Prix cars of their time, to Hitler’s delight.
National pride and prestige as was also at stake in the race to break the land speed record. In 1931, British driver Malcolm Campbell has set a land speed record of 395.5km/h (245.7mph). Four years later he became the first person to drive an automobile over 300mph, averaging 485km/h (301.3 mph) in two passes.
The system of speed records at the time used classes based on engine capacity, allowing modified Grand Prix cars to be used to break records. Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz were unleashing their record-breaking cars on the Autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, which was closed for all traffic. Well, sometimes not entirely closed as Bernd Rosemeyer made a practice run with his Auto Union in 1937 that nearly ended up in the traffic because the Autobahn was only closed in one direction. Later that day, he achieved a maximum speed of 389.6km/h. Germany’s motor racing governing body dedicated that same year a whole week for record attempts, referred to as Rekordwoche (German for “Record Week”). Intended as a show-off German technological superiority, the Rekordwoche failed to live up the expectations.
The fierce competition between Auto-Union and Mercedes-Benz ended in tragedy on January 28, 1938. It was a cold morning and Mercedes driver Rudolf Caracciola (pictured above) had just set a new German record with an average speed of 432.7km/h (268.9mph) on the Autobahn A5 south of Frankfurt. Rosemeyer set off in his a streamlined Auto Union in an attempt to break Caracciola’s fresh record, he never came back. The picture below is the last one taken before the crash.
The accident was the result of the car’s new nose, which featured a much larger air intake. This triggered pressure differential between the inner body and the channeled airflow under it, which blew out the floor of the Auto Union. Rosemeyer lost control of his car, left the road at more than 430km/h and was killed instantly in the crash. Germany had lost one of its heroes. The speed achieved by Caracciola is still the fastest ever clocked on a public road.
Meanwhile, Great-Britain was celebrating its heroes. On the other side of the Atlantic, on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, British driver George Eyston blasted himself to a new world record of 502.4km/h (312.2mph). Between 1937 and 1939 he set three new land speed records, but was twice bettered by another Brit named John Cobb who eventually achieved a speed of 592km/h (367.9mph). But in Germany, engineers already started working on a special project ‒ a monster intended to shatter the record.
Racing driver Hans Stuck was also the person who introduced Hitler into the world of racing. It was also Stuck who convinced Hitler earlier to sponsor not only Mercedes-Benz, but also his team Auto Union. Stuck dreamt of setting the world land speed record. Officially it was Hitler who sanctioned Auto Union to build a record-breaker for his protégé and the glory of the Third Reich, but in fact it was Stuck initiated the project. Auto Union declined, therefore the project was adopted by Mercedes-Benz.
Ferdinand Porsche ‒ who worked for Auto Union ‒ was going to lead the development of the Mercedes-Benz T80. A major challenge would be the amount of power necessary in order to set a new record initially targeted at 550km/h. But the records set by Eyston and Cobb forced Porsche to target 600km/h (373mph). According to calculations made by Porsche, the record-breaking Benz would need at least 3000 horsepower. No German engine was capable of delivering that amount of power, the ones used to propel aircrafts barely exceeded the 1000 horses.
But Daimler-Benz was busy testing a new engine named the DB 603 ‒ a supercharged liquid-cooled in-line V12 ‒ which would be used in some fighters and bombers. The third prototype of the massive 44.5 liter engine would power the T80, it was tuned to deliver a whopping 3,000 horsepower, almost twice the amount of power it normally provided. The engine ran on a special mixture of methyl alcohol (63%), benzene (16%), ethanol (12%), acetone (4.4%), nitrobenzene (2.2%), avgas (2%), and ether (0.4%) with MW (methanol-water) injection for charge cooling and boost pressure. To transfer the staggering amount of power to the road, the Mercedes T80 had three axles with the two rear driven and featured an early version of anti-slip regulation.
The Mercedes-Benz T80 Rekordwagen was eventually completed in 1939 for a total price 600.000 Reichmarks. This was a huge amount of money, it was even more than both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz together received for their Grand Prix teams. The targeted speed was raised to a much higher and impressive 750km/h (465mph). Hitler dubbed the T80 Schwarze Vogel which means “Blackbird” ‒ coincidentally a name later used for the Lockheed SR-71 which would become the world’s fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft.
The Mercedes T80 was over 8.2 meters long (27ft), the width was 3.2m, the height 1,74m, and weighed over 2.7 metric tons. The streamlined body was designed by aerodynamic specialist Josef Mickl. Two small wings at rear provided downforce and ensured stability. To round off the exterior, the Germans painted the car in their national colors and added the German eagle and swastika symbols to the car.
Dark clouds gathered over Europe, but the date and location were set for the record attempt. The high-speed run was scheduled for January 1940. Hans Stuck would drive the most powerful road-going Mercedes ever built to a new land speed record on the Autobahn ‒ nowadays the A9 ‒ between Dessau and Leipzig. Due to political reasons the record had to be broken on German soil, whereas the British competition could exploit the flatness of Bonneville’s lakebed surface. Works had already started on the 10-kilometer long stretch of Autobahn, the median was paved over and everything was made ready for the ultimate show-off of German engineering.
But before Hans Stuck could fulfill his dream war broke out as Germany invaded Poland and ruined Europe. The record run was scrapped, the T80 was carefully dismantled, packed and stored into safety in Austria. The engine of the car was removed, most likely to be used by the Luftwaffe.
The T80 survived the war and is nowadays on display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. It would be interesting if Mercedes would restore this car to see what it’s capable of, could the Schwarze Vogel have reached 750km/h (465mph)? The six-wheeled monster never unleashed its power, it’s true capabilities remains a mystery. But perhaps that is what makes this car so intriguing.