Press "Enter" to skip to content

This site contains Ebay partner affiliate links, which may earn us a commission at no additional cost to you.

Motorsports Monday Special: Racing to Sell – The ‘Silberpfeil’: Part 6

Start of the 1939 German Grand Prix with Auto Union Type D and Mercedes-Benz W154 M163s – their last meeting in the nation of their birth

Yesterday saw an interesting comparison in racing; in F1, Mercedes-Benz once again dominated the field with seeming ease, dictating the pace and watching the strategy of its competitors from Maranello. While truth told my focus remained squarely on the Formula 1 race, there were several other popular race series running concurrently; both wildly popular Moto GP and World Endurance Championship races were contested as well. Notably, Audi won the WEC Silverstone 6-hour contest, continuing its quite remarkable run in endurance series amidst rumors that they could be heading to Formula 1. The question posed by me in my conclusion to the investigation of the Silver Arrows period is simply if the racing was necessary? There were other options in terms of racing for both companies to explore, and indeed they could also have taken the Opel strategy in no racing at all. Did the companies choose the right route?

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank our readers for the positive feedback to this feature. It’s been wonderful for me to revisit this research and have the enthusiast community enjoy it. I’d also like to thank Dan and Paul at GCFSB for not only affording me the opportunity to put this research up, but indeed for encouraging me to do so. Though they’re not likely to be paying attention I’d like to thank the Saxony State Archives in Chemnitz and the staff at the Mercedes-Benz factory archives, both of which were very welcoming and accommodating during my time there. Lastly, I’d like to thank my family who has been both encouraging and patient while I’ve spent countless hours working on this site. Without further ado, please enjoy the conclusion!

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link To Part 3

Link To Part 4

Link To Part 5


When weighing the evidence provided so far, the natural conclusion would seem to suggest that although there were drawbacks to their involvement with the government, ultimately racing in the international Grand Prix events served as an asset to both Auto-Union and Daimler-Benz. Indeed, this conclusion is in many ways exactly what did occur. However, there are other examples that must be taken into account when considering the case.

First, there is the case of the Adam Opel A.G. company. As previously mentioned, Opel was the largest producer of automobiles in Germany at the time the NSDAP came to power; despite all of the racing, Opel remained the largest automobile seller in Germany in 1939 without ever setting foot on the race track. New registrations of Opels in 1938 nearly equaled the combined total of the next two marques – which were Auto Union and Daimler-Benz. Then there is the case of smaller rival BMW. BMW, like Auto-Union, was a new marque to Germany and the world in the early 1930’s, and like Auto-Union it decided racing was an excellent way of spreading the name throughout motoring circles. There, however, the similarities ended. BMW sought to spread its name through sports car racing, which occurred in the shadow of the giant G.P. cars. Despite this, by 1937 through its 315/1 and 328 sports cars BMW had gained a reputation as being both reliable and quick; the 328 succeeded in winning the Eifel races at the Nürburgring in Germany, the Mille Miglia in Italy, the Tourist Trophy in Great Britain, and Le Mans in France – in short, the greatest sports car races in the world at that point and fully covering the European theater. Yet, even better than the Auto Union or Mercedes-Benz victories, a motor enthusiast could actually buy the exact car that had won all of those races – unlike the Grand Prix cars, which were not only hugely expensive and only available to the companies, but both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz lacked a production model that came close to the sporty attitude that had been designed into the BMW. Unfortunately for terms of comparison, the records of the development of the 328 (and indeed, most records of pre-war racing activities at BMW) were destroyed during the war. Despite this, we can make some rough estimates regarding the 328. At a cost of around 8000RM in 1938, the 328 was not a cheap car, but it was also not nearly as expensive as the grand Mercedes-Benz, which topped at nearly 14,000RM. According to BMW, 464 were built, and of that over 400 were sold to the public. Even assuming that the car made a loss itself in sales, it cannot be seen as the same loss as the Grand Prix cars. It is also important to remember that BMW was able to spread development and production costs of its race car, as it was able to utilize the same chassis and engine to produce other models, such as the 326 and 327. So, while the Grand Prix cars were immediate losses since they had no transferable parts to production cars, the BMW company would be able to utilize parts developed in the sports car 328 for other models in its production line – direct benefits to the entire company. On top of that, the development costs of the less complex 328 were less than that of the Grand Prix cars. Certainly, since the sports cars had nearly as much success as their bigger and faster siblings did, the Grand Prix cars had been superfluous; a point proved by Opel still being the one of the most successful firms in 1939.

BMW 328 Sports Car

Especially important was what Grand Prix racing success sold for the companies. As mentioned, neither company produced a sports car of any sort; the Auto Union concentrated on the lower-end and middle market, while Mercedes-Benz concentrated on the middle market segment and offered high end products at the same time. While certainly some were fast, none was what could be considered a sports car, though Mercedes-Benz had certainly produced notable sports cars in its past – most recently, the Grand Prix winning SSKs and SSKLs which were the class of motor racing only years earlier. Of the two companies, the largest selling models were the lower end cars. In Auto Union’s case, it was the DKW model line that excelled in sales figures, accounting for a large portion of the entire sales of German automobiles in total by itself at 23.4% of overall sales. At Mercedes-Benz the small 1.7 liter car was its largest selling vehicle, selling over 90,000 units by 1939. Besides badges, the cars virtually nothing in common with the racing siblings. Where did the advantage in Grand Prix participation lie?

The answer to this problem is multifaceted. When considering why the companies would specifically compete in Grand Prix, one must understand that the real prestige in international competition lay in the Grand Prix cars. Rather than being the main event, the sports car races played the supporting role to the more glamorous Grand Prix races. This was likely a result of their speed, their flashy drivers, and their incredible presence – they looked much like warplanes stripped of their wings, were nearly as fast, and simply demanded attention through their incredible presence (See Figure 4).

Figure 4: The super-streamlined forms of the 1938 record cars from Mercedes-Benz (top, middle) and Auto Union (bottom, with Rosemeyer) represented the peak development of the automobile. Source: The Motor, 8 February 1938 : 73., p. 72

Aside from that, Grand Prix cars represented the ultimate development of the automobile, and the paragon of automotive technology. So, while BMW’s sporting success assisted their own sales and developed a reputation for them, they can not be seen as having as much of an impact on the reputation of the entire industry and the country as the Grand Prix cars did. BMW could directly link the sporting character of its race cars to its entire production line, but for the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz, it was more important that the potential customer identified the brands with racing and its advantages in overall design; in economy, quality and endurance. “(One) of the secrets of selling cars is to take a product that may be no different from a competitor’s and to create the illusion of superiority”, and racing in the Grand Prix offered an opportunity to differentiate Daimler-Benz and Auto Union from other competitors. While the race cars had little to nothing in common with production cars, merely being involved in racing could be seen as differentiating their products from those of their competitors. In one particular advertisement, a Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix car looms over the entire model range of Mercedes-Benz products – from work trucks to luxurious convertibles (See Figure 5, p. 67). By pushing these limits in international Grand Prix racing, the companies captured the world’s attention. The result was that customers looked for products linked to the companies, rather than products identical to the race cars. Auto Union held a clear advantage in this market, as its cars and motorcycles had fewer barriers to entry in being small and economical. “The racing clearly boosted sales”, argues Kirchberg, expert on the Auto Union archives, “In 1938 one out of every four vehicles registered (in Germany) had the four rings on the grill”. It was the rings on the grill that linked the production cars to the race cars.


Figure 5: 1939 Mercedes-Benz Advertisement, showing a M-154 Grand Prix car over the entire range of Daimler-Benz automotive products. Also note the Grand Prix car is under the symbol of German Nationalism, the Brandenburg Gate. Source: The Motor, 21 February 1939 : 75, p. 35/c9

The second factor is that the two teams essentially fought one another to a stalemate over the period. With one team or the other removed, certainly the participating team would have seen a larger corresponding growth when compared to the team that hadn’t raced. There are problems with this solution, however. If Daimler-Benz hadn’t raced, Auto Union would not have been as compelled to produce a superior race design. Hence, though they may have been drawn to racing, the results would certainly not have been so good. If Auto Union hadn’t have raced, a similar situation would have developed at Benz, but this would have likely precluded Auto Union from remaining at the top of producers as the industry grew. For the companies, another year on the calendar meant a corresponding natural increase in speed in order to remain competitive. Rather, it was the competition spurred between these two companies that resulted in their great successes, both domestically and internationally. It was specifically the spectacle of the two teams battling one another in the hills of Germany that brought half of a million fans to the area – not just to see one or the other. Moreover, it was the competition between the cars that made them so over the top, so incredibly fast, that they overwhelmed the competition. Auto Union and Daimler-Benz may not have gained a huge advantage over each other in racing, but they had certainly secured their spots at the top of the German automobile industry.

They had certainly attracted the attention of the public, as well. In 1939 the Völkischer Beobachter claimed “200,000 saw Mercedes victorious in the Eifel race”, while the German Grand Prix later that year they estimated that the crowd was over 250,000 people. These attendance numbers can be put into perspective; at Donington Park, England, the German cars helped to draw a record crowd of around 40,000, while in the United States, the Indianapolis 500 mile race drew “large crowds” of over 145,000 people, both significantly smaller figures when compared to German attendance figures. The German claims were not as substantial as the British claims of attendance, yet in either case, significantly more people were attending races in Germany than in other countries.

There is a further issue that presents itself when considering the topic. Again, Auto Union and Daimler-Benz’s production grew rapidly during the time in which they raced one another. However, so did the entire industry. Neil Gregor and Richard Overy contend that the industry had already started recovering prior to the election of the NSDAP to power in 1933; further, the two years after the low point of 1933 represented some of the largest growth over the entire period, yet this took place prior to the introduction of the Silver Arrows. Was the market simply awaiting rebound in 1932? Was the racing really necessary? Although several scholars have noted that there was pent-up demand in Germany which pushed the first wave of sales after removal of the taxes which stymied sales, the industry needed to advertise the necessity of automobile ownership to the next generation of buyers;

“At the beginning of the twentieth century the manufacturers of motor vehicle raced for the purpose to promote the speed and reliability of motor vehicles and to encourage their purchase. It is obvious that manufacturers had lost this feature now lost because those who could afford ownership of a car, did not need to be specially convinced.”

The idea to propagate automobile ownership desires through racing was established, but had the idea transferred into reality? Perhaps this can be answered by a somewhat ironic statement of the chairman of Opel to a meeting of the entire industry in 1937, where he thanked his competitors for their participation in racing:

“None other than Privy Wilhelm von Opel , the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Adam Opel AG, which is known to be in possession of the General Motors Company has, at the last meeting of the RDA spontaneously the thanks of the Daimler – Benz A. G. and Auto Union A. G. expressed for the extraordinary racing successes of the past four years and stressed that they have contributed significantly to the good and rising export results of the German automotive industry.”

Within the industry, it was considered the racing undertaken by Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz had assisted the entire motor industry in Germany through spreading of international reputation – without racing, the NSDAP would not have had a successful means to advertise Germany’s motoring products. Richard Overy argues, “…modernity was…the technocratic dream of machine-led progress” ; from the government’s perspective, the Silver Arrows forecast the coming of the new automotive age of speed and efficiency by showing both through racing. The government showed this in various ways; of particular note was the advertisement for the 1939 Berlin Automobile and Motorcycle Show, where the advertisement symbolically showed the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union cars racing each other, side by side, over a globe showing Europe (See Figure 6).

Figure 6: Mercedes-Benz W-154 and Auto Union Type D race one another over a globe showing western Europe in International Automobile and Motorcycle Exhibition advertisement, 1939. Source: The Motor, 21 February 1939 : 75, p.44/b36

Other advertisements prominently featured the Brandenburg Gate, such as the previously mentioned 1935 advertisement. The Brandenburg Gate has traditionally represented German unity and nationalism; an enduring symbol of the nation and her people. By linking this symbol with the modern race cars, the advertisements could be seen as suggesting a new path for the country and her people, through motorization. Hitler’s aspirations to conquer the European competition had been realized time and again by the Silver Arrows, who also served to spread German technology throughout the globe.

So, Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz had assisted the entire automobile industry, as well as themselves in maintaining their growing market share under the Third Reich. Through racing, each company had bolstered its own reputation in international motor circles while generally benefiting the entire motor industry in the eyes of the foreign public, who saw “the German” victories as a sign that Germany’s technical ability and motoring products were superior to their own. This was only possible through racing, and more importantly racing victory.

“There are many ways through which a people can gain respect and recognition all over the world , but only a few that today widest strata so convincing more as an international victory in Automotive sport.”

Without racing, certainly German’s automobile industry would have grown just as the rest of Europe’s had. However, it is questionable whether it would have come from so far behind to become the third most important in the world by 1938, following the United States and Great Britain. Speculation is difficult, since the NSDAP focus on growth of the automobile industry was so carefully intertwined with motorsports. The government, however, needed exports to increase foreign cash reserves to buy and import raw materials. Allen Bonnell noted in a 1940 assessment of the German economy that “Germany [had become] less self sufficient…[and] more dependent upon imports of foodstuffs and raw materials which were obtained through exports of industrial products”. However, in the post-war period of indebtedness Germany saw herself excluded from these world markets.

“Recovery depended on re-establishment of normal relations with the world economy…[many] international connections had been severed…[and] old markets were filled with new rivals; some were closed.”

A graphic display of technical prowess allowed re-establishment of German names in the market, and served to re-open or establish lines of trade, again essential to the government’s need for raw materials.

Further, who was the major beneficiary of the racing – the companies, the government, or the people and country? Again, it is very difficult to claim that one saw more benefit than another. Certainly the companies saw benefits, as did the government through not only realization of its proclamation that German products were superior to the world’s, and in this arena it was undeniable that in fact Germany was completely dominant. The government further achieved its aim of steering Germany towards being a nation of drivers, though ultimately the drive to rearm the nation and the threat of the government sponsored Volkswagen eventually undermined the automobile industry. The people thus won and lost in terms of the automobile industry and racing under the Third Reich; they had gained some benefits in terms of cuts in taxes and bolstering of the market and they had gained an in reputation in the international community which accompanied the general national enthusiasm under the new regime. Yet the racing also assisted that regime’s policy of rearmament and mobilization for war by bolstering the automobile industry, which allowed increased expenditure on production facilities and in some cases – motorcycle racing, for example – direct performance increases to potential military vehicles. Further, their demands for vehicles could not be met by the automobile industry, which increasingly devoted its resources to rearmament. The promise of motorization was dangled in front of the people’s eyes, but the promise never truly materialized in the manner that had been proposed.

It is important to understand the relative significance of success with the Grand Prix cars for the Reich. Indeed, success was in many ways integral in its overall plan of economic recovery and military buildup. Motorization, as argued by Richard Overy, was a key development not only to modernization of the country, but also economic recovery. Others disagree, arguing that the development and support of the automobile industry, and specifically motorization, was merely a façade which covered the true objective of the government; military rearmament. Simon Reich argued the importance of supporting industrial sectors for economic growth in Germany “was not true of the automobile sector composed of small firms that wielded no political influence, little economic leverage, and therefore could do little to influence government policy”. That notwithstanding, the government still required the development of the automobile industry; first, as a source for the production of military vehicles and other weapons, and second, for the production of products which could then be exported. Stahlmann would go on to explain:

“In the mid- thirties was achieved in the automotive industry full employment. Since the major automobile manufacturers acted as defense contractors – they produced not only cars but also weapons , aircraft parts for the armed forces and other military equipment … late thirties , a large part of the production capacity of Opel and Auto Union was busy with military orders.”

Development and modernization of what Stahlmann termed the “Schlüsselindustrie” (ed- literally “Key Industry”) was a key part of the plan of rearmament. Fritz Blaich agreed with Stahlmann, adding that it was the combination of removal of taxes and road building projects that helped to stir the industry that was important for rearmament:

“There is no doubt but the fact that an efficient road network was a prerequisite for the modernization of equipment important automobile industry and an increase in inventories of cars that could be seized in case of war.”

Ideally, it was the goal of the regime to create an industry ready for mass war-materials production . However, as pointed out by Kukowski:

“In military experts’ discussion it is undisputed that the prospects of future warfare depended largely on the tactical and operational flexibility and speed of the army by its automation. Among the leading European countries, Germany had the lowest level of motorization… The future German conscripts were not familiar with the use of a motor vehicle and necessity for the Army’s own motor vehicle industry suffered from a lack of mass distribution.”

Thus, from the government’s perspective the planned rapid motorization had multiple benefits, as it helped to bolster the economy, created production facilities which could then be transferred rapidly to war production (what Overy had termed the “marriage between industrial power and military capacity” ), while also providing vehicles and roadways for the army to mobilize. Race cars were integral to the plan of motorization; they not only developed interest in foreign lands, but perhaps more importantly initially, the Grand Prix cars generated enthusiasm domestically in the automobile industry. Enthusiasm was essential to achieve the desired sector growth, and that enthusiasm was backed and substantiated by the government’s active support – the so-called ‘Volksmotorisierungskampagne’. Kukowski noted this, stating:

“In 1934, the level of motorization of the last ‘ pre-crisis ‘ 1928 reached again. The subsequent growth rates can no longer be primarily attributed to crisis-related backlog. They were based on the development of new buyers. Continued favorable economic conditions and the increased level of employment and rising purchasing power formed the basis for this. However, the diversion of these economic factors in wider engine is largely due to political support measures for the car industry and the ‘Volksmotorisierungskampagne’ in the Nazi era.”

As recovery shifted more to military buildup, the Grand Prix cars again showed their benefit, as they assisted in the further increase of exports and opening of new markets both in Eastern Europe and other areas – for example, notable are the trips of the Silver Arrows to South America and Africa. While these races were by no means the most profitable in and of themselves, they certainly can be seen as attempts to open new markets through exposition of racing technology. The real money was not to be gained in the winning of a race, but in the selling of cars. Such markets helped the export potential of both companies enormously. Particularly in new markets, race success corresponded with massive growth for Auto Union vehicle sales.

In the difficult period after 1937 when sales had decidedly slowed at both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz (and indeed, for the entire industry), exports remained briefly a point where the companies still saw notable growth – Auto Union recorded increases of 43% in automobile exports and 44.6% in motorcycle exports from 1937 to 1938, despite declines in new registrations of both domestically for the first time since 1932. The increases in exports accompanied slight losses in both domestic registration and percentage of the domestic market for Auto Union in 1938; domestic car registrations for the company slipped from 54,765 units (25.3% market) to 52,169 units (23.4% market), while similar losses were experienced in the motorcycle registrations – 46,785 units (33.0% market) to 44,037 (29.3% market). In exports, Daimler-Benz saw similar results, when they reported that increased emphasis on exports had resulted in an increase from 40 to 49 million RM. Stahlmann also noted the relative increase of exports during the period following 1929. These exports, which the companies linked with race victories, were essential to the government as rearmament reached a critical mass.

Throughout the period, though, there is perceivable shift in the relationship between the companies and the government. As the government’s accelerated program to arm itself slowly crippled the public side of the automobile industry, the victories of the German cars no longer affected sales in the way they had only a short time earlier. By 1938, even the incredible success of the Silver Arrows was overshadowed by the government’s actions and growing shortages in raw materials. Overseas sales slipped in both 1938 and 1939 for Auto Union – while they accounted for 31.3% of total exports in 1937, that number decreased to 17.8% in 1938. By late 1938, the overall company growth both abroad and domestically had considerably slowed down when compared to the ramped growth of only a few years prior.

Increasing also was governmental influence over driver lineup. In 1935 Daimler-Benz had been proud to note that its international driver lineup of Fagioli (Italy), Caracciola and von Brauchitsch (Germany) and Chiron (France) would be advantageous to exports, as multiple countries were represented within their ranks:

“The exhibitions in Paris and London and the related sales have shown that Mercedes – Benz is now , as always, recognized as an international brand the team – Carraciola – Fagioli – Chiron – reinforce this international character of our brand even more.”

However, by 1939 the need for Germans driving the cars was pressing the company’s decisions – it documented that it was searching for the next generation of German drivers:

“The young driver issue we have look into particularly. We have a large number of young drivers with our vehicles made ​​in recent months intimately familiar to see those same talents that can be used for future race as a driver. We have managed to find three young German drivers, which will now be trained systematically.”

After the death of Briton Richard Seaman in 1938, the company’s driver lineup was all German, while at Auto Union only the Italian Tazio Nuvolari, who had replaced Rosemeyer after his death, broke the German driver domination of the sport. Indeed, even the capable Seaman had difficulty securing his spot on the Mercedes team. Chris Nixon noted “the German teams could not sign a foreign driver without Hitler’s personal permission”. This was likely more of an indirect influence of the trends of the time than a direct order to hire German drivers, yet it still shows the increasing influence of the government on the sport and general trends in Germany.

Richard Seaman (with winner’s wreath from 1938 German Grand Prix) stand next to Mercedes-Benz driver Lang, who accepts congratulations from NSKK Korpsfuhrer Huhnlein

There is also a perceivable shift in the relationship between the two companies as the competition grew ever more intense, but this was intertwined with the government at the same time. In 1935, faced with a situation where the companies could not attend both races in Tunis and Tripolis because of time and distance between the races, they agreed that because a German victory was important in both races, one team would enter each race and they would split the monetary benefits. Dr. Porsche made the point:

“that it is in the national sense would be more accurate but if in each of the two races, one of the two companies would start … I have just learned through a call Ing. Neubauer ‘s that Dr. Kissel his communications fully confirmed and agrees also the proposed premium sharing for the case when we lead Tunis and Mercedes leads Tripoli.”

Later, however, there was no such camaraderie between the companies, as Auto Union complained that Daimler-Benz was receiving continuous preferential treatment:

“We have already had several opportunities to you, our dear Corps Commander, our view of the incorrect treatment who have just experienced very often the success of the Auto Union in the past by the press to forward. We also know that the ONS a number of letters have been received, which can also detect this public sentiment. If now the suppression of the record-breaking performance of the Auto Union in the official ONS film actually takes place, this can be on any objective, but especially of course the 22,000 followers members of the Auto Union and the other countless us directly or indirectly related distributors, agents and customers only make again the impression of an at least non-uniform treatment of the two leading German race car in the sports companies. We think we can expect that the implementation of the National Socialist power principle is also crucial in making this decision.”

Was the Auto Union accurate in its belief that Daimler-Benz was receiving preferential treatment? Daimler-Benz did receive slightly more money than Auto Union during the period – 2,775,000 RM versus 2,575,000 RM – in yearly assistance, and it also received more success money (330,000 RM versus 217,000), though that was a direct result of their more numerous victories. Of note, however, is that those figures did not include the money that Auto Union also received for motorcycle racing – a total amount in excess of 500,000 RM over the same period. Perhaps the larger question is how these two firms had been picked out for assistance out of all the companies in Germany.

Being the largest producer of automobiles in Germany, Opel would have seemed to be a natural choice for entering into Grand Prix racing. If all the government was interested in was promoting the automobile industry in order to develop production facilities to assist rearmament, then it would seem to follow naturally that the government would look towards the largest existing company to take over that role. Indeed, there were two American companies existent in Germany with considerable experience in mass production. Not only was Opel under American ownership, but the Ford Motor Company had also entered into the German car market prior to the Nazis taking power. However, despite their experience, both companies suffered under the new government, for various reasons. Simon Reich argues that Ford was never able to gain acceptance in Germany before the war because of its extra-German roots, while the Opel company experienced a worsening relationship with the government due to disputes and inability or unwillingness to meet the government’s demands .

How could the government reconcile its stance on public good before private good while it was supporting only two companies in the automobile industry directly? The answer was quite simple – racing, it was thought, benefited the entire industry, and not just the companies singularly. This was compounded by the presence of two companies racing against one another. Not only would German cars fill the top spot, but they would fill the top several spots! This was the perfect limited liability situation. Not only was the Reich virtually guaranteed a return on its investment, but also ultimately their contributions to the two companies could not be heavily criticized, as they were supporting two companies in direct competition – except, as shown, by the companies themselves.

“The Third Reich made no attempt to mask its inequitable treatment of firms. Discrimination was legitimated through the ideology of nationalism and administered through a bureaucratic process that was superficially meritocratic but essentially arbitrary”
suggested Simon Reich when considering why Opel and Ford had not further prospered under the Nazi government. Here was an additional reason for the companies to race. Certainly, Daimler-Benz and Auto Union being German firms immediately gave them a leg up on the two larger international companies, the racing can be seen as a further attempt to align the company’s ambitions with those of the Reich. While both companies experienced shortages of raw materials and general difficulties leading up to the war, there appears to be no evidence that they had problems to the extent of the two American firms. Does this mean that the two firms were selected for support in racing merely because they were German? While being German certainly didn’t hurt the two firms’ chances of gaining support, it was more likely the connections between the companies and the government that helped their selection. In the case of Daimler-Benz, Jakob Werlin had been a close associate of Hitlers, while Auto Union’s fortuitous selection of Porsche to design their race car undoubtedly helped their chances, as Porsche was admired by Hitler. Chris Nixon also documented a conversation between Hans Stuck and Hitler shortly after he came to power, where Hitler renewed the promise to Stuck to support him racing – and Stuck’s proposal went to Porsche and Auto Union. Porsche and Werlin went on to become heavily involved in the Volkswagen project, once again highlighting the complex relationship between the companies and government. Viewed in this perspective, the selection of Daimler-Benz and Auto Union as the two companies for appropriated funds would seem to be more of a function of their connections and the personal preferences of Hilter rather than the actual merit of their ability, though this in no way comments on that ability, which had been proven as considerable by Daimler-Benz already. It would also suggest that Reich’s assumption that the discrimination within the automobile industry was arbitrary is incorrect; rather, it would seem quite deliberate.

Hans Stuck’s record-setting Auto Union Type B on display, guarded by Nazi troops

Despite this seemingly ‘hands off’ approach by supporting competing teams, the government nonetheless remained heavily involved through the NSKK. As the government was paying success money for races, an examination of how much money they awarded each race win shows which areas they placed emphasis on in terms of international propaganda. The government established two tier levels for races based on importance – in 1936, the more important group received 10,000 RM for a win and included the Grand Prix of Monaco, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and America – while the second group received 7,000 RM and included the Grand Prixs of Tripolis, Tunis, Barcelona, Hungary, the International Eifel and the Coppa Acerbo races. By 1937 group one included the Grand Prixs of Belgium, Germany, Monaco, Switzerland, Italy and Tripolis, while the second group included races in South Africa (Kapstadt), Rio de Janeiro, Czechoslovakia (Masaryk), and a few lesser races in Italy . Though Auto Union had shown the races in new markets, such as South Africa, to be important for exports, for the government such areas were clearly politically less important in terms of race victory than in a major European state – or in the United States. The setting of the success money showed the relative importance each race had to the government – and may have helped decide which races the teams entered.

In many ways, it is debatable how effective the racing was at assisting motorization. Ultimately, there are too many factors involved to claim that one had more effect than another did. Rather, it was the combination of many factors that assisted the rapid motorization of Germany. Despite this, Dr. Martin Kukowski, an expert in Auto Union history, argues:

“The mass-psychological effects of racing on the width of motorization in particular should not be underestimated. Racing came to a new place in the Third Reich. The dominance of Daimler – Benz and Auto Union in the European car racing – at the Auto Union also resulted in motorcycle racing – was propaganda ” cannibalized ” as evidence recovered national strength mass appeal . Protagonists of the Auto Union racing driver Bernd Rosemeyer was successfully styled as a social model which anchored automobile in the mass consciousness as a symbol of success and strength.”

While there are no figures which can definitively prove that participation in Grand Prix racing directly affected sales of automobiles, one cannot discount their effect on the general public. In this case, racing undoubtedly helped propel Auto Union from a group of relative unknowns to the second largest automobile producer in Germany, and the largest producer of motorcycles in the world. imilarly, racing can also be seen as helping the Daimler-Benz company maintain their position among the leaders of the industry (Opel, Auto Union and Ford) despite having no products that could really compete against their cheaper rivals “That Grand Prix motor-racing is expensive no one can deny, but the information obtained together with the enormous publicity for the manufacturer and the prestige for the nation resulting from winning an international race more than justifies the expenditure” , stated George Monkhouse, representative for Kodak and one of the few foreigners allowed to travel with the Daimler-Benz team during the period. He continued, “We are all snobs at heart, and there is a lot of satisfaction in owning a car built by a firm with consistently has its name in the papers as having won an important race”.

Another interesting aspect is how far advanced the German Grand Prix cars became during the period when compared to their rivals. Part of this was undoubtedly attributable to the Nazi influence; as Neufeld points out, the government’s obsession with success in rocketry led to massive technological leaps as engineers were presented with clean slates and large budgets. Despite being so deeply intertwined with the Nazi party, the scientists often remained apolitical, rather relying on their superiors to handle the connections to the government while they were able to use the funding to explore their own desires. Was this the case in motor racing? Certainly, some aspects are similar; Hühnlein was the racing world’s connection to the government, while the designers concentrated on exploiting the rules to build the best race car possible. Ultimately, it is doubtful that Ferdinand Porsche cared that Auto Union race cars were used as international symbols of German dominance; he was far too busy concerning himself with the perfection of the design in order to defeat the rivals at Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps this can be seen through the first meeting of Porsche and Hitler, well before Hitler came to power:

“Porsche was presented to Hitlerby Jakob Werlin been at a car race at the Stuttgart Solitude circuit. When Porsche traveled in May 1933 with the director of the Auto Union Oertzen during a visit to the Reich Chancellery , Hitler recalled and also refered to the spectacular tractor design Porsche had developed during the First World War in the service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Porsche, uninterested in politics, did not know of the meeting in Stuttgart.”

In a biography of Porsche, Richard von Frankenburg related how apolitical Porsche and his contemporaries were:

“Political questions interested him very little, all he really wanted were interesting constructional tasks so that he, together with his collaborators, could solve technical problems to enable him to live well and to extend his own works. (…) Politics bored him and he never did enter into political discussions.”

Similar conclusions can be reached about Rudolph Uhlenhaut, chief designer at Mercedes-Benz. Both companies set to the task of designing and building race cars to win races, not to fulfill ideologies. Despite this, the companies continuously proclaimed their victories as triumphs for all of Germany, both going so far as to proclaim that they were fulfilling its national duty in racing – Daimler-Benz claiming, “So it is for us a duty to accomplish record performances that are expected”, while Auto Union stated:

“We consider this sport participation is not only our national duty , but also as a proof of the technical capacity of our plants as a source of new insights and construction techniques than in their effect is not high enough recognized international promotion of German expertise and German craftsmanship.”

Another large question is that of competition. How had the Germans managed to become so dominant, so quickly over well established teams and drivers in Grand Prix racing? The simple answer which has been used by some regarding the competition faced by the German teams is that there was no substantial effort fronted to beat the German teams. In some ways this is true; early on, there were no English teams racing, Alfa Romeo had officially pulled out of racing (though the Scuderia Ferrari continued to race Alfa Romeos, with some factory assistance), Fiat was long since gone, and Bugatti would not develop a car to compete directly with the Germans. Due to the increasing expense of Grand Prix racing, especially now that it was dominated by the two German teams and overcoming them would cost all the more, many teams like the previously mentioned British ERA and Scuderia Ferrari/Alfa Romeo took to racing in lower categories (such as the 1.5 liter race cars). Though the Scuderia Ferrari launched some awe-inspiring campaigns against the German teams and the French Delahaye later made the Germans breath a little less easy, it would be simple to say that there realistically was not much competition for the Germans to fight against. The main problem with this statement is of course, that it negates itself. Since the cars have traditionally been grouped as either “the Silver Arrows” or “the German teams”, saying that the Germans had no competition belies the fact that they were racing against one another. Certainly, this meant that at the beginning and end of the race, a sizable percentage of the field was made up of silver cars, but it doesn’t mean that those silver cars had no one to race against. Rather, it was the parity between the two marques – the same parity that has allowed history to treat them as one unit – that caused the spectacle that so many were interested in seeing. Granted, the spectacle might have been more colorful had more nations participated in the Grand Prix on the scale of the Germans. However, what made the show work was the close speed and racing. No one went to the races year after year to watch the Germans race no one; they went to watch the two German teams race one another. That was what made the Silver Arrows special. It was also what made them so successful – for marketing, for the companies, for the country, and for the government. Besides displaying massive technical prowess, aside from the incredible speed, it was the spectacle – the image of racing – that made it all work for the Germans. Further, it was specifically the two teams that made “Germany” so dominant in the sport, with one or the other team winning and both filling the top spots in nearly every race. This was not the result of one company racing – this was the direct result of close competition between two companies under the benefit of a government eager to see victory.

Part of the problem with being so closely associated with the Reich, though, was that such associations meant that the money was accompanied at times by unrealistic expectations. Just as von Braun’s rocket program was riddled with expectations of the ultimate super-weapon, the arrogance of the Nazi leadership led to unrealistic aims for the racing programs. This is best shown through two examples, racing in 1940 and the previously mentioned T80 Land speed record car. Though deeply entrenched in war production, Hühnlein was convinced that the teams would be racing in 1940; this expectation was gently and cautiously questioned by the Daimler-Benz management – the war had changed the financial situation of the company. Further, Hühnlein fully expected the World Speed Record attempt to take place in Germany, despite the technical difficulties which rendered such an attempt not only unwise for safety reasons, but likely impossible as the speed rose. By this point, the only logical place to attempt such a record was America, yet the idealism in the NSKK leadership would not permit such a journey, despite Daimler-Benz’s mounting concerns that an attempt in Germany would fail:

“In Germany, the implementation of a world record attempt is impossible because even on the new record haul at Dessau of starting and stopping is too short. This forces us well or ill to move the world record attempts to America , on the famous Great Salt Lake in the state of Utah (USA ) … These tests are associated with large foreign exchange expenditure , and after release of the current world record man Eyston after his attempts spending equivalent to approximately . RM – 250.000. respectively. The foreign exchange would not have been in the spring , but are provided around mid- July 1939. Stand or fall on the German intention of a world record attempt, which is equivalent to our company with the continuation or cessation of the construction of this vehicle with the approval of the amount. The decision concerning which we ask because of the already very advanced stage development of this car , is therefore of fundamental importance.”

There were further trends that developed, though not necessarily linked with the Silver Arrows explicitly. As Overy and others argue, the Nazis became increasingly obsessed and reliant on the development of technology as the key to victory over their enemies. Further, the fear of the believed general technical supremacy of the Germans led the Allies to push their technical projects that much harder, with the perfect example being the atomic bomb . Interestingly, some aspects of this should necessarily be put into context with the Grand Prix racing. For example, at least part of the belief of German technical supremacy can be seen as developing out of the series of victories by the highly advanced Grand Prix cars. Though by no means the only factor, one cannot discount that the automobile was one aspect in which the Germans had shown technical supremacy over their direct rivals and competition for a prolonged period of time. Further, it can be noted that this long series of victories may have contributed to an air of invincibility that was then further bolstered by the quick and decisive victories in the early stages of the war. Again, while undoubtedly not the only factor and by no means the most important, one cannot discount the effect of a prolonged series of victories in a technological sport when considering Nazi optimism regarding German technology. Interestingly, the race cars were a harbinger of another drawback in regards to German technology – its fragility.

For the most part and excluding a few extreme examples, there was little on the Grand Prix cars that could be transferred to military technology. The cars were too fragile and too extremely designed to be pressed into service for anything other than a sprint race. One would even assume there to be significant design similarities between the Porsche designed-Auto Union and the Volkswagen project as both were rear-drive designs with the engine behind the driver; yet, only minor technical details (the rear suspension and steering systems, for example) had connections to production cars. The cars were indeed on the cutting edge of technology, and paid the price. The expense that had been lavished on the Grand Prix cars was never intended for mass production. Like many other projects, the cars forced rapid improvement in existing technology (for example, brakes came to ever-increasing importance as speed grew) while in other areas they simply defied what technology was available. The perfect example of this was in tires; the cars were just too fast for the tire technology of the day. Though tire design steadily improved through work by Continental, ultimately the cars suffered from under-development of tire technology. Their engines were so delicate, that the last of the breed – the W-154/M-163, was highly susceptible to changes in atmospheric conditions and in general difficult to run properly. The same phenomenon would be suffered by the German military industry, as it found itself at times over-developed for existing technology while forcing rapid technological innovations in other fields; for example, the introduction of the ME-262 jet fighter revolutionized the air theater. The net result, however, was that ultimately the German military was too reliant on technology that could not be effectively deployed or adequately developed. Though revolutionary, jets and rockets could not win the war for Germany when they were only a few stacked against thousands of bombers coming.

The Silver Arrows, too, could not win every race. There were plenty of examples to choose from; in 1935, Manfred von Brauchitsch lost the German Grand Prix when leading on the last lap when his tires could no longer hold together; Hans Stuck lost a memorable trip to the Shelsey Hillclimb in England when it rained – rendering his huge horsepower advantage a liability; and in Pau in 1938, when the much anticipated 3-Liter W-154 Mercedes-Benz made its debut and showed impressive speed, it lost because of horrific fuel consumption. Clearly, there were more factors to winning than simply spending the most or having the best technology; obviously, the same was true in war, on a much more consequential scale. Despite this, most of the technology that came out of the Third Reich was heralded as revolutionary and far ahead of the Allied technology. Quickly this technology was absorbed into the existing technologies in the West and East, turning what had been “Nazi” technology only years before into American, British and Russian technology. Yet the Silver Arrows did differ from other Nazi technologies in success; from 1934 to 1939, essentially the only way to beat a Silver Arrow was to be driving one, or hope that they all broke. For most of the competition, both scenarios were increasingly unlikely as the Germans became more and more efficient at winning. Perhaps the best example of their increasing efficiency can be seen through what would seem an unimportant aspect of racing – pit work. When the cars had run low on fuel or worn their tires, they would come into the pit to refuel and change tires. While in the early 1930’s this action took around a minute and a half, by 1937 the mechanics of the Auto Union, who trained all year long, could carry out the feat in around 25 seconds. “Mechanics who carried our their work in record time also played a major role in the successes”. Another side of the team aspect of the sport, which increased efficiency, was the constant development work by both teams on the cars; development necessary to remain competitive. Both teams pushed the envelope forward in aerodynamic work, which best represented itself through the string of international speed records established by both companies. The last Silver Arrow records were set by Caracciola in a super-streamlined 3-litre race car at around 250 m.p.h., nearly as fast as he had gone only a year before with a similar car with a much larger engine, but not as aerodynamically efficient.

Caracciola sets off in the 1939 3-liter record car

Obviously, the race cars did not have the same technologically far reaching implications as the weapons produced in Germany, but still the same effort that spawned the Silver Arrows also protected them from the stigma of being forever associated with the government. By declaring that the cars were “German” and not “Nazi”, there remained a separation not only in the domestic view of the racing, but in the world view as well. The cars were seen as a product of Germany, rather than just a creation of the government. Again, this was similar to the phenomenon which had been experienced by the Zeppelins. Just as the Zeppelins had opened foreign lands to German technology and people, the race cars continued German overseas expansion. It meant that the romanticism of the racers paired with technology was what the public remembered and what the world remembered. Few seemed to marvel that for their world records, the German cars had swastikas on their tails: rather, they concentrated on the actual achievements that had occurred by Germans, using German technology, in a peaceful manner. The Silver Arrows were in this regard an extension of the Zeppelin and later glider movement which had captured German and world attention following the Versailles Treaty. In a recent article on German modernity, Bernhard Rieger extended that connection to technology to an even larger group; “In keeping with observations about the railway, the telegraph and ocean liners in earlier decades, aeroplanes and automobiles embodied modernity because of their high and ever increasing speeds”. Thought the NSDAP attempted to align itself with all three, history generally treats each as if they government was merely along for the ride – the crux of the movement lay far outside the political arena. Despite the former relations with the Nazi party, Mercedes-Benz returned to racing in 1950, with the exact same cars, drivers and team which had been used only years before to support National Socialism. In some respects the Silver Arrows remained separate from the government which had created them, despite the attempts to closely associate the two by the latter. “The strange feature of the Silver Arrow legend is that it never dies, nor does it sleep; it merely slumbers”. The later triumph of the new Silver Arrows in the 1954-1955 seasons would further highlight the renaissance of West Germany, and would bolster the nation’s domestic and international reputation as a technically superior country once again. Two events announced to the world that ‘the Germans’ were back in July 1954 – they won the World Cup championship in football and the W-196 race cars won in a convincing style the race at Reims in France, both on the same day. They were West Germans now, but many of the faces remained the same. Notably, the victory of the new Silver Arrows took place 20 years after the introduction of the original Silver Arrows, and 40 years to the day of the 1914 Mercedes triumph in France which had sparked so much enthusiasm in the country. The dark clouds of the past did not tarnish the race car’s reputation, in spite of the very close relations with the government and their use as propaganda. Perhaps this was due to the unbeaten mystique of the race cars; they were the one aspect of German technology that had remained unbeaten. More certain, however, was that aside from the intense competition on the track, the racers were not warriors of the government; they were friendly combatants in what was, in the end, a peaceful competition. Despite the victories for Daimler-Benz, however, Auto Union lay dissolved under the iron curtain of Soviet rule, and would not emerge with the same vigor as its former rival.

The 1954 Mercedes-Benz W196 utilized much of the technology developed by the team before the war; notably, aerodynamics were quite similar to the 1939 3-liter Streamliner

If one simply looks at the goals of the Reich and the two companies with their collective involvement in motor racing, the conclusion must be reached that they were undeniably successful. The goal of the NSDAP was to transform the automobile from a luxury to a necessity, and that goal was mostly achieved. Though Germany still lay behind the United States and Great Britain in overall vehicles, she had quickly and unequivocally been motorized or, at least, moved towards motorization to a large degree through the efforts of the government. Both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz entered into racing to spread their good name and to sell more vehicles. Both goals were achieved. Yet while the cars from Germany had ushered in a golden age of motor racing, they also forced its conclusion – in the end, they were too fast, too expensive. The cars represented a quantum leap forward in speed at the time – much like the jet engine would only years later. Also like the jet engine, there were finite levels to its development given the existing technology, and the result was that the romance, the suspense – indeed, the awe that had been created by the new cars in 1934 was slowly diminished by their repeated success. They were no longer the “new thing”, and to some extent racing became a bit mundane. Alfred Neubauer, the Mercedes-Benz racing team leader, described this:

“Until a few years ago speed was still an immense popular attraction. An increase of 15 or 20 m.p.h. was something that echoed round the world. Today the norm has become the speed of sound, and the limits of ground-speed have already been reached. Public interest is switching more and more from the fastest to the most maneuverable cars which give the best performance in the modern traffic-jungle of the big cities…I was personally convinced that the Golden Age of motor-racing was in fact over.”

A new form of speed gripped the world’s attention now – it was the new cutting edge technology. Just as race cars had taken over the public’s imagination when the glow of air travel started to fade, jet technology and rocketry represented the next evolution in pushing the limits of performance and endurance. For a brief moment in time, though, ideology and reality of racing mixed – the plan that successfully hatched the re-emergence of Germany into Grand Prix racing resulted in a culture change. The Silver Arrows can be seen as the forefathers of the modern German interest in the automobile, specifically because the race cars had been designed to capture attention through flaunting speed and technology and imbedding motorization into the national consciousness. They represented the peak of automotive performance and progress, progress that Neubauer noted “was only made possible by hundreds of grueling races. But that same progress has made the private motor-car so universally popular that motor-racing has become almost a luxury”. It was the complex relationship between the government and the companies that attempted to exploit the popularity of the automobile races to build automotive necessity into the culture.

Clearly, however, this relationship has been an unexplored aspect of both the topics of the automobiles in the period as well as general trends in the government. Racing illustrated the tenuous connections between the government and the private sector, while also underlining its need for the massive economic boost the government was looking for. Finally, racing characterized the multifaceted aspect of many of the technologies of the period, as they were used for multiple ends by both their creators and benefactors. Automotive historians simply claiming that the racing cars were only for racing belies their true importance to the company and the country; conversely, traditional historians belittling the phenomenon of racing ignores its great social importance to the country, as well as the economic aspects which can be attributed to it. The division in scholarship may have also unwittingly helped to remove the Silver Arrows from the stigma of the Third Reich. While neither group of historians has intentionally ignored the subject, the complexities of it have made classification as either technological history or automotive history difficult. Politics are left outside automotive histories in general, while racing has been left out of political histories, for understandable reasons in both cases. Despite this, the period between 1934 and 1939 showed clear links between the two. This dissertation is an attempt to join the two sectors and examine the interdependence of economics and the government with racing during the period of national socialism.

The reign of the Silver Arrows in many ways exemplifies the period. Wrought with extreme nationalism, incredible feats and radically changing technology, the Grand Prix cars represented their nation well in what amounted to an international game of chess between the major combatants of both World Wars. In 1934, The Motor declared the impending French Grand Prix and the return of the Germans to the sport as ‘a battle of nations’. Six years later, the Germans had won the figurative war against her rivals in an attempt to come to a position where their government could win a literal war against them. Yet despite this, the Silver Arrows are one of the few aspects that can be looked back upon by Germans with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Though forever linked to the government that had helped to create them, the Silver Arrows remain a lasting tribute to German ingenuity, technology and craftsmanship. When Hitler helped to create them, he wanted the world to see what the Germans were capable of, to re-write the history books with a brilliant series of wins over European rivals for Germany. The Silver Arrows did just that and more, redefining motor sports and racing in the process.