This 100-year-old Mercedes noisily revives the Roaring Twenties

Car being driven around the track
Still responsive, after all these years - Maximilian Balazs

Never look a gift horse in the mouth, or so they say. I wonder if Mercedes should have thought of this when it started pulling apart this lovely old racing car in preparation for the centenary of its victory in the famed Sicilian road race, the Targa Florio.

Displayed in the Mercedes-Benz museum since 1937, this was the winning car in the 1924 Targa Florio, driven by Christian Werner, at least according to the official story. For the past 20 years it has sat on a piece of fake concrete banking in the museum.

A works machine, part of a team of five cars driven from Stuttgart to Italy to catch the ferry to Sicily, Werner’s was the first victory by a non-Italian since 1920. He’d led the race from the start against fierce opposition from Giulio Masetti’s Alfa Romeo. The press were ecstatic at the victory, gushingly explaining how the Mercedes team had been drilled in tyre-changing and fuel-filling to perform their pit stops in less than three minutes.

The race in fact consisted of two events: the 268-mile Targa Florio consisted of four laps of a bumpy, open-road 67-mile course; and the Coppa Florio, a 336-mile race comprising five laps of the same course. Werner took the chequered flag in both, setting fastest laps – and if you add in the Coppa Termini for Mercedes for the best team prize, then 1924 was a clean sweep for the Stuttgart firm.

It mattered, too. At this time, car sales were growing sharply. The development of reliable, high-speed engines and robust electrics was the aim and racing really did improve the breed. It also sold cars.

So what better model could there be to celebrate that historic victory, along with the wit and wisdom of the Mercedes works team, than a restoration of that winning car?

Road racing history

The car in the Mercedes Museum
The vintage vehicle has spent much of its life at the Mercedes Museum, near Stuttgart - Maximilian Balazs

These days, the Targa Florio is considered something of a throwback curio, but 100 years ago it was a big-ticket event, partly because racing was still in its infancy. The 24 Hours of Le Mans had only just been inaugurated, in 1923, while the first great Italian 1,000-mile race, the Mille Miglia, took place in 1927. Grand Prix racing didn’t exist as a series in the way it does today; hill climbing and speed trials were the main forms of motorsport. The cars themselves tended to be huge, aero-engined specials, heavy and unwieldy.

The Targa had been created in 1906 by Vincenzo Florio, who had a bit of history in creating races such as the Coppa Florio in Brescia. He didn’t stint, with local artists creating the driver’s medals and the publishing of a magazine Rapiditas, which promoted the race and its entrants.

The original course length was 92 miles on treacherous mountain roads with more than 3,600ft of elevation change and in excess of 2,000 corners per lap, many of them hazardous hairpins with sharp drops on one side. The weather could be highly changeable, the roads were unsealed so the cars would slide around and create columns of dust. In those beast-like Leviathans, drivers needed pluck and skill, as well as a decent pair of goggles.

By the mid-1920s the course had been changed in length and was even more popular. Mercedes had won in 1922, but in 1924 the team was determined to consolidate its Sicilian success. Its 2.0-litre supercharged cars were fast, with fine handling and narrow bodies to suit Sicily’s narrow roads. The works team consisted of Werner in number 10, Christian Lautenschlager in car 32 and Alfred Neubauer, who went on to become the fêted Mercedes-Benz racing team manager, in car 23. A fourth car was a spare used for training and reconnaissance, while a 1914 Mercedes Grand Prix car was there for show.

The car
The Mercedes has been lovingly restored

While international convention at the time was that German cars should be painted white (Britain was green, Italy red and France blue), Mercedes team bosses decided that their Targa cars would be painted red so that, from a distance, they might be confused with an Italian entry. You can understand why: dark tales of skulduggery were told of foreign entries encountering large rocks left on the sharper corners, tree branches mysteriously appearing on the track and so on. All perfectly coincidental, of course, but eventualities that Mercedes was determined to avoid.

“It’s not a disadvantage in an Italian street race to have your car painted red,” says Marcus Breitschwerdt, the boss of the museum. The exigency of this repaint is shown in the original pictures, with Werner’s car fitted with mudguards borrowed from another car with their undersides left in the traditional Mercedes white.

This “winning” car didn’t stay long in the works, however. In 1925 it was sold to privateer racer Wilhelm Eberhardt. It was entered for various races, but since Eberhardt loved driving it on the road, he had the body widened to better accommodate his wife as a passenger, also fitting a full windscreen and lights. Thus changed, it was repurchased by Mercedes in 1937 and was displayed in various museums, then in 1961 moved to the factory museum in Untertürkheim, to the east of Stuttgart, where Mercedes is based.

The big discovery

It was only in 2022 that the car was taken down from the display. What had been thought to be a “freshening up” initially, ready for the anniversary, quickly became a painstaking process of research and cataloguing, with a significant discovery.

The body and drivetrain were removed from the frame. The body was placed in a full-length hot box to re-anneal the aluminium so it could be worked on without it cracking, while preparations were made to reduce it to its original width. The drivetrain was carefully stripped and the museum’s experts pored over documents in the Mercedes archives to discover what they could of the car.

Drivetrain of the car in the garage
The car was fully taken apart - Michel Ginsberg via Stargallery

There’s quite a lot of contemporary records in the archive and it didn’t take long for the museum team to discover that this wasn’t the winning car at all and was in fact the Lautenschlager car, number 32, which had finished 10th in the first race, ninth in the next.

What had happened to Werner’s winning car? It’s not absolutely clear, but the archive had pictures of it smashed almost beyond recognition, so it seems likely it was scrapped.

Nil desperandum, as they say, and the restoration process continued. First of all the paint. Since all the contemporary pictures are in black and white, the correct hue became something of a three-pipe problem. Experts were hired from the art department of the local university and paint samples were examined. Clearly the car would have been repainted in the ensuing years, so “we looked in places where the painters don’t like to sand”, says Volker Lûik, a master furniture restorer who was charged with painting the racer by hand with the oil-based and turpentine-based coach enamel used in that period. There are about 10 layers and each takes a couple of days to dry.

“Of course, on the days I did the job, there were squadrons of suicidal flies,” says Lûik, “but in the archive there were stories of Mercedes having the same problems.”

The engine, too, revealed its secrets, surprisingly good in some cases, not so in others.

First coats of paint being brushed onto the chassis
Careful brushwork was required - Michel Ginsberg

“I had to do a lot,” says Dietmar Krieger, a museum engineer who handled the rebuild. “It was a sobering experience.”

Back in the day, Mercedes had the not inconsiderable talents of Paul Daimler and Ferdinand Porsche to call upon to design the engine, the former known as “the king of kompressors”. This 2.0-litre, twin camshaft, four-cylinder unit was lighter than the six-cylinder equivalent and with forced induction produced 125bhp. The clutch-actuated Roots-type supercharger merely needed a refresh, similarly the roller-bearing crankshaft, but one of the cylinder liners was damaged, the water jackets were badly corroded and the camshafts had to be metal sprayed and ground back to original spec, together with new pistons and bearings and lots of hard work. Fortunately, the archive had the original drawings to check against.

“We never throw anything away,” says Breitschwerdt.

A peek under the car's hood
The engine slowly revealed its secrets - Maximilian Balazs

That was the first time I saw the car, stripped, in bare metal, research done, but with much of the work still to do and the clock ticking. Fast forward six weeks and I visited the car for the second time expecting to drive it. What false hopes…

The passenger ride

Riding mechanic is not the place you wanted to be back in the day. There wasn’t much mechanic work to do apart from keeping the fuel tank pressurised, although you could bet your bottom dollar that if things came to grief, you would arrive at the scene of the accident first.

The Mercedes Museum team have been hard at it all week and the timing is incredibly tight. This is Saturday and it was only on Tuesday last that the body met the chassis in “the marriage”. The engine, which had been on a test bed before fitting, was a known quantity but while the ancillaries and the clutch had been inspected they hadn’t been fettled.

The 'marriage' of the car's engine and body
The 'marriage' of engine and body - Tom Koenig

The car ran on Thursday and was presented to the board, including the Mercedes-Benz chairman Ola Källenius, on Friday, when the cone clutch heated up, slipped and failed.

“We would have allowed you and Glen [Waddington from Octane magazine] a drive, but we’ve other people here and the clutch is too vulnerable for them to drive,” explains Breitschwerdt.

His natural charm pours on the unction that the clutch clearly hasn’t had, as I pull on a pair of overalls and run through my head how I’m going to explain this to the editor: “Old cars go wrong,” seems to cover it.

Engineers work on the car
'No build-and-block and no filler' - Tom Koenig

On the sun-blasted concrete of the old Untertürkheim test track, the car looks millimetre perfect. The proportions are straight out of a child’s picture book and the claret-red bodywork undulates gently like a burnished sunset on an Italian lake.

“No build-and-block and no filler,” says Gert van der Meij of the Dutch specialists MCW, which has done a fair bit of the heavy lifting during this restoration. In retaining as much of the original car as possible, the body reveals every cut and dent it received over the last century.

Krieger spins the starting handle and his fellow engineer Manfred Oechsle juggles mixture and hand throttle on the centre of the steering wheel. The massive exhaust note echoes off the track walls, sounding like so many dropped tea trays. How this must have sounded to the residents of Sicily in the 1920s heaven only knows. The weird-shaped exhaust appears to jet fumes forward as well as back and the rattling, bombastic boom is deafening.

Car on the track
The car returned to its natural habitat - Tom Koenig

Clamber over the sill into the mechanic’s seat and put your feet firmly on the floor, trying to avoid turning off the fuel on the way in. You sit slightly to the rear of the driver, with no windshield but a decent view of the instruments you are tasked with monitoring.

With a jerk, we are off at a sedate pace and proceed round the concrete track in a welter of smoke and noise. My ears are still ringing as I climb back on the aeroplane with only half the story.

And the drive…

Sindelfingen, one of Mercedes’ oldest factories. Headcount around 30,000, producing S-class, E-class, EQE and others. It’s a town within a town, a mix of modern and old, with its own test track divided into two, so that the secret stuff can take place on one track unobserved from the other. No extravagant press junket this, there’s not even a cup of tea and it feels more like some Cold War rendezvous; fly into Stuttgart, drive and evaluate the car, go home.

The museum’s engineers greet me like an old friend as I pull on period-style overalls and a flying helmet. They’ve warmed the engine but the ambient temperature is so low they’ve had to blanket half the radiator to retain some heat.

Andrew English behind the wheel of the car
A tight squeeze behind the wheel

Even 100 years on, this feels every inch a works racer. They even remove the seat padding to get me in, as I’m not exactly a whippet-like 1920s racing driver, and I drive sitting on bolt heads in a bare aluminium shell. Apparently former F1 ace Karl Wendlinger had to do the same, I suggest his bottom has a lot less padding.

So squeeze your legs under the big wooden steering wheel and pop the locking pin in the rear brake lever outside the cockpit, which disengages the ratchet and allows you to pull the lever without it locking.

Manfred Oechsle squeezes in beside me as riding mechanic, putting his arm around the back of my seat. This is cosy. Krieger does the honours and before he’s made a complete turn of the starting handle the air is rent with the engine’s aka-aka-aka racket.

I blip the centre throttle, getting a sense of how the engine wants to rev; believe me, it does. Clutch down, I wait for the cogs to slow, push the stubby lever into first with a cog clack and ease to the biting point before quickly lifting off the pedal. It’s abrupt and jerky, but cone clutches don’t tolerate slip. Second, third and fourth have double-declutched engagement with a slight click, but this is an easy gearbox to use and it comes relatively silently down the ratios with similar treatment.

A taste of the 1920s

Early cars such as this usually leave you marvelling at how drivers coped on unsealed roads with solid axles, lever-actuated steering, primitive drivetrains and non-existent brakes. Not this one, though; all it wants to do is go faster. On the tight little track the gearing feels just right, with a top speed some way south of 100mph, which is more than you’d need on Sicily’s tight and precipitous turns.

Andrew English in 1920s motoring overalls stood next to the Targa Florio on the track
Andrew English had to be patient, but getting behind the wheel of this car was like jumping into a time machine - Maximilian Balazs

“What amazes me is how responsive this car is,” yells Manfred in my ear as I open her up on the long straight into the next banked corner. He’s right, it feels up for it and ready to pounce. I gently push the brakes into the banked S-bend and the bluff nose responds like a young pup. It dives into the banking, so tiny on the wide track. The steering is steady and true and as we pop out of the serpentine curves, I push the accelerator pedal to the boards and relish the speed and eagerness of this old charger, back where it belongs, dashing noisily between corners on a racing circuit.

What a privilege, one that was enjoyed by the Mercedes Formula 1 driver George Russell at Imola last weekend, the first time the car has returned to Italy for 100 years. Then it has a starring role at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and after that the swanky Pebble Beach concours d’élégance in California, where the oil and turpentine-based paint finish will have the plutocrat American collectors twittering like Edwardian ladies over a mechanical monkey.

We got it first, at least as far as outsiders are concerned, and I’m still reeling. Motoring might be indistinguishable from the experience 100 years ago, yet this car feels and drives so well that you wonder what exactly we’ve been doing in all that time.