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The Man in the Apple Tree

Updated: Oct 6, 2018

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Mercedes W154

In 1938 & 1939, the Mercedes Benz company fielded a team of Grand Prix racing cars tha became known as "The Silver Arrows". They were a revelation in engineering and design that has yet to be equalled when set against the backdrop of the time. In 1979, I stood in a garage space in Long Island occupied by the two racing cars of indisputable character. One as raced by Alberto Ascare at Indianapolis in 19 and had previously been campaigned by Scuderia Ferrari during the Grand Prix season.

The companion car was a 1938 Mercedes Benz W154, last raced in anger in 1939 as part of a team of cars which dominated the circuits of Europe exhibiting the all consuming fervor of a nation determined to prove they were the best over all comers. What was in a way difficult to accept was the difference in age between the two cars that was at cross purposes with the indisputable standard of construction and engineering each one possessed.

Both cars were owned by the same man who had rescued the Mercedes from a barn behind what was then known as the "Iron Curtain". The car was traded for a combination of new BMWs, dollar bills and London Fog raincoats. (Don't ask about the raincoats!) Eventually, after a re-build at the Mercedes Benz factory, the car was duly returned to its new home in New York. For various reasons the car had not been run since leaving the Mercedes Works and my seeing it, so there were a number of issues that had to be addressed.

It was rumored that several G.P. car engines had been severely damaged either in the private hands or at the works through failure to follow correct starting procedures. The new owner therefore decided that it would be prudent to find one of the original team mechanics to be on hand when the car was to be fired up. Each particular part of the car - brakes, ignition/magneto, suspension, carburetors and fuel, engine mechanicals and lubrication, gearbox, and final drive - had one factory trained mechanic assigned to its wellbeing. Such was the power driving the will to win under the international spotlight, that the racing department had the power to take over any part of the main works should it require the extra manpower or materials to complete a task on time.

Very few of the original team members were left alive by now, but one of the carburetor mechanics, Carl Bunz, was located and had agreed to come on a well-funded visit to Long Island to Long Island for the purposes of supervising the running of the car. In the meantime, all that was known about the cars was obtained firstly from the factory and secondly from a British Army Intelligence Report compiled at the close to 1945 on the activities of the factory competitions and vehicle development department. One particular part of the cold start up procedure that came in for much attention was that the engine lubrication oil had to be pre-heated close to operating temperature then poured into the engine at two specific locations and the engine cranked over from the starter trolley via a starter shaft inserted through the loose of the car engaging in a dog on the nose of the crankshaft. If for any reason the motor failed to fire up within a few short minutes the rapidly cooling oil had to be drained out re-heated back to temp and the process begun again.

Failure to adhere to this procedure could have disastrous consequences. The oil lubricated needle roller bearings on the journals of the crankshaft. When the hot oil coated the bearing surfaces, the needles would roll round and the engine rotate smoothly until ignition commenced when the engine temperature gradually and evenly to full operating level. If the oil failed to be fully heated or ignition not be realised soon enough that the temperature began to fall then the needle rollers would "skate" rather than roll as intended and there existed the real possibility of one or several journals seized and the engine being severely damaged.

It took several gallons of oil to perform the process and I decided the presence of naked gas flames around oil and high octane fuel was decidedly not to be entertained. I obtained a very large aluminum cooking pot, welded two alloy bosses to the lower sides and fastened two heavy duty electrical immersion heater coils in place as the heat source. Two hefty insulated handles were welded just down from the rim as well as a ring at the base to rotate the angle of the pot to pour hot oil from the spout into each of the funnels in turn. We tested it outside the workshops with a heavy duty extension cord and it heated like a charm. We had the chemical formula for the fuel from the factory and calculated the ingredients for a 30 gallon mix. The dates for Carl Bunz to arrive had been set previously and everything appeared to be ready.

The timing workout out well, as a delay at the German end gave us a comfortable window. The reason for this was that dispute his advancing years (close to 80) Carl has fallen out of an apple tree in this garden whilst pruning branches and broken or badly sprained his arm. When he duly arrived at the house with the owner who spoke fluent German. He seemed genuinely pleased to see the car and some time was spent in conversation that was obviously related to reminiscences of his time on the team and the famous factory divers he had worked alongside. He looked at the starter box, the system for heating and pouring the oil and asked where we had the fuel.

The owner showed him the new 50 gallon drum and the pump and that's when all the toys fell out of the pram. He looked at the drum and his whole demeanor had changed. It was almost a sense of anger and resentment. He asked to see the fuel mix and I showed him the formula that came from Mercedes which was identical to the one in the Intelligence Report. There was a short conversation with the owner and he waled off to the car. The owner was aghast. He had apparently said that the fuel was absolutely no goof whatsoever and his time coming here was wasted. He had asked if we had obtained the fuel from Esso in Hamburg, and when told that we had not he walked.

I asked to all have a quick talk about this and I enquired if there was a mistake with the mix. No there was no mistake. Surely combination of those ingredients to make it were the same in Germany as they were in France and likewise in Austria or in England. HE considered this for only a second and said "is spetzial...spetzial...only from Esso Hamburg...only". Conversation over. The owner took me aide and said he would agree to Carl that we had made an unfortunate mistake and we would contact Esso first thing in the morning if her would just give us the time to get the fuel here. That evening he called to say it was still on and he had arranged some interesting diversions for he and his wife over the next three or four days including broadway and all that New York had to offer.

On the following morning, it soon became very clear that the chances of Esso being able to do a fuel mix at such short notice and then finding an air freight company who would entertained putting it on a plane to New York, were just about zero. Even with Mercedes putting their elbow in, it was not going to work.

Two things had, however, proved to be clear. We had the right recipe and the right supplier. What we really needed was the right container. The more feedback the owner was learning, was that when the team raced away from their home circuits then absolutely everything apart from the air in the tires, was shipped along with the team in support vehicles. Only that which was made in Germany was going to be goof enough to achieve victory and it was drummed into all the members of the team again and again.

This account and other stories found on this blog are the experiences of our CEO, Tony Dutton.


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