Spats in The Sand Pit – The Lost Tripoli Streamliner

Spats in The Sand Pit – The Lost Tripoli Streamliner - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston

The 2020 Formula One titles have been decided and the teams are preparing to leave for Bahrain. This season – this mad year – we will see two races at the Bahrain International Circuit, the second of these being held on the high-speed outer circuit.

Bahrain - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston

Described variously as an oval(!), or like Thruxton – according to McLaren’s Lando Norris – it made me think of another dusty, high-speed test. The fastest race of its era, at the most modern circuit – the Autodromo della Mellaha – home of the prestigious Tripoli Grand Prix from 1933-1940.

Perhaps, perhaps not – this Bahrain circuit is only a quarter the distance of its Libyan predecessor. Still, no doubt the high-speed nature of it is challenging the Forumla One teams – as they study strategy and tweak their racing cars.

The Tripoli Grand Prix also saw it’s share of racing car tweaks and ‘specials’. Not only because of the more liberal regulations pre-war, but also because it was a Forumla Libre race. A ‘no holds barred’, big-money season opener.

Which brings us to todays ‘mystery’. This photo appears online, often with the caption that it’s a Mercedes-Benz W165 ‘streamliner’, intended for the 1940 Tripoli Grand Prix.

Mercedes Benz W154 /M163 streamliner - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston

In the past I have said as much myself… because it looks right and makes sense. But having reread Cameron Earl’s 1946 ‘British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee’ report on the German Grand Prix cars, I see the error… and have more questions.

Mercedes Benz W154 /M163 streamliner - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston
Mercedes Benz W154 /M163 streamliner - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston
Mercedes Benz W154 /M163 streamliner - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston
Mercedes Benz W154 /M163 streamliner - Racing Daydreams by Colin Johnston

The car is quite clearly a W154 /M163 with fully-enclosed wheels and, apparently, a longer nose. This, to my mind, is what gives it a frontal appearance rather like a W165. Earl describes it:

Both Uhlenhaut and Professor Eberan stated that whilst the drag co-efficient of a 3 litre Grand Prix machine of average form was of the order of 0.65, the drag co-efficient of the body alone only amounted to 0.05. From this it can be seen that a considerable amount of power could be saved by cowling the wheels of machines prepared for events at high speed circuits.

Plates 28 to 31 show a 3 litre Mercedes Type M163(sic) especially prepared for the 1940 Tripoli event. All the wheel cowls were rapidly removable to facilitate wheel changing. The cycle type front cowl which allows normal movement of the front wheels will be noted.

Cameron C. Earl – Crown Copyright – ISBN 0 11 290550 1

My question is – was it really intended for the 1940 Tripoli Grand Prix?

Famously, the Tripoli Grand Prix was run to Voiturette regulations in 1939. Ultimately the 1940 race was as well. Did Mercedes-Benz really have an expectation that the 1940 event would revert to Formula Libre or the Grand Prix formula? It seems rather unlikely to me.

Could this streamlined W154 Grand Prix car have been intended for another race? Reims?.. or even the 1939 Tripoli Grand Prix, before the authorities made the regulation change?

We may never know – and we can’t even be sure that these aero parts still exist. In the introduction to the 1996 reprint of Earl’s report, Karl Ludvigsen calls this “an unique record” of “this magnificent car”, that “has never again been seen in this spectacular condition.”.

But we live in hope. Perhaps in Untertürkheim there is a warehouse – like the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ – just waiting for the chosen archivist to open the correct crate.

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