The success of Ferdinand Porsche’s mid/rear-engined
Auto Unions would change racing forever...eventually.
s the war clouds gathered over Europe
in 1939, bringing Germany’s racing
hegemony to its abrupt end, mighty
Mercedes-Benz had won the battle of
hearts over minds. Not only was its number
one Hermann Lang incorrectly “awarded”
the incomplete ’ 39 European Drivers’
Championship over Auto Union’s slower, yet
more consistent Hermann Paul Müller, but
its tour de force front-engined Grand Prix
cars had seen off their theoretically
superior rear/mid-engined rivals. After
almost six seasons of unnatural progression
– a blitzkrieg of horsepower, manpower and
financial muscle – racing was set back
20 years by Adolf Hitler’s megalomania
and the widely held, but airy assertion that
Auto Unions were “tricky to drive.”
Professor Ferdinand Porsche would
have been amused to see his fundamental
performance principles finally validated by
tiny Cooper’s “can-do” resourcefulness of
the late 1950s. The Bohemian-born,
Austro-Hungarian design genius had
worked for the industry’s grandees and
benefited from their largesse, but
ultimately reacted against their inherent
conservatism and struck out on his own.
He was a garagiste at heart.
German motor racing during the
1920s had revolved around Mercedes.
The Stuttgart firm sucked in the best talent
and satellite marques sought sanctuary
within it when harsh economic reality
loomed, seduced by its sheen of confidence.
Benz of Mannheim drew close in 1924
and was incorporated two years later – a
meeting of convenience rather than minds.
Porsche, who had joined Mercedes from
Austro-Daimler in 1923, was the head
honcho in the racing department, having
successfully steered the marque’s ongoing,
groundbreaking supercharger program, as
well as redesigning a 2-liter GP car that
remained “tricky to drive” because of its
whippy chassis. He did not, however, have
a lock on ideas and inspiration.
Benz’s Dr Hans Nibel and chassis expert
Max Wagner arrived with the unsuccessful,
but remarkable 1923 Tropfenwagen on
their résumés. This Zeppelin-shaped car,
based around the patents of Viennese
Porsche’s exit from
Auto Union, 1938’s
Type D lacked punch
against a resurgent
the Swiss Grand Prix,
Hans Stuck’s “D” (No. 8,
RIGHT) was best of the
Auto Unions, finishing
two laps down in fourth.
freelancer Edmund Rumpler, introduced
the mid-engined (behind-the-driver)
layout, wind tunnel-validated streamlining,
independent suspension by swing axles,
in-unit gearbox and differential, plus
inboard brakes – “packaging,” in other
words – to grand prix racing.
Robert Fello wes/LAT
Porsche and Nibel were too talented
and ambitious to co-exist. Ironically, each
wanted what the other had. The latter,
another Czech-born émigré, craved
Mercedes solidity, whereas the former
rebelled against it and stormed out in
October 1928 when the board vetoed his
plan for smaller, lighter vehicles.