Regular #SpeedRead readers will recall Marshall Pruett’s eight-part series on “Weird and Wonderful Cars of the ‘500’” that appeared in the weeks leading up to the 100th Running of the Indy 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Now, the feature continues with one car featured regularly.
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Few Indianapolis 500 cars tick both boxes of “weird” and “wonderful” like Don Lee’s unexpected entry for the 1947 race.
Just two years removed from World War II, the wealthy American sought to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” by drawing from the finest pre-war machinery Europe had to offer. Ferreted from Germany to England after the conclusion of WWII, Lee was able to use his considerable resources to procure one of Germany’s most advanced grand prix creations, a coveted Mercedes-Benz W154.
The bare aluminum masterpiece, powered by a futuristic 3.0-liter Roots twin-supercharged V12 engine, was purchased by Lee for a reported sum of $25,000 (just over $272,000 today, or less than a rolling Dallara DW12 IndyCar chassis).
The legendary W154 “Silver Arrow” dominated the grand prix scene during its prewar reign from 1938-1939, and with nearly 500 hp on tap and a glorious redline of 7800 rpms, the screaming streamliner easily breached the 190 mph barrier on long straightaways. Upon the Indy 500’s resumption in 1946, the postwar era began with limited resources and finances available to most teams. Like the race itself during WWII, the march of technology went on hiatus; older Indy cars or newer, more economic creations became the new norm in Gasoline Alley.
Despite the W154’s age and inactivity for nearly a decade, Lee knew its pioneering design and powerful engine was lightyears ahead of its competition in 1947. From the 24 psi of boost being fed to its four-cam V12 to the highly advanced torsion bar suspension system, Lee’s W154 was in a conceptual class of its own.
Engineering achievements notwithstanding, Lee soon learned why most of the other Indy 500 team owners were reluctant to embrace prewar grand prix cars. With the late 1930s grand prix rules calling for manufacturers to build large, powerful open-wheel machines, Lee’s gorgeous W154 arrived at the Speedway as one of the heaviest cars in the field. In its element on the grand prix trail, the Mercedes-Benz conquered rivals whose cars conformed to the same specifications, but at upwards of 1900 pounds, the hefty W154 was always going to be challenged to live with the smaller, lighter Indy cars over 500 miles.
In the hands of veteran driver Duke Nalon, Lee’s W154 was a rocket on the straights. But with its extra weight to manage in the corners, Nalon was left to wrangle a grand prix dragster at a track where linking all four corners together was needed to produce impressive average speeds.
On the European racing trail, winding the big Mercedes-Benz up to 190 mph or more made for a fearsome display of speed before its drivers hit the brakes, shed a considerable amount of forward momentum, downshifted its four-speed transmission to a lower gear, and turned into corners that were nothing like the demands of Indy.
Taking the W154 from its natural road racing habitat and dropping it onto the world’s fastest oval was an inspired choice by Lee, and in spite of its design as a purebred grand prix road racer, the big Mercedes-Benz showed it was capable of mighty feats with brave Duke Nalon behind the wheel. Wound up and rolling hard, the W154 set the second-best qualifying speed which suggested bigger things could be in order on race day.
Generating those mighty speeds, however, would also require the W154 to work in ways its designers had never intended. Grand prix racing, with its blend of accelerating, braking, and reaccelerating from low in the rev range, is where the car’s V12 engine was meant to perform. At Indy, with its 500-mile high-speed charge, required the W154 to make peak power at the top of its rev range for hour after punishing hour.
Lee’s beautiful entry could be hustled around Indy in a way that overcame its extra weight, but it came at the expense of its furious engine. Pushed to the brink to keep pace with the nimble Indy specials, the W154’s V12 surrendered with a burned piston after 119 laps. Lee’s second entry, a less exotic supercharged 8-cylinder grand prix Alfa Romeo, lasted until Lap 121.
Undeterred, Lee returned with the W154 in 1948 with Chet Miller at the controls. The Mercedes-Benz was still fast, but an oil leak led to an early retirement on Lap 108. Lee’s grand prix experiment met an unceremonious end that year, but he didn’t leave the track unsatisfied. Hedging his bets, Lee also entered an Offenhauser-powered Kurtis Kraft chassis for Mack Hellings, who went on to finished fifth in the American roadster. Success during Indy’s postwar era, as Lee found, would belong to lightweight homebuilt models.
The W154’s outing in 1948 continues to stand as the final appearance for a Mercedes-Benz chassis at the Indy 500. It also served as the last run for an engine bearing the German brand’s name until 1994 when “Mercedes-Benz” dressed the cam covers of the turbocharged V8 motor designed and built by England’s Ilmor Engineering. Nicknamed “The Beast,” Team Penske used the mountain-size motor to conquer Indy in 1994.
Don Lee’s delightful W154 grand prix machine was unable to deliver the win he so greatly desired, but it certainly added to the wonderful legacy and lore of European cars that pursued victory at America’s defining motor race.
And after spending roughly $272,000 to take possession of a W154 in 1947, what would it cost to purchase the car today? No figures have been published on its current value, but as a rough guide, a postwar W196 driven by Juan Manuel Fangio from 1954 went for $31 million at auction a few years ago…