The big silver streamlined car with the Mercedes-Benz star painted on its nose raised plenty of questions Thursday morning at the start of the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance.
The main question: What is it? The car seemed obviously prewar with a competition style, but even veteran Mercedes-Benz collectors were stumped about its provenance. The Benz was taking part in the Tour as an entrant in the prestigious Pebble Beach Concours, which takes place Sunday.
I caught up with the driver as he prepared for the tour, and he turned out to be none other but Michael Bock, the director of Mercedes-Benz Classic in Stuttgart, the marque’s keeper of all things vintage and historic.
“This was a car designed to compete in a Berlin to Rome rally that never took place,” Bock said as he prepped the car for the 60-mile tour.
Bock told me that the car’s appearance at the Tour was a very special public debut for Mercedes-Benz Classic of a fascinating piece of motoring history.
The one-of-a-kind car is the 540 K Stromlinlienwagen, or Streamliner, developed and built in 1937 and 1938 using the then-latest techniques for high-speed wind-cheating performance. The lightweight body shell is made of aluminum, and the chassis and running gear are based on the 540 K road car. Power comes from a supercharged inline-8 engine.
After the cancelation of the 1938 road race, the Streamliner was used by the German branch of tire manufacturer Dunlop for testing tires being developed for the fastest cars of the day by roaring the silver missile along the autobahns. The car went back to Mercedes after the outbreak of World War II. Following the war, the aluminum body shell was scrapped and the remainder of the car was put into storage.
Recently, Mercedes-Benz Classic undertook the extensive reconstruction of the 540 K Stromlinlienwagen, re-creating the body from blueprints in the same way that it was originally built.
According to Mercedes-Benz Classic, the car’s restoration was “a complex and time-consuming project” in which the restoration experts used “only the technical skills, methods and materials of the period from which the vehicle originates.”
This week, the Mercedes group is reintroducing the car to the world during the Pebble Beach events, with its appearance at the Tour marking its first public showing. Its official first showing takes place Sunday at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
The Streamliner may not be beautiful, but it is wonderfully purposeful and evokes an era of technical brilliance that thrived even under the shadow of the terrible political and social turmoil of the era. Ultimately, that is what killed the Stromlinlienwagen project.
But now the amazing streamlined car is back, and I joined the other spectators Thursday morning witnessing it in public for the first time in more than 70 years.