• Maurice Hamilton

A new line in used Mercedes

Maurice Hamilton July 14, 2013
Sold: Mercedes W196 - 'A nice little runner; bodywork needs attention' © Press Association
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In the motor trade, they would have said: 'I have to tell you it's not a clean motor, Sir. A bit tatty; the bodywork needs attention.' If they asked for the number of previous owners, you might have struggled to answer. But when it came to the vehicle's provenance, you were quids-in. Nineteen million, six hundred and one thousand quid to be precise.

The trick was that your motor was a Mercedes-Benz W196 and carried chassis number 00006. That told the trade this vehicle was the F1 car driven by Juan Manuel Fangio to victory in the 1955 German and Swiss Grands Prix.

It mattered little that these two wins were executed by the World Champion on the Nürburgring Nordschleife and the equally difficult and charismatic Bremgarten road circuit. The significant detail was that one of the world's great racing cars had somehow escaped the clutches of a proud motor manufacturer not known for selling the products of the Rennabteilung, the Mercedes racing department.

Quite how this came about remains a mystery. The car was originally consigned to the Daimler-Benz museum in Stuttgart before being loaned to a motor museum outside Germany and later sold into private hands in order to raise funds for the museum. The official narrative says Mercedes supported this sale although some close to Stuttgart will suggest such an account leaves traces of gloss paint across the page.

Either way, subsequent changes of ownership around Europe were completely above board. This W196 had not been seen for many years when the owner contacted Bonhams, the auctioneers in London. Robert Brooks, Chairman of Bonhams, must have thought all his Christmases had come at once. He could be excused the preoccupied look when I saw him an hour or so before the sale commenced last Friday in the Bonham's pavilion at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

As if the glorious summer's day was not hot enough, the auction warmed up briskly with the sale of an ex-BMC Competitions Department Austin Healey 3000 MkIIA for £24,150; a 1962 Jaguar E-Type for £124,700 and the ex-Sir John Whitmore, Alan Mann Racing Lotus Cortina (winner of the 1965 European Touring Car Championship) for an amazing £183,500. But all of this was a mere automotive fiscal foreword to what was to come.

At 3.25pm, when Brooks announced Lot 320, the packed room and adjoining lawn went quiet. A representative from Daimler-Benz set the tone when he quietly - and a touch wistfully, I thought - confirmed that this was, indeed, Mercedes-Benz W196, chassis number 00006, and that every single component on it was original. This extended to the aforementioned body with its paintwork exactly as it was following the end of season overhaul in 1955.

With that, Brookes opened the bidding at £3.5 million. As you do.

In increments of £500,000, the bidding rose fairly swiftly to £14 million. 'We have bids from three continents,' said Brooks, indicating banks of phones to his left and right, 'and one remaining bidder in the room'. Bids were now advancing in millions but, when the tempo suddenly slowed, the erudite Brooks displayed his persuasive powers by saying to the bidder in the room: 'If it helps you, Sir, I can go up five hundred thousand.'

How kind. A mere half million. Why not?

'Fourteen million five hundred in the room,' purred Brookes, as he glanced to his right and then his left.

When the player in the room finally dropped out, the process moved along at tense and dramatic crawl as one telephone bidder made an offer, followed by a pregnant pause as we waited for a response from the other continent, wherever that might have been. A frisson of excitement would ripple through the audience when Brooks suddenly broke the silence by saying, quietly and simply: 'Sixteen million pounds.'

You wanted to shout out what was clearly in everyone's thoughts: 'Sixteen f***ing million! For a racing car! Holy smoke!' But the moment quickly passed as you followed Brooks' enquiring gaze to his representative passing on the bad news to the other telephone bidder.

And so it went on, the pace grinding ever more slowly until, at 3.36pm, the hammer went down on £17.5 million. Add taxes, premiums and other devices which, at that level, must scarcely have given the successful bidder a second thought, and the final figure headed north towards £20 million.

Who is the new owner? Lips are sealed. Speculation around the room included the name Bernie Ecclestone. Some even dared to suggest it could have been Daimler-Benz buying back what they always felt was rightfully theirs.

Either way, this motor - 'nice little runner; bodywork needs attention' - had set a world record for the sale of an automobile. You don't see one of those every day in your local car auction.

Juan Manuel Fangio on the way to winning the Swiss Grand Prix © Getty Images

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live