The Writings of Ingrid Pitt

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Silver Arrows

If you are looking for the Graf und Stift and you find a 'lost' pre-war Mercedes-Benz by mistake - is that a result?
Hunt For The Graf und Stift

Poster for the TV series which died with James Hunt and fostered the one off BBC Silver Arrows.

It sometimes pays to be a dumb blonde. You find yourself in all sorts of interesting situations denied an overtly intellectual type. It put me in the position to hear a conversation between two of the greats of the motor racing world that I would have been denied if they thought I had something to add. It happened in the Sheraton in Buenos Aires back in the early 70’s. The F1 Grand Prix equips were in town and the Argentinians were going berserk in their efforts to entertain them. At the Gala Dinner in the hotel I was seated between the late, great, five times world champion, Juan Manuel Fangio and the man that made modern motor racing what it is today, the also departed, Colin Chapman. My main reason for being seated between them was that I knew them both and could speak English and Spanish. Neither of the men were bilingual. My husband, Tonio, was the team manager for one of the Lotus teams and had gallanatly offered my services. It was a great evening, even if some of the technical terms were subject to some unorthodox translation. Both men had strong views on what motor racing is all about. Although they each had mutual respect for what the other had achieved their ideas for the way ahead were poles apart. ‘ Chunky’ Chapman opined that the car you put on the grid should be refined to the point that after passing under the chequered flag to win it should fall to pieces. Every part of it should be so refined that once it had done its job it would expire. The cars he put on the grid confirmed his philosophy. They killed a few drivers but were so ultra competitive and innovative that drivers jostled for the chance to drive them - whatever the risk.

‘El Chueco’ Fangio took the view that the car was subsidiary to the driver. Wide tyres, seat belts and track safety measures took the onus away from the driver to make the car perform to the limits of the circuit. With armco barriers and sand traps lining the track it is the driver with the largest cojones and terminal brain-fade that will take the untenable risk that kills. He despised the huge wheels that were on modern race cars that funnelled the cars around the track as if they were on rails. He was all for returning to narrow wheels that ultimately slowed the speed of the car but produced exciting and close fought races. It didn’t matter what the car looked like, it had to be strong and the power to weight ratio had to be calculated to give the driver the best chance of slinging the car around without it inconveniently vanishing into the trees that lined the track. Chapman took the opposing view. The car was the thing as far as he was concerned. He produced svelte, aerodynamic cars and claimed that if the car looked right it had a good chance of being right.

To prove his point Chapman offered the Mercedes Silver Arrows. Here was a car with the grunt to outstrip any other car thrown against it. Not only was it a masterpiece of aerodynamic design, for its day, but it harnessed a high percentage of the power that it had available. It was a cunning ploy. Fangio owed the 1954 and 55 Championships to the Mercedes Team so had to agree that Chapman had a point. I listened to the two great men arguing obscure technicalities that were beyond my comprehension but I did understand that I was witnessing a seminal moment in the history of motor racing. Up until a short time before that moment racing cars had been huge beasts that relied on the driver to control the violence and keep it on the road. The way ahead was with the smaller, more tractable and less wind resistant designs. The evening finished with neither converting the other to his way of thinking and I was left with a poignant memory.

Silberpfeile at Goodwood 2007

A revolution in road holding and the dream car for many.

This memory served me well a couple of decades later. I put the idea of a motoring series to Prince Edward when he started his new company ARDENT. He like the idea. It was to be called HUNT FOR THE GRAF UND STIFT. The ‘hunt’ bit was to be covered by the erstwhile world champion James Hunt. The Graf und Stift was the car in which Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was shot on a State visit to Prague in 1914. This assassination plunged Europe into the obscenities of World War One. The basic idea of the programme was for James to go off in his 1960’s Austin van and progress through Europe looking in at famous and not so famous cars and collections on the way. Before we could get it into gear James woke up one morning dead and the already commissioned series looked in imminent danger of being dropped.

One of the cars James was supposed to find along the way was the fabled sixth Silver Arrow Mercedes which had been missing since before the war. The story goes that there were six of these fabulous racing cars made. When it became obvious that the Allies were going to win, Hitler ordered that the cars should be hidden away. After the war five of the cars were retrieved. The Sixth Mercedes became the stuff of legends. Then, when I was researching the Graf und Stift story, I mentioned to a friend, Dorota Stalinska, the top Polish actress, that I would dearly love to be the one to discover the priceless Mercedes. She surprised me by claiming to know where it was. I couldn’t believe it. Mercedes had been searching for it for years without success. That was the reason it hadn’t been discovered, Dorota said. The man that owned it was terrified that Mercedes would find it and want it back. I was more than a little skeptical so Dorota offered to introduce me to the clandestine owner. The Graf und Stift programme, with James departed, was in danger of being shelved so I took the story to Prince Edward. He was enthusiastic. I rung Dorota and told her to go ahead and make an appointment with her friend, the putative owner of the lost Mercedes. It was all very Mission Impossible-ish. I met Dorota in Warsaw and she took me in her Traubant on a hour’s trip with me sitting on the floor in the back and not allowed to see where we were going. If you have ever ridden in a Traubant on a seat you will appreciate my ordeal on the thinly carpeted floor.

Mercedes W125

The Mercedes W125 - the perfect race car?

When we got to our destination I has hustled into what was essentially a barn with attitude and introduced to an old man who obviously doubled during the winter months for a Troll. With furtive looks and frightened grunts he slowly pulled an assortment of sacks off a pile of junk in the corner. I looked at Dorota. She shrugged and made out like she was just the chauffeur. The old boy told me a muddled tale of being the friend of one of the men who had buried the car originally and how he had dug it up and cleaned it when his friend died. I asked him why he hadn’t made his spectacular find known to the eager world. He got even more muddled. He shouldn’t have known about the car, it had a curse, Mercedes would take it back, his brother in law was a policeman etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. He started picking up twisted pieces of rusted metal and thrusting them under my nose in a effort to convince me that the junk was what he claimed it to be. What do I know? It looked like any other decimated old banger to me. I suggested taking photographs so that I could get some expert opinions. Instantly the Hobbit started flinging sacks over his sacred relics. I guessed photos were out. I suggested that it would be a good idea if I brought someone in who would be better qualified to identify his junk-yard special and he came all over surly and bustled me towards the door.The trip hadn’t been a success and I refused to sit on the floor on the way back to Dorota’s apartment. It didn’t make a lot of difference. I hadn’t a clue where she had taken me.

Back in London I tried to convince Edward that, if we went mob handed to Warsaw we would soon unearth the sixth Mercedes. He wasn’t impressed. He had developed an independent line about the Silver Arrows and it didn’t include a search for a car which I couldn’t identify as being the one we were looking for. I got a bit peeved about this and, although the project was originally all mine own, it developed a life of its own and went ahead with very little further input from me. I think it was a mistake. Even if the scrap metal in a garage on the outskirts of Warsaw is not the Sixth Mercedes it would have provided a whimsical note on which to end the programme. The show, now called simply THE SILVER ARROWS, aired a few times on BBC and then disappeared. I keep expecting it to crop up on a cable channel but I guess the story of the Silver Arrows, like the contents of the Troll’s garage, will remain buried for evermore.

I must say I enjoyed my involvement in the research of the Mercedes was great fun and I’m talking to a company which makes documentaries for Discovery, about the possibility of giving Hunt for the Graf und Stift a whirl - sans Hunt of course. If it does come off I will try and angle it so that I get some time in Warsaw. Maybe if I pull some strong arm with Dorota I can persuade her to take me to that ramshackled shed and........

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt