Mercedes-Benz W136: An Ode to the Carmaker’s Early Motorsports Days
Ultra-rare 1938 Gelandesport Zweisitzer 170VS Alpine Racer is only one of 10 left in existence today.
Mercedes-Benz has always been a bit coy about its participation in motorsports. But it’s hard to deny the company’s extensive and rich history in automotive competition. From Formula 1, to Le Mans, and many worldly touring car championships (most notably DTM, or the German touring car championship). But rallying is also an area where Mercedes-Benz truly established itself before any of the other leagues began racing.
And recently, an article by ClassicCars.com Journal reminded us of the importance of Mercedes-Benz’s earliest glory days in European rally racing by paying tribute to one of the automaker’s most cherished racers.
That racer would be this very rare and unique 1938 W136 170VS. It’s believed to be the only surviving example of its kind and earlier this month, it took the the Chairman’s Choice Award at this year’s Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance after undergoing an extensive restoration.
The 170VS dates back to Mercedes-Benz’s earliest days in motorsports. In this case, this example raced in the Deutsche Alpenfahrt between 1938 and 1939. Regarded as one of history’s earliest and oldest motorsports competitions, the Deutsche Alpenfahrt was a 1,600-kilometer rally stage that started in Munich and ended in Vienna. Its inaugural event took place in 1910 after being organized by the KK Austrian Automobile Club. Over the course of three days and 38 Alpine passes through the Alps, drivers would race to see who came in first, if they even crossed the finished line.
That said, the Deutsche Alpenfahrt is often regarded as the root to every major European rally event, from the famous Monte Carlo Rally, to even the World Rally Championship league.
The 170VS is one of ten examples built to racing specification to compete in the 1938 Deutsche Alpenfahrt. It’s based on the automaker’s roadster variant of the type W136, the company’s line of four-cylinder powered passenger cars produced between 1935 and 1955. And it featured a 1.9-liter four-cylinder with dual Solex carburetors, producing 50 horsepower.
During the 170VS’s era, European automakers often relied on alpine rallies as a way to benchmark and showcase the engineering prowess of their automobiles. The mentality being, if they could survive the grueling endurance of a long-distance rally race while defying gravity with treacherous hill-climb stages, they can last in the hands of everyday drivers to their satisfaction. Because of its successes, the W136 platform went on to become Mercedes-Benz’s best-selling model at the time.
The specific 170VS in the feature, No. 804801, is believed to be the only surviving example of its kind. As its story goes, after the No. 804801’s tenure as a competitive race car, it was imported into the United States by a New York City-based doctor by the name of William Kitto. Upon arrival however, it was said to be just drivable, but hardly roadworthy. It was repaired but only slightly, and its history afterwards remains a bit of a mystery. That is, until it was discovered in the late 1960s, sitting in a barn in Coleman, Michigan.
When discovered in Michigan, it was still owned by Kitto and a man by the name of Ed Hannum then purchased the car. The 170VS changed hands again in 1971 after being bought by a Calvin Grosscup. And in 1979, its ownership transferred to a Randal Tustison. And in 1990, Tustison sold the car to its current owner, Warren Riter.
By then, the 170VS underwent a repaint at some point in its life and arrived in silver. Riter had the car disassembled for a restoration in 1995, which is when he discovered the car’s original color was black. Though it was until July of 2018 that the 170VS received the full Concours-quality restoration it deserved.
Photos: Daimler AG