Above: Peerless engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut was with Mercedes-Benz from 1931 to 1972.
Rudolf Uhlenhaut (1906–1989) and Mercedes-Benz
Article Graham Robson
Images Daimler Archives
Stirling Moss did not know quite what to expect when he agreed to race for Mercedes-Benz in 1955. But before long, he was awed by the company’s approach to motor racing – team members thought of everything. Wasn’t it Moss who once told this story about his employer?
“Mercedes had the will and facilities to try anything. I felt that if I asked engineer Uhlenhaut to try square wheels, he would either have a car ready for testing next day, or would explain very earnestly how they had tried that idea in 1936 and found it made the ride bumpy. ...”
There, in one paragraph, we have the ideal summary of what made Rudolf Uhlenhaut such a towering personality at Mercedes-Benz. Alfred Neubauer may have been a dominating team manager in more ways than one, drivers such as Hermann Lang and Juan Manuel Fangio may have been the best racers in the business, and the company itself may have had peerless resources, experience and a record to prove it – but it was the studious-looking and bespectacled development engineer Uhlenhaut who many believe made what was the most outstanding contribution at that time in Mercedes racing.
Not that this success was predestined. His father worked for the Deutsche Bank and married an English girl; Uhlenhaut was one of four children. Born in London, England, where the young Uhlenhaut studied, he later earned an engineering qualification at Munich’s Technical University in 1931 after the family moved to Germany. He immediately gained employment at Mercedes-Benz, working in the top-secret experimental department in downtown Stuttgart. For the rest of his working days, Uhlenhaut worked for the same company until he retired in 1972. Still not bored with work – and certainly still at the height of his driving powers – he had been the company’s director of passenger-car development since 1959, but was forced to retire because of company rules. At age 66, he had to swap his slide rule – and now, his calculations – and become an elder statesman instead. It was a measure of his standing that his successors never enjoyed the same sort of veneration from the media – nor from senior management.
Early in his career, the bespectacled young engineer must have impressed everyone with his talent, not least behind the wheel of the company’s cars. At first he was most definitely the office junior, toiling away on the mundane road cars that helped propel the company through the 1930s’ Depression. But it was after his assignment to sort out the new 170V family car, which featured all-independent suspension and a tubular chassis frame, that his reputation spread throughout the company.
It was at this point that Uhlenhaut's guardian angel sprinkled fortune upon him. In 1936, the Mercedes-Benz W25 race car was thoroughly trounced by the despised rival, Auto Union. Uhlenhaut was drafted into the race team to organize a Rennabteilung – Racing Department – and bring it to maturity, and immediately began to analyze the current car’s failings. He actually tested the wayward W25s himself, later commenting: “After I'd driven for a few miles, I realized that a racing car was much the same as a passenger car. There's not much difference, nothing sensational. ...”
It is a matter of record that he then inspired the design and development of the all-conquering W125.
Well, that was then and this is now, but I doubt very much if many of today’s Formula One engineers could be a competitive driver in a modern F1 car. And in the 1930s and ’50s, Uhlenhaut most certainly was. Although he never actually took part in events, he tested the cars quite frequently and was regularly nearly as fast as the drivers – the “hired help,” as some then called them.
He was not, however, an I-can-do-anything genius. There are several shallow analysts who assume – and even avow – that it was Uhlenhaut who engineered the race cars and managed the team in every aspect in the ensuing 20 years. This just isn’t so. Despite the fact that he wasn’t a man who kept his finger on every pulse (think of Ron Dennis of McLaren-Mercedes for a stark contrast), he certainly had the sort of influence that many a management consultant would love to bottle – and sell. Yet it was Max Sailer who led the design team when he joined the department circa 1936, Albert Hess’s group that designed the engines, Max Wagner who ran the chassis team, and of course, the formidable Neubauer who was the team manager.
Make no mistake, however: Within months of his arrival, it was Uhlenhaut who demonstrably began to pull all the strings. Photographs taken throughout those racing years that portray him among a group of people almost inevitably feature him at the center of discussions or expounding points to which everyone was rapt in complete attention. And other photos – Uhlenhaut and Rudolf Caracciola, Uhlenhaut and Fangio, Uhlenhaut and Moss – each and every one wanted him to possess every fact to ensure that he knew exactly what was going on; everyone knew that it was best for the race team.
He was, above all, an inspiration to all who worked with him. In connection with the legendary 300SL race cars, one engineer who was with Uhlenhaut in the 1950s said, “Although he didn’t personally design the 300SL in detail, conceptually it was as much his creation as any car that has sprouted from the brain of a single engineer. It was and is his living memorial.”
More than anything, Uhlenhaut's legacy to Mercedes-Benz motorsports enthusiasts is that he brought real order and a methodology to the competition program. The W25s that he encountered on arrival in 1936 were faulty in so many ways, but it was his ruthless attention to detail that helped sort everything out in time to dominate the 1937 Grand Prix events. There was even more methodical success in 1938 and 1939, not only with GP cars, but with the speed-record car program. Moreover, it is doubthful that the department, without Uhlenhaut, could have possibly organized itself so quickly to turn the idea of racing 1.5-liter W165s in Tripoli – from September 1938 to May 1939 – into a success.
World War II then intervened, the entire race team dispersed and the cars spirited away and hidden in obscure little repair shops, farm buildings and barns. The company, as it is so well known, was virtually destroyed. But the spirit was not. Uhlenhaut himself survived the carnage, worked for a time with engineering elements of Germany’s British Army of Occupation, and finally returned to Stuttgart in 1947 to see the devastation that American and Royal Air Force bombings had wreaked on historic buildings. He must have wondered if he would ever again be connected with a race team program.
For the next few years, he returned to his technical roots, which were in the development of passenger cars. It was fitting that Mercedes-Benz should concentrate on rebuilding itself around the humble 170V family car on which the younger Uhlenhaut had worked more than 10 years earlier. But what a change! Thirty-seven horsepower instead of 600, side-valve engines replacing twin-overhead camshafts, diesel instead of gasoline power – and cars moving along on scarred city streets rather than sleek, single-seaters racing at the Nürburgring. Not that Uhlenhaut was ever heard to complain, for he was still alive, he was running the company’s experimental department, he had a future to look forward to, and he could once again be sure of putting food on the table.
In any case, with the 170V up and running again, he could manage the development program of the all-new 3-liter model that was to follow. It is perhaps significant that when the W154 race cars were pulled out of storage in 1950, refurbished, and initial tests were unsuccessful, Uhlenhaut was not yet involved.
Then came the fateful meeting in 1951 when Neubauer’s proposal to return to motorsports was discussed at a meeting in Daimler Chairman Wilhelm Haspel’s office. To his joy, Uhlenhaut was invited to attend, offered his views when asked, and was later thrilled to know that the Works team was to be re-established. A fanciful idea of building new “Tripoli” W165s was soon abandoned – money was in short supply – and it was apparently Uhlenhaut, still working so hard on the all-new 3-liter road car, who suggested developing a brand-new racing car using much-modified components from the road car in progress. Jaguar, after all, had just done this with the XK120C. Why not Mercedes-Benz?
During the next four years, Uhlenhaut became the true cornerstone of the company’s return to world-class motor racing. Although it was not he who designed the cars (there is little evidence of Uhlenhaut ever designing, as opposed to inspiring and developing new products), but at this time he was certainly the visionary who knew what needed to be done, wanted to see it accomplished, and was determined to see his schemes turned into high-speed metal. And there was this: “Any other design that is not founded on the basis of our Type 300 had no chance of being built. Other designs are out of the question. ...”
The team’s successes with the new 300SL are well known and need no retelling, especially as the climax of Uhlenhaut’s motor-racing career was now approaching. Work started in 1952, with Hans Scherenberg in overall charge of the design team, Ludwig Kraus monitoring chassis design and Hans Gassmann overseeing engine development. Neubauer could not wait (but he had to wait) to get his hands on a brand-new race car, but above all it was Uhlenhaut who presided over building, testing and development at his own department in Stuttgart. When the time came to test the first W196 single-seater, Karl Kling and Lang were the race drivers chosen for the job. Uhlenhaut brought his crash helmet along and joined them. On a 10-minute lap at the Nürburgring, the 47-year-old Uhlenhaut proved to be equally fast as the professionals, which put them in their place. It also proved his own mettle, which garnered the entire team’s support in respecting the boss’s opinion because he had proved to be their equal.
The rest of the story is well known, for not only were the W196 single-seaters quite dominant in two years of racing – 1954 and 1955 – they were closely related to the 300SLR racing sports cars in 1955.
Once the program was closed at the end of the 1955 season, Uhlenhaut speedily moved up in the hierarchy to become director of the entire design and development team, which produced many of the magnificent road cars that are now highly prized in Mercedes-Benz circles around the world. Still, he found time to stay close to exciting new cars such as the Wankel-engine C111s and other special machines.
Only a man so revered within Mercedes-Benz as Uhlenhaut could have commandeered one of the two closed coupe 300SLR race cars for his personal use on the German autobahns, where he drove it at considerable speeds. Perhaps it was inevitable, but no one dared to say, “We told you so” when it later damaged his hearing.
Uhlenhaut retired in September 1972, leaving a colossal hole in the company’s management that took time to fill. In a country that does not always appreciate its true achievers as real heroes, Uhlenhaut stood out as one of the most important contributors Mercedes-Benz has ever ha
Engineer Rudolf Uhlenhaut was the equal of most professional drivers and highly respected by all who drove for Mercedes-Benz. Here he tests a Mercedes-Benz W154 at the Nurburgring before the German Grand Prix, 1937.
Uhlenhaut, in white overalls, stands next to Alfred Neubauer [in plus fours] during tests of the streamlined record car, 1939.
French GP 1939. Helmeted driver Hermann Lang in discussion with Uhlenhaut as Neubauer, in dark glasses, listens in.
Leaning on the Mercedes-Benz team’s custom high-speed transporter, 1955. 1954 European Grand Prix, Nurburgring.
Standing in front of a garaged W196 single-seater, Uhlenhaut chats with Technical Director Prof. Dr. Fritz Nallinger [in hat].
Monza, August 1955. Uhlenhaut and his son, Roger, take a break from driving high-speed test laps in a prototype Mercedes-Benz 300SLR [W196S].
Uhlenhaut perched on the door sill of his personal road car, a 300SLR Coupe, mid-1950s. He made full use of the car’s speed on the Autobahn.
Uhlenhaut [in white sweater, center] and his engineering team at the Hockenheimring circuit in 1969, preparing for a record run in the 300SEL 6.3.
Chief Engineer Uhlenhaut with a demonstration version of the triple-rotor Wankel engine from the C111, circa 1970. He finally retired in 1972.
The Remarkable W196
Exactly 60 years ago, in July 1954, Mercedes-Benz rejoined the Formula One grid with the W196 – product of a race program overseen by Rudolf Uhlenhaut. Despite the company’s absence from top-level motorsport for 15 years, the team returned with a car that was technically superior to all its rivals. Though its amazing success was cut short by Mercedes-Benz’s withdrawal from racing after the horrific accident at LeMans in 1955, the W196 achieved winning results immediately: four outright victories in six starts.
July: French Grand Prix
Juan Manuel Fangio, first; Karl Kling, second, Hans Hermann, DNF
July: British Grand Prix
Fangio, fourth; Kling, seventh
August: European (German) Grand Prix
Fangio, first; Kling, fourth; Lang DNF; Hermann, DNF
August: Swiss Grand Prix
Fangio, first; Hermann, third; Kling, DNF
September: Italian Grand Prix
Fangio, first; Hermann, fourth; Kling, DNF
October: Spanish Grand Prix
Fangio, third, Kling, fifth; Hermann, DNF
Rudolf Uhlenhaut 1906-1989