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Concept Car of the Week: Mercedes T80 (1939)

Fri, 19 Sep 2014

In the decade before World War II, no other carmaker even came close to matching the combined dominance of Mercedes-Benz and recently founded Auto Union. Supported by Adolf Hitler's Nazi government, the two brands had grander plans to demonstrate Germany's technological supremacy.

In August 1936, Auto Union engineer Ferdinand Porsche and race car driver Hans Stuck approached Wilhelm Kissel, chairman of Daimler-Benz, and presented a plan to build a car that would set a new land speed world record.

Rather than an Auto Union, they specifically wanted this car to bare the three-pointed star. Kissel eventually agreed but only if the two men could create the mother-of-all speed record cars, one to obliterate every record for decades to come.

Stuck set about the task by surrounding himself with technical experts and wealthy friends who supported him and the cost of building the car, as the funds handed over by Mercedes weren't enough to match his ambition.

Project T80 was completed in 1939. The car was over eight-meters long, had three axles, with two of them driven, and weighed 2.8-tonnes (6,173lbs). Stuck spared no expense either, the project cost over 600,000 German marks, or a little over $4million today.

The body was designed for optimum aerodynamics with an enclosed cockpit, low hood, teardrop fenders, twin-tail fins and even a pair of wings to provide stability. It achieved a drag coefficient of 0.18 – better than a Volkswagen XL1.

The T80 was powered by a huge 44.5-liter DB603 inverted V12 engine, as used in the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane. It was supercharged and ran on fuel that was a blend of alcohol, benzene, ethanol and acetone. While the aircraft engine produced just under 1,500bhp, the T80's engine achieved a maximum of 3,452bhp.

The goal was to reach a speed of 750kmh (394mph) at a location in Germany in January 1940. Hitler nicknamed the car the 'Schwarzer Vogel,' or Blackbird, and the car was to have been painted with swastikas. However, the outbreak of WWII prevented the car from making its run.

Instead, the T80 was hidden away in Austria. It survived the war, although its engine was removed, and is now part of the permanent display at the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.

The current speed record for a car of this type was set in 2008 by the Burkland 411 Streamliner, which achieved a top speed of 669kmh (416mph). That means that if the T80 had hit its target speed, it would still hold the record today.

Chief engineer Ferdinand Porsche
Length 8,240mm
Width 3,200mm
Height 1,270mm
Engine 44.5-liter inverted V12, 3,452bhp
Weight 2,800kg
Top speed 750kmh (estimated)

What else happened in 1939?
Aside from the start of World War II, Gone with the Wind was the top-selling movie, and won best picture at the Oscars, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning made its first flight and Superman debuted in Action Comics #1. At the New York World's Fair, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first President to give a speech broadcast on television. At the same event, nylon fabric made its public debut.

By Flavien Dachet