Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK

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Driving Today: Greatest Car

Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK

By Jack Nerad for Driving Today


Gottlieb Daimler's company had grown into a staid, conservative firm producing a succession of dreary automobiles when Ferdinand Anton Porsche strode in the door in the 1920's. Of course, Daimler was one of the earliest auto pioneers, assembling a motor carriage in 1886 almost on top of the work being done by his fellow German, Karl Benz. In 1907 Gottlieb Daimler's son, Paul, took over the chief engineering post at the company, and, while he made certain it maintained its reputation and a builder of sound engines, there wasn't much excitement or verve attached to the Daimler marque.

Ferdinand Porsche would change all that.

It wasn't the Porsche was personally exciting. He wore the title Doktor well, because there was a definitely professorial air about him from his rumpled suits to his fedora hat. But the genius embodied in the vehicles he produced, from first to last, was sensationally exciting.

Porsche was born in Maffersdorf, Bohemia, in 1875, the son of a tin man, and his father wanted desperately for him to take over the tin shop he ran. But Ferdinand Porsche had different ideas. Despite his father's objections, he attended an electrical and engineering trade school and, by age 18, he had created a miniature generating station at his home.

As the millennium turned, Porsche lent his considerable talents to Lohner, designing a vehicle that had individual electric motors mounted in the front wheel hubs, an arrangement that many of today's electric vehicle designers favor. So confident was he of his design that he competed with it, setting a record for negotiating Austria's Semmering Pass.

Further work on electrics followed, including a four-wheel-drive model with motors in each wheel hub and a gasoline-electric hybrid that used an internal combustion engine to generate electric power. Then Porsche left for Austro-Daimler, an Austrian firm that built cars under license from Gottlieb Daimler's German company.

The arrival of Porsche in 1905 marked a new era for Austro-Daimler. He engineered a series of advanced automobiles and directed the company's entry into the Prince Henry trials, a well-regarded European speed and reliability event. With Porsche himself at the wheel of one of the cars, Austro-Daimler finished first, second and third in the initial event. The 5.9-liter overhead cam four cylinder Porsche designed for the Prince Henry was one of the best engines of the pre-World War I era.

The onset of the Great War limited Austro-Daimler's progress, but immediately after its conclusion Porsche put together the AD 617, a tourer equipped with a 60-horsepower 4.2-liter overhead cam six. Porsche also drew up the first of his “people's car” concepts that would eventually result in the Volkswagen. The 1.1-liter car called the Sasha was to be financed by Count Alexander Kolowrat, a silent movie millionaire, but the project never reached fruition.

Soon after Porsche moved to Mercedes and began to put together a string of ahead-of-their time engines. While he developed a two-liter eight-cylinder for racing that developed as much as 150 horsepower with a supercharger, he concentrated on sixes for passenger cars. Among those cars was the 400, equipped with a 4-liter 70 horsepower engine (100 horsepower mit kompressor,) and the 630, equipped with a 6.3-liter engine that belted out 100 horsepower (or 140 horsepower in supercharged form.)

These proved but a prelude to what Porsche would put together after Daimler and Benz completed their brief courtship with marriage in 1926. Among the first cars introduced by the new combined concern was the 630K with the "K" denoting the car's short wheelbase. This is the model that would soon evolve into the Mercedes-Benz S, SS and SSK variants that were to become the scourge of the European racing circuit.

At the heart of all these cars was an engine that was very likely the most advanced powerplant of the decade. In an era when even the most successful racing engines were largely made of cast iron, the single overhead cam six cylinder that Porsche designed used an incredible amount of aluminum alloy. In fact, alloy was used for the short block, crankcase and pistons. The cylinders were lined with cast iron.

In his quest for perfection, Porsche left no stone unturned. Rather than using the conventional gasket between block and crankcase, the professor made certain that the two parts were machined so precisely that no gasket was necessary. The same incredible attention to detail was displayed in both cooling and lubrication systems, two areas where many racing cars of the day were sadly lacking.

Reaching back as far as his days in the Prince Henry trials, Porsche was well aware that if you expected to win races you had to finish them, so the S, SS and SSK are a cunning combination of lightweight and bulky pieces, depending upon their function. The running gear was substantially heftier than that of many of the cars contemporaries. The universal joints and differential were nothing short of beefy.

Porsche didn't skimp in the brakes either. The giant mechanically operated drums are so big that some versions of the S were fitted with Bosch vacuum-operated motors to assist in applying them. (Power brakes wouldn't come to most areas of racing until 50 years later.) Again, the Porsche genius was to add innovation to innovation. In several models the brakes were hand-adjustable from the driver's seat and the brake drums were copper-plated to hasten heat dissipation.

With the same basic construction, the 6.3-liter engine was followed by the 6.8-liter, which delivered 180 horsepower in supercharged form under the hood of the 680 S. The S also benefited from a lower frame than the 680. At Nurburgring in 1927, the Mercedes-Benz S completely dominated the German Grand Prix, placing first, second, third and fifth.

The following year, Porsche, who was on his way out at Mercedes-Benz, bumped up the engine's displacement to 7.1-liters. In this form the engine was good for 170 horsepower at 2900 rpm when normally aspirated, and when the Rootes-type supercharger kicked in horsepower zoomed up to 225. In straightforward Porsche fashion, the supercharger was mounted forward of the block and driven by the crankshaft, sending its 12 pounds/square inch of boost into the side-draft carburetor. Drivers were asked to limit their supercharged burst to less than 15 seconds in duration.

With this immensely powerful engine driving his short-wheelbase SSK, Rudolph Caracciola led another Mercedes-Benz sweep in the 1928German Grand Prix. SS models finished second and third.

Far from just a racing special, however, the S and SS models (and a few SSK's) were also fitted with roadster or four-seat touring bodies and sold to customers for daily use. Even in this form, the SS was capable of speeds over 100 miles per hour, and a special SSKL ("L" designating light) with a streamlined body attained 156 miles perhour at a Berlin race circuit in 1931.

By 1931, of course, Porsche had gone on into the consulting work that would eventually result in the Volkswagen, the Kubelwagen, the rear-engined Auto Union Grand Prix car and the German Tiger tank. By then both his fame and the fame of the fabled Mercedes-Benz S, SS and SSK had been secured forever.

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