Bernd Rosemeyer drew his final breath in a wooded area adjacent to the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn in Germany. The end came not after a long life blessed with fond memories and adoring grandchildren but as the sudden eclipse of the silver arrow racing era’s brightest star.
Fans of the 1934-39 period, when Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz ran wheel-to-wheel at 200 mph in 500-hp single-seaters, so relish Rosemeyer’s verve that we’ll exploit any excuse to revisit his life and times. Here’s mine: celebrate the centennial of Rosemeyer’s birth and Audi’s beginning with a 1500-mile tour of Germany in an Audi R8 powered by a 5.2-liter V-10.
Corvette patron saint Zora Arkus-Duntov was an early witness to the Rosemeyer legend. In 1930, he spotted a fair-haired, blue-eyed young man standing upright on the seat of his motorcycle while it hummed down a cobblestone street in Berlin. Rosemeyer – the fearless rider from Lingen, Germany – and Duntov quickly became friends. They swapped tales of derring-do and practiced the fine art of high-speed, two-wheel slaloming through elevated train supports.
Ten days after his twenty-fifth birthday, Rosemeyer was invited to a tryout session for new recruits held at the Nürburgring. Although he lacked any four-wheel racing experience, Rosemeyer had gained the attention of Auto Union team manager Willy Walb because of his eight motorcycle victories, two of which were earned aboard a 500-cc DKW, one of the four brands in the Auto Union combine.
Dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie, Rosemeyer demonstrated a natural affinity for the loose-tailed Auto Union racing car. He was the second fastest of twelve candidates on the Nürburgring’s 4.8-mile Südschleife (southern loop) and the third quickest of the top five prospects on the daunting 14.2-mile Nordschleife. Impressed by the total novice’s performance, Walb signed Rosemeyer to the team as a cadet driver.
In only his second race – also at the ‘Ring – Rosemeyer proved the wisdom of Walb’s decision by leading two of the eleven laps of the 1935 Eifel Grand Prix in adverse conditions. Part of the course was wet, Rosemeyer’s windshield and goggles were damaged, and his V-16 engine had a severe misfire. Nonetheless, the cadet finished only 1.9 seconds behind grand master Rudolf Caracciola’s Mercedes-Benz. To admonish the upstart, Caracciola presented Rosemeyer with a swizzle stick and suggested that he make better use of his head in the future. Payback was swift in coming. In 1936, the fiery Rosemeyer won two GPs held at the Nürburgring; the smug Caracciola was sidelined by mechanical problems on both occasions.
The ‘Ring was a beehive of activity on the cool spring day we arrived to retrace Rosemeyer’s steps. The Südschleife is no more – that area was reconstructed as a new (and neutered) grand prix circuit in 1984 – but both the legendary Nordschleife and the garages once used by the silver arrows teams endure. Unfortunately, a hospitality tent was sprawled over the paddock, and manufacturers were testing on the Nordschleife. We did score a consolation prize in a spectator area adjacent to the Eschbach and Brünnchen bends when two camouflaged Audi R8s zoomed into view. A convertible wailed past our camera with what sounded like V-8 power, followed by a coupe in hot pursuit with ten – or possibly more – cylinders flogged hard.
Three weeks before his epic return to the ‘Ring, Rosemeyer made his driving debut at the AVUS course (Automobil-Verkehrs- und übungs-Strasse, or auto traffic and practice street) located near Berlin. Essentially two six-mile straights connected by a hairpin at one end and a sweeping bend at the other, this public-road-cum-racetrack hosted the first German Grand Prix in 1926. Since AVUS races ran under Formula Libre rules – with no displacement or weight limits – manufacturers fitted larger engines and streamlining for more speed.
Sealed inside his closed-cockpit Auto Union B-type, Rosemeyer battled the sleek Mercedes-Benz streamliners and twin-engine Alfa Romeos until tire failure forced his retirement. He had to wait two full years for vindication. After skipping the 1936 season, AVUS organizers constructed the breathtaking North Curve with a 43-degree banking. A crowd of 380,000 spectators, including Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, watched Rosemeyer and his rivals whistle down the long straights at more than 220 mph. Soaked with oil in the eight-lap final, Rosemeyer finished fourth after a stop for fresh tires, but his most memorable achievement was the 173-mph fastest lap he posted. That speed wasn’t topped on any closed course until Indy cars visited Monza for the Race of Two Worlds in 1957.
Although AVUS hosted Formula 1 events in the 1950s, a German touring car series in the 1990s, and a farewell event in 1999, speeding is staunchly discouraged on this section of the autobahn, which today carries traffic into and out of Berlin. The spectator stands remain as a historical monument, and the cylindrical tower – constructed in 1936 as a restaurant and race control center – is now part of the Avus Motel.
Since the R8 is the lineal descendant of Audi’s stunning Avus Quattro concept of 1991, we felt compelled to photograph our traveling companion on the hallowed North Curve. (What racers christened the “wall of death” was replaced in 1967 with a flat sweeper with a similar radius.) It was necessary to drive a few feet the wrong way on an exit ramp to achieve that shot. Luckily, that move was missed by the police, who were plying a nearby speed trap, although they did hassle us later when I stopped to collect photographer Martyn Goddard from an apron adjoining the ramp.
Five victories during his second year of racing earned Rosemeyer the 1936 European championship, but his winning wasn’t over. Shifting gears to hill-climbing toward the end of the GP season, Rosemeyer rocketed his Auto Union C-type up steep grades and around tight bends at Freiburg, near where the borders of France, Germany, and Switzerland meet, and at Grosser Feldberg in the Taunus Mountains northwest of Frankfurt. With those two wins, Rosemeyer clinched the German mountain championship.
Our R8 lacked nothing in power compared with Rosemeyer’s supercharged hill-climber, and it had more traction for ascending the damp turns leading to the Feldberg summit. After climbing through rain squalls and fog, we found only a couple of restaurants and communications towers atop the 2900-foot peak. The sorry state of a building depicted on a 1946 period postcard suggests that this site probably helped defend Frankfurt from Allied air attacks. A low, arc-shaped building may have housed troops.
When the clouds finally broke and the sun smiled on Feldberg, we could see the south side of Frankfurt, where the A5 autobahn runs eight lanes wide for more than twenty miles toward Darmstadt.
In 1936, Mercedes-Benz was the first to top 200 mph in speed-record runs near here with a 600-hp streamliner piloted by Caracciola. That set the stage for a showdown on the new four-lane Frankfurt-Darmstadt stretch of smooth, straight, and level concrete the following year. For a week in October, traffic was diverted so that the southbound lane could be used exclusively to set records suitable for propagandizing at the Berlin auto show.
Mercedes engineers tuned their 5.6-liter V-12 engine to more than 700 hp, measured a drag coefficient of 0.18 for their envelope body, and installed gearing for 264 mph, but it was all for naught. At 237 mph, the nose of Caracciola’s car rose so high in the air – a condition drivers then called aviating – that he couldn’t steer or see the road ahead.
Auto Union enjoyed better luck. During three days of runs, Rosemeyer set a total of sixteen records in two classes and ran 252 mph through the flying mile. Auto Union’s ace described the strain of driving flat out for ten miles on a thirty-foot-wide piece of pavement as greater than running an entire grand prix.
Loath to show up at Berlin empty-handed, Mercedes pulled strings all the way up to the Führer for a second shot at breaking the record. That was granted, so both teams returned to the autobahn at the end of January with reconfigured bodywork and engines cooled by ice rather than airflow.
Caracciola ran the moment the frost had dissipated and by nine a.m. was celebrating his new 269-mph record over breakfast. Two hours later, when Rosemeyer’s turn came, an evil wind was brewing. Ignoring suggestions to wait for more favorable weather, the Auto Union pilot warmed his engine with an unofficial 267-mph pass through the measured mile.
During the outbound leg of Rosemeyer’s record attempt, a rogue gust burst from a clearing as he hammered past at an estimated 270 mph. Four-hundred feet of skid marks indicated that his car was blown toward the median and, after its left wheels touched the grass, took flight and began somersaulting.
Rosemeyer’s safety gear consisted of a linen helmet and goggles but no restraints. Flung like a rag doll from his tumbling racing car, he came to rest against a tree some seventy-five feet off the road. The colleagues who rushed to his side reported a weak pulse, a pleasant facial expression, and no outward evidence of injury.
A detailed investigation of the catastrophe focused on weather conditions, possible structural failure, and the role of the Auto Union streamliner’s innovative ground-effects bodywork. The most credible theory is that the crash was caused by the brutal crosswind and the limited steering lock available with the car’s tightly shrouded front wheels.
One mile south of the Mörfelden-Langen exit, there’s an autobahn rest area with a six-foot memorial marking the spot where Rosemeyer met his end. The shattered chassis’ remains were found lying on the berm of a small bridge visible in the distance.
Fittingly, Rosemeyer’s grave is less than two miles from Berlin’s AVUS course, where his automobile racing career began. The Waldfriedhof Dahlem where he’s buried is more park than cemetery. His wife, Elly Beinhorn-Rosemeyer, who passed away just two years ago, shares the peaceful plot. Ernst von Delius, an Auto Union teammate who perished from injuries sustained at the 1937 German Grand Prix, is also buried nearby.
After paying our respects, Goddard and I motored south on some of the newest and least-traveled autobahns in Germany, those linking Berlin with Munich. We gave the R8 5.2 the whip on a few open stretches to enjoy Rosemeyer-esque velocities. With its speedometer needle a tick or two past 190 mph, Audi’s modern silver arrow shot straight and filled its wake with the lusty bellow of ten unthrottled cylinders. In contrast to the Ferrari-like howl of the regular R8’s V-8, the V-10’s voice is appropriately richer and deeper.
During an overnight stop in Chemnitz, we visited the former location of Auto Union’s corporate headquarters. The sprawling, four-story complex that housed the Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer sales offices and a portion of the racing team’s brain trust beginning in 1936 was reconfigured as a Krankenhaus (hospital) by the Russians after the war. Vacant for two decades and now decrepit, the building is protected because of its historical significance to a once-thriving manufacturing metropolis. Trabant two-stroke engines were made next door to the former Auto Union headquarters, and a sparkling new Volkswagen plant across the street currently builds four-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines.
To close the loop on the Rosemeyer legacy, we met with Bernd Rosemeyer II and III near Munich. Bernd II was born in 1937, less than three weeks after his father became the first man to exceed 250 mph on a public road. Following a close friendship with Ferrari Formula 1 driver Wolfgang von Trips, a stint as an advanced driving instructor at the Nürburgring, and some time writing car reviews for Germany’s largest newspaper, Bernd II settled into a long (and ongoing) career in orthopedic surgery. His handsome son, Bernd III (nicknamed Berndi), drives a John Cooper Works Mini and is a sales executive at a Munich gas company.
After a brief but rapid run in the R8 with his father, Bernd III bubbled with enthusiasm. “It’s a fantastic car,” he said. “Thanks to all the power, it’s genuinely fun to drive. I’d love to own one!”
Bernd II’s impressions were more circumspect. “On these uneven roads with grip frustrated by patches of moisture and gravel, this Audi R8 never missed a beat. But, with all the power provided by the V-10, it really belongs on a racetrack. I’d definitely enjoy a few laps at the Nürburgring with the stability system disabled.”
More than seventy years on, the father speaks through his son.
Base price $158,400
Engine DOHC 40-valve V-10
Displacement 5.2 liters (318 cu in)
Horsepower 525 hp @ 8000 rpm
Torque 391 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm
Transmission type 6-speed automated manual Drive 4-wheel
Suspension, front and rear Control arms, coil springs
Brakes Vented discs, ABS
Tires Pirelli PZero
Tire size f, r 235/35YR-19, 295/30YR-19
Weight 3758 lb
EPA MILEAGE 13/20 mpg
0-60 MPH 4.0 sec
0-100 MPH 8.8 sec
0-140 MPH 17.6 sec
0-180 MPH 40.5 sec
1/4-MILE 12.2 sec @ 120 mph
30-70 MPH passing 4.2 sec
70-0 MPH BRAKING 147 ft
Cornering l/r 1.02/1.01 g
SPEED IN GEARS 1) 47 mph 2) 76 3) 107 4) 137 5) 166 6) 196