Bernd Rosemeyer (1909 - 1938) - Auto Union's Finest Driver

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Bernd Rosemeyer (1909 - 1938) - Auto Union's Finest Driver

Bernd Rosemeyer
There are some tragically short stories of the world’s greatest drivers among those listed here on Unique Cars and Parts - although most at least drove more than the one car. But the only car Bernd Rosemeyer ever raced was the tricky 400 bhp rear-engined Auto-Union, yet in his meteoric three-year career, he established himself as the world's fastest road-racing driver.

Born in 1909 in Lingen, Germany, Rosemeyer was already a successful member of the DKW motor cycle racing team - DKW was one of the component companies of Auto Union - when he was selected for trials with the new racing car, whose difficult handling characteristics were proving an obstacle to drivers used to more conventional cars.

The 1935 Avusrennen and Masaryk Grand Prix

Rosemeyer's lack of experience proved a positive asset, and he hurled the big car about like a two-wheeler, broadsiding round corners absolutely on the limit. He retired in his first race, the 1935 Avusrennen, but in the next event, the Eifelrennen on the Nurburgring, he almost beat Caracciola, establishing himself as a driver to watch.

By the end of the season, Rosemeyer had won his first major race, the Masaryk Grand Prix on the Czechoslovak Brno circuit; in 1936 he won the Eifelrennen, the German Grand Prix, the Coppa Acerbo, the Italian and Swiss GPs - and the German championship. Rosemeyer was both young and good-looking, and was known in racing circles to be a likeable young man who soon established as a firm favourite with the German motor-racing public.

Fraulein Elly Beinhorn

He was married to a popular heroine, Fraulein Elly Beinhorn, the international flyer, who flew her husband to many of his meetings in her Messerschmitt Taifun record-breaking monoplane. Both Rosemeyer and his wife were confirmed fatalists, believing that risks could be run with impunity ... in the majority of cases. Their lucky number was a fate-tempting '13'. The risks he takes, sometimes bordering on the reckless, are unbelievable,' wrote George Monkhouse in 1937, 'until you have seen him trying to get or increase his lead, with the Auto-Union on the verge of leaving the road the whole time. So far his self-confidence is unshaken, due I think to the fact that, although he crashed many times, to date I'm glad to say he has not hurt himself.'

The Rebuilt Berlin Avus Track

However, Doctor Porsche, designer of the Auto-Union (and several other cars with reputations for tricky handling), declared: 'Rosemeyer never took any foolish risks. It was just that he drove faster than other people could.' For the 1937 Avusrennen, at the rebuilt Berlin Avus track, Rosemeyer's streamlined Auto-Union proved capable of around 200 mph, but was held back by mechanical derangements. In the Eifelrennen a few weeks later, Rosemeyer was more successful leading for most of the race and winning at an average speed of 82.95 mph. Then came the Vanderbilt Cup, on the Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, a track on which the performance of the Auto-Union was totally superfluous.

Bernd Rosemeyer with wife Fraulien Elly Beinhorn
Bernd Rosemeyer with wife Fraulien Elly Beinhorn.
Commented Rosemeyer: 'From corner to corner on the circuit my soul was more and more afflicted. I tell you frankly that my hope to win dwindled away .... Imagine a simple track, rather narrow, with very many curves, really something for a stunt driver. At both sides a wooden fence, about 30 cm high, making it impossible to see a curve in advance and act accordingly, as on our European tracks. So the whole technique of braking to which we are accustomed on our European tracks was of no use. I needed a couple of cognacs to recover from this surprise.' Nevertheless, Rosemeyer started the race as favourite, even though his practise lap times had been beaten by Caracciola and the American dirt-track racer Rex Mays.

And, for once, the pundits were not disappointed, Rosemeyer did win the race, though he had to fight hard to keep ahead of Dick Seaman's Mercedes, setting a new lap record of 2.18 minutes in the process. He later recalled: 'The race was, perhaps, the hardest I ever ran. For each lap I had to brake firmly seven times and eight corners had to be dealt with. This makes a total of 560 brake operations and 720 corners. I really pushed my car through corners in order to gain time, and this was very tiring. I do not remember any other race which tired me so much. (Incidentally, when I weighed myself in the evening that day I had lost 5lb!)

In the German Grand Prix, trying to regain ground lost when a hub began to break up, Rosemeyer left the track and collected a haystack: despite which he still managed to finish third! Though Rosemeyer lost the German championship to Caracciola, he still managed also to beat Mercedes in the Coppa Acerbo (despite blowing his engine up in practice and losing a wheel in the race) and the Donington GP - the thirteenth event in which he had driven in 1937.

The Flying Kilometre Record

But on January 28, 1938, trying to regain the flying kilometre record just taken from him at 268.3 mph by Caracciola on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, Rosemeyer's car was caught by a sudden gust of wind as it emerged from a cutting, swerved, lost a tyre, hit a concrete bridge and somersaulted several times. Rosemeyer was hurled out and killed instantly. He had tempted fate once too often.
Bernd Rosemeyer in his Auto Union
These days it would be impossible to imagine a driver beginning his career in a 400 bhp, 180 mph car. Yet this is exactly what Bernd Rosemeyer did in 1935 when he began his racing career in the tricky, rear-engined works Auto Union GP cars. Sadly, his career lasted only three years and ended in death.
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