Bernd Rosemeyer - Fearless German ace from the mythical days of racing

  • Bernd Rosemeyer
  • Rosemeyer winning 1936 drivers championship
  • Winning in America - 1937 Vanderbilt Cup

In the mythical years of Grand Prix racing, before the World war II, the races were something more than just sports events. The automobile was still a novelty to be explored and experienced: a new, interesting and rare thing on the streets. Watching cars race with fearless men behind the wheels in clouds of dust and debris was the stuff of legends. From those times until today, the men and the machines from the era became legendary and their fame remains to this day.

Rosemeyer with his mechanics before the race

Rosemeyer with his mechanics before the race

Surrounded by cars and bikes from birth

One of the most interesting characters from the early days of motorsport is the German ace Bernd Rosemeyer. His career was short and ended tragically, but his success and unique persona made him a crowd’s favorite and one of the first motorsport celebrities in the world. In just a few years, he became involved with some of the best German racing teams and industry’s greats like Ferdinand Porsche.

Rosemeyer with his wife and Ferdinand Porsche

Rosemeyer with his wife and Ferdinand Porsche

Rosemeyer was born on October 14, 1909, in Lingen, Germany, and from the early age became interested in cars, motorcycles, and mechanics, since his father owned a garage and a repair shop. As a boy, he began to race bikes, first in amateur races and then on a lower professional level, but soon realized that the future of racing is in cars and he switched to four wheels instead of two. His talent soon attracted the attention of big factory racing teams, and in 1934, he was given a chance to try the Auto Union race cars on a testing day at the Nurburgring.

Without any real experience in racing cars, he was surprisingly fast on the Ring and the Auto Union team manager, Willy Walb, hired him as a reserve driver for the 1935 season. Later, Rosemeyer revealed that after driving his first true racing car at Nurburgring, he assumed that all cars drove like the Auto Union!

Rosemeyer Grand Prix race

Rosemeyer pushing hard and power sliding during a Grand Prix race

Pure talent and absence of fear throughout his career

However, even without any real experience, Rosemeyer was a natural talent with an instinctive feel for balance and technical knowledge that, in combination with his gift, made him extremely fast. During the first part of the 1935 season, he wasn’t given a chance to race as he was a reserve driver, but after a while, he raced on Avus and on Nurburgirng, battling more experienced and more famous competitors. In Nurburgring, in what was only his second Grand Prix, Rosemeyer managed to be in the lead. However, he missed a gear and was passed by another famous ace, the Grand Prix veteran Rudolf Caracciola. Bernd finished second behind Caracciola, but his stellar performance was enough for Auto Union factory team to promote him to a full time racing driver and for the rest of the season, he continued to impress everybody with his bold but precise driving style and quickness. Later, Rosemeyer won his first Grand Prix in Czechoslovakia, at the Brno Masaryk Circuit.

Rosemeyer winning the 1936 drivers championship

Rosemeyer winning the 1936 drivers championship

Quick entry into the spotlight of motorsport

In 1936, he proved his courage with victories in several Grand Prix races, including the prestigious Eifelrennen, held on his favorite track – the Nurburgring. The race started covered with a light fog but the conditions worsened as it went on. In the second part of the race, at some parts of the track, the conditions were near-invisible and the officials wanted to stop the event. However, perfectly knowing the Nurburgring track, Rosemayer raced with fantastic pace trough gray walls of fog and deservedly won Eilfelrennen.

The second of his legendary wins was in America in the famous 1937 Vanderbilt Cup, where he was first in front of not only the European names, but managed to beat the American manufacturers as well. This success made him globally famous and respected all over the world. In June 1937, Rosemeyer scored his last Nurburgring victory, and his last win was at the 1937 Donnington Park Grand Prix.

Winning in America - 1937 Vanderbilt Cup Grand Prix

Winning in America – the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup

Marriage with Elly Beinhorn and growing involvement of politics in motorsport

After winning the 1936 European drivers’ championship title, Rosemeyer got in the spotlight once again for marrying the German aviator pioneer Elly Beinhorn. The couple met after one of Rosemeyer’s Grand Prix races and got engaged soon after. Since both of them were famous, their marriage was well publicized by the German and European press, making them the first celebrity couple in motorsports. In November 1937, they had their only child, a son named Bernd Jr.

Bernd Rosemeyer and his wife Elly Beinhorn

Bernd Rosemeyer and his wife Elly Beinhorn

Member of the Nazi party

However, as celebrities, Bernd and Elly were in focus of the Nazi propaganda machine looking for new famous people to promote their politics. In those years, the pressure was very high and almost all celebrities, especially athletes, were forced to join the Nazi party and appear on rallies and in promotional films. Rosemeyer was approached a few times by the Nazi representatives but he didn’t want to join the party since he was apolitical and only wanted to race. But in 1936, Heinrich Himmler, a high ranking Nazi officer, ordered the reluctant Bernd Rosemeyer to join the SS branch of the Nazi party. It would have been very bad for him if he had refused because he would have certainly be left without a position in the Auto Union team and could have faced more serious consequences. However, Rosemayer never promoted ideas or principles of the Nazi party and didn’t wear the uniform, which all SS members were obligated to do.

One of celebrations featuring Auto Union team and its drivers, Nazi motorsport politics

One of celebrations featuring the Auto Union team and its drivers

Premature end of career

Unfortunately, his stellar career came to a premature end on January 28, 1938, during the record breaking attempt made by Auto Union. In those days, the speed records were very important for car manufacturers, and Germany, with its new public road network of Autobahns, was the perfect place for top battles between the racing teams. The record was held by Mercedes whose driver Rudolf Carraciola set the speed of 432.7 kilometers per hour, and Auto Union was eager to break it, earning themselves fame and prestige for the brand. The weapon of choice was Auto Union D Type race car with over 500 bhp from its V16 engine, equipped with a totally new and aerodynamic body made just for this purpose.

Rosemeyer's record car, January 1938

Rosemeyer’s record car on that faithful morning in January 1938

In those days, aerodynamics were considered black magic and not an exact science that it is today, and the bodies were constructed using theory. The aboriginal wing testing was limited and only somewhat effective. The designated place for the run was a perfectly straight stretch of Autobahn near Frankfurt, and the goal was to achieve the speed of over 268.9 mph or 432.7 kilometers per hour, which was the record set by Mercedes and Caracciola earlier that day.

Weather conditions looked ideal and Rosemayer jumped in his Auto Union and started. Soon, he achieved the speed of around 270 mph which meant that he broke the record, but soon his car was caught in crosswinds and went airborne. Since the car was very light (around 1000 kg) and it was traveling at an extremely high speed, he had no control over it and crashed by the side of the road. The crash was horrifying and Rosemayer was killed on the spot. He was just 29 years old.

Remains of Bernd Rosemeyer's Auto Union car after the 1938 crash

Remains of Bernd Rosemeyer’s Auto Union car after the January 28, 1938 crash

His death was a big loss for the motorsport community in Germany and abroad since his talent was respected all over the world. His widow Elly Beinhorn wanted a private and non-political funeral, but despite her wishes, several members of the Nazi party held speeches during the procession and she apparently left the funeral in sign of protest. After his death, Autobahn speed record breaking was banned in Germany, and very soon all racing stopped because of the war. The land speed record on public roads is still being held by Mercedes. Many years later, in 2000, Rosemeyer was honored by Audi with a concept car called Audi Rosemeyer. The coupe featured strong design cues of Bernd’s V16 Auto Union Silver Arrow. Also, in 2009, Audi honored Rosemeyer with a laurel wreath on his Autobahn monument. Even with his short career, Rosemayer remained one of the most legendary racers and his natural talent and absence of fear are still fascinating to this day.

Video : Bernd Rosemeyer breaking the career speed record, 1938