Bernd Rosemeyer and Auto Union

The first Autobahn was opened by Hitler in 1936: it ran north-south between Frankfurt and Darmstadt, with two lanes (nowadays four) in each direction. (By 1938 the Reichsautobahnen network would enable streamlined diesel-engined coaches, carrying thirty passengers and capable of 110 km per hour, to provide the fastest public road service in the world.) Its arrowstraightness attracted the motor-racing departments of the rival concerns of Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union, each of which was seeking to gain prestige by establishing world speed records for the timed mile and kilometre. In January 1938, Auto-Union embarked on a series of speed trials on this Autobahn. Their star driver was Bernd Rosemeyer (Fig. 24), Champion Driver of Europe (1936), a remarkable man33 with an uncanny ability to handle the skittish rear-engined Grand Prix racing cars designed by Ferdinand Porsche for Auto-Union. With the team authorities disregarding warnings about dangerous wind conditions, Rosemeyer launched a streamlined car on a southward run through the forest, aiming down the central black marker strip of the eight metre wide Autobahn and threading a number of bridges. Whilst travelling at about 430 km per hour the lightweight car was struck by a crosswind from a forest fire-break at the Morfelden clearing34, the car left the road, somersaulted and disintegrated. Rosemeyer was found against a tree but soon died. Today, the memorial site, a small lay-by or Parkplatz, lies on the southbound Autobahn (A5) about 6 km south of Frankfurt airport (Fig. 25). Each year, members of the Audi Sports Car Club place a large wreath of laurel against the memorial, a cylindrical pillar of stone surrounded by trees. In all, Roman-style tributes to a once-renowned charioteer of the twentieth century.

Fig. 24 – Bernd Rosemeyer (1909 – 1938) (© Audi Museum, Ingolstadt, Bayern)

Fig. 25 – Memorial to Bernd Rosemeyer (Lay-by on Frankfurt→Darmstadt Autobahn).

  1. His wife was Elly Beinhorn (1907-2007), German aviatrix and friend of the American Amelia Earhart, Elly was famed for her solo flights across every continent. Bernd and Elly were known as ‘the fastest couple in the world’. []
  2. Alfred Neubauer, Speed was my Life (London: Barrie and Rockcliff, 1960) Chapter 13. []