Bernd Rosemeyer: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

A grand prix hero and record-breaker, infused with determination: Bernd Rosemeyer mastered the tricky Auto Union to become the face of 1930s German racing

Bernd Rosemeyer Donington 1937

Bernd Rosemeyer with typical car control at Donington '37


Years ago, in a paddock somewhere, I fell into conversation with Murray Walker on Bernd Rosemeyer. Though he was long the other side of the grass before I was born, Rosemeyer was the man who first drew me to this sport. At the age of seven or eight, I laid hands on my father’s copy of Motor Racing with Mercedes-Benz by George Monkhouse, and was captivated by this fellow who took on the Three-Pointed Star almost single-handedly.

“Villeneuve mentioned that an elderly German had said he reminded him of Rosemeyer”

A fortnight or so after our chat, Murray produced a pencil drawing in a plastic sleeve and, most generously, said he’d like me to have it. It was a superb likeness of Rosemeyer by the artist Jock Leydon, and beneath it was the signature of Bernd himself. When I showed the picture to Denis Jenkinson, he whistled through his teeth. Rosemeyer had been the idol of his youth, and he told me how, in 1937, when the German teams came to England for the Donington Grand Prix, he waited endlessly outside a Park Lane showroom to get his hero’s autograph. Jenks loved to talk about Rosemeyer. “He was everything a racing driver should be,” he said. ‘The Gilles Villeneuve of his time.”

Once in a while, coincidences dovetail beautifully. I was chatting with Villeneuve at Hockenheim one year, and he mentioned that an elderly German had said he reminded him of Rosemeyer. “I guess that’s a pretty big compliment around here, huh?”

From the archive

Like every driver of real stamp down the ages, Rosemeyer was outstanding from the moment he began. Briefly he raced motorcycles with success, but grand prix racing was his aim, and over the winter of 1934-35 Auto Union gave him a test, following it up with a contract of sorts.

Invariably Auto Union played second lead to Mercedes-Benz, for the unwieldy rear-engined cars were very difficult to drive, and the best drivers were usually on the Mercedes payroll, led by Rudolf Caracciola. In 1935 Auto Union’s leading men were the consistent Hans Stuck and Achille Varzi, the wayward genius whose best years were tragically squandered to morphine addiction.

Auto Union had need of a major star, and Rosemeyer believed he was the man. But when the entries were posted for the first German race of the season, at the Avus, he found he was not down to drive.

Two weeks to go before the Avus. Will Rosemeyer get a drive?’ Auto Union’s team manager began finding notes scribbled on his calendar, and this continued until eventually he relented. Rosemeyer did drive at the Berlin track, and within weeks became the team’s mainstay. He mastered an Auto Union as no one else, even Tazio Nuvolari, ever did, perhaps because he had nothing to unlearn. He never raced a front-engined car before driving the tail-heavy machines; indeed his first race in any car was that event at the Avus.

Bernd Rosemeyer

With wife Elly Beinhorn


Once in a generation, this sport throws up a man whose talent and personality meld inexplicably to produce a kind of magic, which puts him on a plateau, alone. Villeneuve had it, without a doubt, as did Ayrton Senna and so did Rosemeyer.

That first season, 1935, ended with a victory, in Czechoslovakia, and the following year was one triumph after another, even though his battle with Mercedes was invariably a lone one, for Auto Union had no other driver remotely of his class. Rosemeyer had an absolute inability to give up, charging at all times, leading or not. In 1936 he won at Berne, Pescara, Monza and the Nürburgring, and thus became European Champion in only his second year of racing cars. The concept of the Auto Union ensured that it was an oversteering car, which tended to snap sideways very suddenly. It was this characteristic which Rosemeyer exploited to such advantage. Where lesser men were intimidated, he was at ease. Yet his driving was only part of the story. At a time when Germany was preparing itself for war, Rosemeyer’s personality pleased his countrymen, a refreshing contrast to the quiet Caracciola and the haughty Manfred von Brauchitsch.

From the archive

“Grand prix racing was an astonishingly snobbish society in the 1930s,” Raymond Mays once told me. “At Mercedes, von Brauchitsch and Caracciola were the established men, the aristocrats, and when Dick Seaman arrived they accepted him, foreigner or not, as one of their own class. But poor Hermann Lang started as a mechanic, and von Brauchitsch couldn’t stomach that particularly as Lang was an infinitely better driver than he was!”

Into this sort of society came Rosemeyer who, on the face of it, was the personification of Hitler’s fairhaired Aryan hero, the embodiment of courage and youthful strength. The German Chancellor believed grand prix racing was of considerable importance to the country’s propaganda machine and even appointed one of his Brownshirts, Adolf Huhnlein, as a kind of overseer of German motor racing.

Rosemeyer, however, loathed pomposity, rarely passing up an opportunity to puncture Huhnlein’s authority. Before the 1937 German Grand Prix, the drivers were given a lecture on the subject of morals. German men and women, they were told, do not kiss in public; there must be no displays of affection before a race. Bernd had a quiet word with his colleagues. As race time approached, Huhnlein and his Nazi cronies took their seats in the stand whereupon all the German drivers climbed from their cars, returned to the pits and seized their wives and girlfriends. The spectators roared their approval.


Rosemeyer in one of the Auto Union land speed record cars, talking to Ferdinand Porsche


Bernd’s wife was a celebrity in her own right. Under her maiden name of Elly Beinhorn, she had been the Amy Johnson of Germany, and on one occasion was allowed to take the wheel of an Auto Union. She, like her husband, was not easily fazed.

In 1937 there were more wins for Rosemeyer, and at the end of the year the Germans came for the first time to England, then very much starved of serious motor racing. Folk here were accustomed to`voiturettes’, with ERAs as high as they could dream; real grand prix enthusiasts could only read of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union.

The impact upon them of that famous autumn day at Donington has been documented to death, but undoubtedly it was a classic event, a battle between Rosemeyer and a very much on-form von Brauchitsch. Bernd ultimately won what was to be the last race of his life.

His life ended on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn, in January 1938. A huge amount of prestige centred around record breaking then, and both German teams built special streamlined cars for this purpose. Rosemeyer held many Class B records for Auto Union, but then heard that Mercedes, with Caracciola, were planning an attempt to break them. If it was heroic, it was also a little insane. Here were two great grand prix drivers preparing to blast down a two-lane road at speeds approaching 300mph, in wintry conditions. All in the name of national ‘prestige’.

Caracciola was out very early that morning of January 28. Before nine o’clock he had made his two runs, reaching more than 270mph, and thus regaining both mile and kilometre world records for Mercedes. But he had not enjoyed the experience, and warned the Auto Union personnel of a severe crosswind at the Langen-Morfelden crossing.

Rosemeyer, though, was anxious to take back his record as soon as possible. While record breaking was not a pleasure, it was an obligation of his contract, and he wanted to get it over with and go home. It was bitter as he prepared to take the car out, and Caracciola tried again to talk him out of it. But Rosemeyer stubbed out his cigarette, put on his linen helmet and climbed aboard for a test run.

When he came back, he looked a little shaken, admitting that, yes, there was quite a crosswind at the Morfelden clearing. Now his own mechanics implored him to postpone the run, but he would hear nothing of it, and shortly before midday the sinister device accelerated away.

The wreckage they found strewn over an area of 600 yards. The Auto Union had been travelling at 280mph as it approached the Morfelden clearing, and there it was literally blown off the road. Rosemeyer’s body was found at the edge of the forest, and it is here that a memorial statue stands, always with fresh flowers around it. He was 28 when he died, gone after only three seasons of racing.

Gilles Villeneuve was fascinated by the story, very much drawn to a personality which so closely mirrored his own. “He sounded like a real racer,” he said. “Quite a man.”

Quite a man.