Nostalgia for Von Trips

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A museum dedcated to the great German F1 driver is like no other you will have visited…

Museums — usually informative (well, hopefully), often fascinating, and sometimes eccentric. And occasionally wonderfully bizarre. The Wolfgang von Trips museum is the latter. It’s run by Jorg-Thomas Fodisch, a man so passionate he makes the most avid motor racing enthusiast look like a bored teenager. His day job is writing for Die Bundeswehr, a German military magazine with a circulation of 230,000, but when I find him he’s sat at a table with his wife, sorting through photos of, and by, Wolfgang von Trips.

“How many more of those have you got to sort through?”

“About 10,000, I think.”

The Museum fur Rennsportgeschichte (Museum for Racing History) is on the outskirts of Horrem, a sleepy town 40 miles north of the Nurburgring. Although the museum’s name is ambiguous it is really a homage to the German Formula 1 driver Count Wolfgang von Trips.

The museum is not in the old family schloss — Hemmerbach castle, which Wolfgang’s parents inherited in 1932— but in Villa Trips, a building just 50 metres from the Schloss which Wolfgang’s mother Thessa built for herself in 1973 after Wolfgang’s father Edward died.

Five years before Thessa’s death in 1978 she set up the Graflich Berghe von Trips’sche Sportstiftung zu Berg Hammersbach foundation in memory of her son, killed at Monza in 1961. The aim? To create a motor racing museum with an emphasis on Wolfgang. The foundation, and museum, was previously based in Horrem. But in 2000 the foundation bought Villa Trips from an events company that now owns the schloss.

The foundation has not been without its difficulties over the past decade, even though the museum has been returned to (almost) its proper location. “Not many people are interested in the history of the sport around here,” says Jorg-Thomas. “We used to be open all the time, but now, because money is tight, we’re only open from 2-6pm on Sundays.

“It’s not just here —10 minutes down the road was the Michael Schumacher museum at his kart centre. They used to go for five or six days without anyone walking through the doors even though they had original F1 cars. Not replicas or show cars, but the actual machines he drove. There were seven original Ferraris. Anyway, that closed last year after only six months. Meanwhile the karting centre continues to have hundreds of people visiting every day.”

The von Trips museum gets 5-6000 visitors a year, many through motoring clubs that include it as a stop-off in their tours. All of these people will have had a unique experience.

Because it is essentially a house the museum is divided into various rooms, the first of which, on the ground floor, is the ‘garage’. Set up to look like the workshop where Wolfgang used to fettle his road cars, it houses one of his go-karts and a TCA (Trips, Colotti and Auto Union) Formula Junior car.

“Wolfgang made seven of these cars between 1959-61 and this is the only complete one left,” says Jorg-Thomas. “He teamed up with [engineer and transmission maker] Valerio Colotti and based them on the De Tomaso Formula Juniors. He asked Alejando [de Tomaso] if he could have one of his racers in order to learn how to build his own, so that’s why there’s the De Tomaso Formula Junior next to the TCA.”

In the corner another TCA rests, bent beyond repair after a heavy accident. “In March 1961 this chassis was crashed at the Nurburgring. Trips abandoned the Formula Junior project a few days later as it was costing a lot of money.

“People seem to think he had lots of money, but he didn’t. He didn’t receive any money from his parents, so much of it came from start money and his winnings I heard that after he died, his parents spent six or seven years paying back the money he owed on the Formula Junior project. “The other issue was that the DKW engine wasn’t great. It produced 70 or 72bhp, but the Juniors of Lotus, Cooper and Lola were turning out 80 or so. In a car that weighs only 330kg, that’s a pretty big advantage.”

Next to the go-kart is a photo of Wolfgang sitting in it outside the schloss. Jorg-Thomas’ eyes light up when I ask about its history.

“Wolfgang visited the States several times in the ’50s and saw lots of kids driving these things. He thought it was a great idea to start racing young [von Trips started car racing aged 26 in 1954], so he shipped two over from Florida. He was keen to build a track in the schloss grounds and got the green light in 1961, months before he died. The idea was abandoned.

“A year later five or six people from Horrem started a karting club which was really popular. But they didn’t have a track. Wolfgang’s mother gave the club some ground on the estate to use and in Easter 1965 a new karting track was opened.” The one thing missing was someone to look after it, but that position was soon filled by a certain Rolf Schumacher, father of Michael and Ralf. The brothers were surrounded by racing, and by the age of three they were out on track. The circuit has since moved to nearby Mannheim following Horrem’s expansion.

We leave the ‘garage’ and move upstairs. First stop is Graf Wolfgang Zimmer (the Wolfgang Room). As we walk in I spot one of his helmets. “Ah yes, that’s the helmet he died in,” Jorg Thomas nonchalantly informs me.

Slightly taken aback, I examine the rest of the room which has everything from von Trips’ gramophone, to Scuderia Colonia writing paper (a private drivers’ club he founded), trophies, pens, laurel wreaths, and a plaster leg cast… “That’s not his plaster cast, is it?”

“Of course! It’s from when he broke his leg at the Nurburgring in the 1957 1000Kms driving the Ferrari Testarossa. That car seemed to work fine — the problem arose when Olivier Gendebien asked von Trips to try his 250GT as it wasn’t running well. He jumped in and halfway round the track he got the pedals mixed up [the works car had a centre throttle whereas the private 250GT had a conventional pedal layout].”

The room is fascinating, but the experience a little uncomfortable. Von Trips never actually used this room — Villa Trips wasn’t built until after he died — but with such personal belongings you feel you’re invading someone’s privacy.

The rest of the museum proves to be just as left-field. We go to a room dedicated to Monza 1961, the most chilling part of which — apart from photos and newspaper cuttings of von Trips’ crash — is the original radio broadcast from the race playing in the background…

Other rooms are dedicated to the Mille Miglia — von Trips was 33rd overall in 1954 driving a Porsche 356 and also competed in 1956-57 — the Nurburgring, Formula 1 and Le Mans. There’s even one for road cars, with the largest model collection you’re likely to see.

It’s not the theme of each room that surprises, but the bizarre assemblage of material inside. In the Le Mans room, there are newspaper cuttings and some wonderful photos of when von Trips raced there, but there’s also a model of a McNish Audi R8, a Steve McQueen Le Mans DVD that’s still in its wrapper, and countless books.

“Ten years ago we bought many of these books new, as well as VHS tapes of races, but now they’re nearly all worthless,” says Jorg-Thomas. “But it does mean that we have a pretty comprehensive motoring library in English, German, Italian and French. At last count I think we had over 7000 books.”

The museum is informative and fascinating, but what it needs is some proper money spent on it, because at the moment it resembles a slightly mad collection of motoring automobilia based around Wolfgang von Trips. Some of the pieces are priceless and could form the basis of a superb museum. But the only way that’s going to happen is if more people go and see it. So do drop in if you’re heading for the Nurburgring. You won’t be disappointed — it really is an eye-opener.

The museum is located at: Parkstrasse 20, 50169 Kerpen, Germany. Tel: 0049 (0) 22 73 940670

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