The day the Germans came

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The December editorial about the extreme impression the 1937 and 1938 Donington GPs made, including on the Editor’s grandfather, recalls the thrill of it all. I went to the 1937 practice and race with John Eason-Gibson in his 1066cc Opel Kadett, a roomy saloon of 7ft 8in wheelbase with Dubonnet independent front suspension, which cost £135 new. Appropriate to go in a German car, however humble!

Yes, the first sound and sight of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions was absolutely awesome — experienced though we were at watching race cars at close quarters, we both left the trackside in a hurry when we heard the scream of an as yet unseen Mercedes-Benz approaching…

In 1937 we went also to see the German drivers arrive. On a dismal September evening the Mercedes-Benz team were flown into Croydon on a tri-motor Lufthansa Junkers, which arrived from Munich a few minutes late. Outside, four Mercedes 230 saloons and a closed cabriolet for Herr Neubauer waited. Inside, the two M-B reps had no Tarmac passes, so only we and Tommy Wisdom of The People could go out to see Seaman, von Brauchitsch, Lang and Neubauer disembark. No-one came from the RAC or BRDC, which I criticised strongly in Motor Sport.

Inside the airport building the Lufthansa pilots shook hands with each driver. Seaman recognised us and came over to exchange a few cheery words, and a passenger jokingly asked if we had come to meet him, having recognised his fellow passengers. Neubauer, calling each by his surname, told his drivers to bring their luggage to the customs officers, with whom he had been joking.

Brauchitsch was in playful mood, and Charlie Martin, who had flown in half an hour earlier on a DH Rapide, stayed to see the Mercedes drivers — along with friends who had met him with his Lancia Aprilia — declaring it motor racing’s greatest event to date.

The cavalcade of cars, all with German plates as they had been shipped in with the racing cars, drove the Mercedes team in line astern to the Dorchester Hotel.

Next day at 1 pm a dozen Auto Union engineers arrived at Croydon ahead of their drivers, whose 2.30pm Junkers was 25 minutes late. They were met by a Herr Hermann from A-U Sales Ltd, a confused press cameraman, and ourselves.

After some delays at customs a Schenkers Ltd truck took the luggage, and Dr Feuereissen took one driver in his two-stroke DKW. Hasse, Muller and the engineers travelled in an Imperial Airways Leyland coach, some of the airline passengers having been persuaded to use an ancient Daimler. But not before there was some happy horseplay, when Hasse, dressed like a city gent, had his hat stoved in by Müller.

At 9.30pm Rosemeyer landed at Croydon in a Douglas of Dutch Air Lines, to be met by Herr Hermann and taken to London, before making his way to Donington by train from St Pancras the next morning.

Meanwhile, we had hastened to Victoria station to see a tired and limping Caracciola arriving on the 4.35pm boat train, where he was met by Alan Hess, representing the BRDC, and a Mercedes-Benz representative with cameraman.

Before the 1938 GP we did it again, Opel, Gibson and me. This time there was much more recognition of the occasion. The Duke of Kent flew to Donington, where he was given some fast laps by Seaman in a V12 Lagonda and later started the race. The German state sports leader, Adolf Huhnlein, was present along with Frau Huhnlein and the president of Germany’s National AC. On the Monday after the race the RAC gave a cocktail party for some of the top personalities.

It was racing I still remember with awe. The arrival of M-B’s workshop truck, five lorries containing the GP cars, and six private cars, then the speed, noise and ‘boot polish’ exhaust fumes — tremendous! Why Mercedes did not win as expected is history. Just how fast the Auto Unions, which had arrived inside Horch lorries, were is shown by the fact that in 1937 Bira’s usually effective Maserati was two laps in arrears of Rosemeyer’s Auto Union. I wrote then in Motor Sport that perhaps a cycle path should have been provided for the non-German entrants.

In 1938 Lang was second behind Nuvolari’s victorious Auto Union, which took the lead 40 miles from the finish, his best lap being 83.71mph. During practice Nuvolari had rested in someone’s Studebaker saloon.

After being carried shoulder-high from the prize presentation, the Italian driver grabbed a bottle of champagne and was driven away in a Horch saloon by Dr Feuereissen.

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