Sojourn in Germany

MY European wanderings are usually controlled to a certain extent by the International racing calender so that I often have to spend more time in one country than I want to and less in others that I would enjoy. I regret that the modern racing scene has little or no activity in Spain and Portugal these days, for trips to Madrid and Lisbon provided some memorable motoring. However, on the whole I do not complain about the present situation and recently I had occasion to spend more time than usual in Germany. It started with a drive down the north-west edge of Germany, from Holland and for old time’s sake I detoured to pass through the picturesque village of Monschau, where I raced through the streets on motorcycle and sidecar in 1950/51. I well recall the organisers telling us before practice began that there was a “no-passing zone” down the High Street, and we thought it ridiculous, until we arrived at the main street through the village: it was only just wide enough for one racing sidecar outfit and was surfaced with polished cobble-stones! The rest of the circuit was in the surrounding hills and was great fun, so we accepted the “no passing zone” in the right spirit. Monschau is very close to the Belgian border and in those days the paper-work for frontier crossing with racing machinery in a trailer was pretty complicated and rigorous, especially as we lived in Belgium at the time. In the early hours of the morning we left the prize-giving party in Monschau and headed off for Belgium on a very minor road, only to find the frontier barrier raised and no sign of life. We searched around but it was obvious that everyone had gone home and was tucked up in bed, so we cancelled our own papers and set off for the Belgian barrier a mile or two further on. Here was the same situation, the door was open and everyone had gone home so we just motored on to Bruxelles and hoped that the Bureaucracy that collected all the frontier paperwork in those days would never get its documents sorted out, or they would be convinced that we had disappeared somewhere in Germany. The infuriating part of it was that we had absolutely nothing illegal with us, unlike other hazardous frontier crossings when we had too many tyres, or more engines than motorcycles. To visit sleepy little Monschau today it is hard to believe that we used to rattle the window panes with the noise of our racing motorcycles.

In the same area of Germany was the Grenzlandring, a flat-out concrete oval of army service roads near Rheytd„ where we used to race motorcycles and where Veritas and A.F.M. cars used to lap at nearly 130 m.p.h. using alcohol fuels in those far-off days of no restrictions. There was not time to visit the Grenzlandring as I was heading for the Nurbungring, but I still have vivid memories of a roaring party with the British Army the night beore the race and waking up with a terrible hangover. Fortunately our sidecar was mounted on the right side of the 500-cc. B.M.W. and the Grenzlandring was an anti-clockwise circuit, so all I had to do after push-starting was to lie still on the platform. I felt so awful that once we had started I passed into a coma. but had a horrid fright when I woke up and found that my driver was in the midst of a bunch of alcohol-burning 750-c.c. B.M.W. outfits that had lapped us. He was slipstreaming for all he was worth, so that we were lapping at 750 c.c. speeds, and everyone knew that a 750 B.M.W. outfit could not negotiate the bends at each end Of the oval with the passenger lying in the sidecar! It is amazing how quickly one’s reflexes work in an emergency.

It is almost a point of honour not to pass through the Eifel mountains without spending a few Deutschmarks on a lap of the Nurburgring, for no matter how humble the car, the Nurburgring can be a splendid dice even at touring speeds. I have been round the Nurburgring in all types of cars and with a great variety of drivers, both known and unknown, and one of the most entertaining was with a friend who was a master at the art of controlling a 2 CV Citroen. Down the hills he had the rims of the front wheels scraping marks on the road-surface, but up the hills we nearly got out and pushed. Even so we lapped in under 20 minutes and he won a sizeable bet.

I was heading south towards Heidelberg and the newly rebuilt Hockenheimring, where Porsche were to announce the 911S model, so I joined the autobahn and battled my way through the overladen holiday traffic, down to the immense and impressive Frankfurterkreuz, where two main autobahns cross. This complex clover-leaf of motor roads is fine if you know where you are going, but every time I use it I see someone who has made a mistake, trying to reverse back on the hard shoulder and start again. If the mobile Polizei should see you doing this I think you would go straight to gaol, and quite right too. On the autobahn running south to Darmstadt and Mannheim there is a turn-off to Langen, not long after Frankfurt airport, and a little further on is a parking bay in the woods alongside the road. If you turn into this parking bay and go to the far end you will find a beautifully kept clearing in the middle of which is a simple, memorial. The inscription says it is to Bernd Rosemeyer, killed in a car while record-breaking on 28th January, 1938. It was on this autobahn, just near the Langen turn-off, that a gust of wind caught his Auto-Union when it was doing more than 270 m.p.h., and he crashed and died.

The death of Rosemeyer was more than the loss of a racing driver in those days, he stood as a symbol of a new era for youth, for he joined the Auto-Union racing team in 1935 when all the top drivers were fully seasoned men, either at their prime or beginning to get past it, keeping on racing by experience and skill. The youthful, boisterous, happy-go-Iucky Rosemeyer was the leader of a new order and he fought many lone races against the Mercedes-Benz team. On that fateful day in 1938 Rudolf Caracciola had set short-distance records at 268 m.p.h. and Rosemeyer was eager to drive the new Auto-Union and to improve on this figure. Against all advice, even from the rival team, he insisted on running even though he knew there was a possibility of small side winds. To this day German enthusiasts pay homage at each anniversary and the memorial is well kept and respected, for a fine young man died doing something he really wanted to do.

If you ever have the occasion to drive down the two-lane autobahn, Frankfurt-Darmstadt, give a thought to this brave young man and to Caracciola, both of whom drove at 270 m.p.h. On this road that is frighteningly narrow at 130 m.p.h. in a modern Jaguar. It may not be possible to appreciate the feats of these “Titans” much longer, for soon after the, record-breaking stretch the autobahn is being modernised and widened to three lanes, and the work is progressing northwards to Frankfurt.

At Hockenheim, Dr. Ferry Porsche, son of the famous Auto-Unton designer, and Huschke von Hanstein, had lined up the latest Porsche production line for selected journalists and friends to try. These were the 912, with 1,600-c.c. flat-four pushrod engine, the 911, with 2,000-c.c, flat-six overhead camshaft engine and 130 b.h.p. (DIN), and the new 911S, with a similar engine to the 911, but giving 160 b.h.p. (DIN). Having developed a high-powered 2-litre engine for the racing Carrera Six, giving over 200 b.h.p. with complete reliability, as witness the racing results from Daytona, Sebring, Targa Florio, Nurburgring and Le Mans, Porsche feel justified in offering a 160-b.h.p. version of the same engine for sale to the public: and I still meet people who cannot accept that racing serves a purpose and can improve the breed. In addition to the more powerful engine, the 911S has magnesium-alloy wheels, giving lower unsprung weight and better brake cooling, and an anti-roll bar for the rear suspension. Otherwise the new model is the same as the 911, both now using Weber carburetters in place of the weir-system Solex, with the same superb 5-speed Porsche gearbox, the accurate and light steering and all the other qualities that make the latest Porsche cars such a joy on the open road. Although the 911S was terrific fun to wind-up through the gears, using 7,000 r.p.m., it still felt under-powered when cruising at 100 m.p.h. and wanting to accelerate to 115-125 m.p.h. for overtaking. Having got thoroughly used to the horsepower and torque of a 4.2-litre Jaguar E-type at 100 m.p.h., where the car surges forward in a most impressive manner, the 911S seemed lacking, but as when I tested the 911 last winter, I had to keep saying to myself, “this is only a 2-litre, and less than half the capacity of an E-type.”

To get a sense of proportion I went for a ride with Gunther Klass in a Carrera Six coupe, the very low and purposeful racing Porsche with the high front-wheel arches that make it look like an insect ready to pounce. Now there is a car with more than sufficient performance for my needs, 130, 140, 150, 160 m.p.h., you name it and the Carrera Six will do it in a very short space of time. The level ride and cornering are of a different .world, like all these modern racing-sports cars, such as the Dino Ferrari and the GT40 Ford. It is nice to look back at similar cars of ten years ago and realise that the racing standards of those days are now available in production GT form, so that the road-going GT cars of 1976 are going to be wonderful, except that the racing-sports car will be even better. In all the versions of the 6-cylinder Porsche engine there it an impressive feeling that it won’t burst, the higher the r.p.m. the smoother the engine runs and more like a dynamo it becomes, Porsche have a very keen following in Great Britain, and though the numbers sold are small compared with America, the Zuffenhausen firm pander to our archaic way of life where we drive on the left, and make right-hand-drive versions, even of the brand new 911S.

That other great German institution, Daimler-Benz A.G., said, “if you are going to stay in Germany for a while, why not use a Mercedes-Benz; here is a 230S saloon, with power-steering and automatic gearbox.” There is another institution in the German automobile industry that is regaining greatness very rapidly, and that is B.M.W. of Munich, but that is another story. I can never pass near Stuttgart without doing a lap or more of the Solitude circuit, to the west of the town, for it surely is one of the best circuits in any country, as anyone will agree who has raced on it. I say it is one of the best, but I fear that I shall have to say it was one of the best. Now that the A.v.D, have spent millions of Deutschmarks on the Hockenheimring, turning it into a vast stadium, flat and uninteresting, surrounded by enormous solid concrete grandstands to hold 30,000 people and of a shape that is more like a kart-track than a racing circuit, authority and public opinion say “why close the public roads at Solitude; go and race your silly little cars on the fine new Motodrom at Hockenheim.”  Authority and public opinion are those people with political or journalistic power who do not like motor racing; I am sure they never ask any of the 200,000 people who attended motor races at Solitude in the past. The trouble is that the motor racing public is a small percentage of the total population in and around Stuttgart, and they are like the British motorists who drive at more than 70 m.p.h., a very small minority, who have to suffer from the apathy of the masses. Political manipulators or journalistic empire-builders know that they are on safe grounds if they stamp on something that doesn’t interest the masses. Imagine trying to stop football! For their sins the Germans are going to have to watch events at Hockenheim and accept the spectacle as motor-racing.

At Unierturkheim, on the east of Stuttgart, where the great Daimler-Benz empire has its seat and the vast 15-storey administration building with the three-pointed star on the roof dominates the seene. I encountered another vastness. Alfred Neubauer, the giant of Mercedes-Benz racing, team-manager, organiser, motor. racing enthusiast, father to all who came in his great shadow was entertaining Raymond Mays on his first visit to Daimler, Benz A.G. Neubauer is now 75 years old, retired from active work, but often to be seen at the factory pottering around the niuseum. It was in the museum that I joined them and in the racing section Neubauer was explaining how he had laid things out in three “epochs.” The classical era from 1906-1914, the supercharged era from 1921-1939 and the fuel-injection era from 1952-1955. I asked him what he thought the next era might be, but he just blinked and said the turbine or the Wankel engine would never make a racing engine. Colin Chapman says that he does not intend to start a museum at Lotus, for the day you become museum minded you are finished (perhaps he wants to forget some of his early errors). In the Daimler-Benz museum are many souvenirs of racing successes, and cars that were mechanically very advanced in their day, while engines have never been a problem to Daimler-Benz engineers, four-stroke or two-stroke, petrol or diesel, in-line or vee, inverted vee or double vee, they have made them all, and successful ones at that. Their 1955 sports/racing engine, the W196S, gave 310 b.h.p. from 3 litres on pump petrol and some of today’s 3-litre racing engines are struggling to get beyond this standard. Daimler-Benz admit that if they built a 3-litre Grand Prix car it would give 600 b.h.p. and the big problem would be designing a system of traction that would enable the driver to control the car properly. Their big study at the moment is that of inbuilt safety in passenger cars, a study they have been pursuing for many years without making much song and dance about it. Now that the American automobile world has woken up to the fact that it has been designing dangerous cars, Daimler-Benz are advertising the fact that safety on the road has been one of their keynotes of design for many years.

Before leaving Unierturkheim, I visited the test track, where Raymond Mays was having a go in a 1939 Grand Prix car, the two-stage supercharged, alcohol-burning V12-cylinder 3-litre. By present day standards it is old fashioned, but I do like supercharged engines, they make such a nice noise and have lots of power all the way up the rev-range. At the far end of the test track work was in progress on an extension that runs to a 180degree turn on what appears to be a vertical banking. It was not yet ready to sample.

The Mercedes-Benz production has been rationalised for at least five years into two basic groups for the major portion of the output. I should have learnt all about these last autumn on a Press test-day, but I got involved in a most interesting and irresponsible session with the 600 models and completely missed the point of the new models. There are “cooking” models and “eating” models, the “cookers being centred round one body style and the “eaters” round another. The 600 is obviously the “speciality of the house,” while the 230SL roadster seems to be a bit of a black sheep, with no direct parentage. Daimler-Benz refer to their production series as “middle class” and ” upper class ” and the first group are 200, 200D, 230 and 230S, while the second group are the 250S, 250SE, 300SE and 300SEL. The figure in the numbering indicates the engine size, i.e. 2-litre, 2.3-litre, 2.5-litre and 3-litre, and all except the 2-litre are 6-cylinder engines with a single overhead camshaft. The lettering indicates various special features, such as D for diesel engine, and SEL for fuel-injection and air suspension, While power-steering and automatic-transmission come in various stages and prices. The 230S saloon that I borrowed was the best of the “cookers,” with twin-carburetter engine, power-steering, disc brakes on the front, automatic transmission and sliding roof, and following Mercedes-Benz “safety era ” it was complete with fire-extinguisher and first-aid kit.

You do not have to drive very far in the modern Mercedes-Benz to realise that it has been designed and built by automobile engineers, and not by coachbuilders or salesmen. There is an integrity about the way a Mercedes-Benz works that stems from real engineers and designers, and it gives you the feeling that it was built on sound engineering principles as applied to the automobile. They are expensive cars to buy, but they can easily justify the expense and after driving this 230S for over 600 miles on all types of road I found it hard to criticise anything on it. There must be something wrong with a Mercedes-Benz car, for nothing is perfect, but I cannot admit to knowing what it is. This was a 5-stater family saloon with a huge luggage boot, so it is not the kind of car I want for myself, but if Daimler-Benz would build a modern GT coupe it would be another matter. A well-known “Mark of Distinction” in British car building (I nearly said automobile engineering), also with 6 cylinders, has been claimed by the makers to be superior to a Mercedes-Benz. I have driven this wonder car, and since using the 230S all I can say is that the people concerned haven’t driven a Mercedes-Benz or they are making a joke in very poor taste. During my 600 miles I returned to the Nurburgring for the German Grand Prix and also journeyed off into the Middle of Germany to look at the disused Schottenring, where motorcycle racing used to take place until the early 1950s. This was a circuit an normal country roads in fir-clad hills similar to the Eifel district, passing through small villages, and was real road racing. Unfortunately I never managed to race at Schotten, but I always heard stories of how it was pretty frightening and there was no room for mistakes, or you finished up among the pinetrees. The pits and timekeepers’ house are still standing, derelict and silent, for the Schottenring will never be used again, the roads have become broken and bumpy and most of them are only used by local village traffic. As the years go by the European racing scene changes continually and it is not until you visit some of the old places that you are really aware just how much the scene is changing.

Before returning to Stuttgart I called in at Neekarsukm to visit the Deutsches Zweirad Museum, a very nicely laid out three-storey house in which the history of the two-wheeler is traced from its earliest beginnings. With the N.S.U. factory not far away it is not surprising to find that the museum incorporates a history of N.S.U. motorcycles, as well as the history of the bicycle. There are many interesting exhibits from the early days up to the last of the N.S.U. racing machines, and my particular favourites are an early motorcycle with front-wheel-drive by a 5-cylinder radial engine (!) and a factory 1939 supercharged B.M.W. road-racing motorcycle.

From Neekarsukm it is a short dash down the autobahn to Stuttgart, and these days as soon as you join an autobahn you will come across a modern B.M.W. car cruising at 90-95 m.p.h. For many years the B.M.W. firm floundered about not knowing what they were trying to achieve. One moment they were trying to market 140-m.p.h. cars in opposition to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupe, then they made motorised “roller-skates” or bubble-cars; after that they had a go at mini-cars, but they could never market anything that really caught on with the buying public sufficiently to see a forward-thinking plan. Then a year or two ago they came up with the B.M.W. 1800 saloon, a compact, fast, efficient 4-seater family car with true B.M.W. sporting characteristics and from that day they have not looked back. The 1800 developed into the 1800TI, a high-performance version, and the 1800TISA, a racing version, and B.M.W. is now a force to be reckoned with in saloon-car racing of the serious International variety, not English 5-lap “balancing-act” grass-track type racing. The development of the 4-cylinder o.h.v. 1800 engine has continued and it is now seen in great numbers in its latest 2,000 c.c. form, while a popular model of 1,600 c.c. is also available. The 2000CS 2-door coupe introduced last autumn, is now in full production and is one of the neatest and efficient-looking cars on the road today. When the B.M.W. 328 sports 2-seater was introduced in 1936 it made all contemporary sports cars look ungainly and untidy; the new 2000CS coupe is setting a similar standard on European roads and it is very nice to see the Bayerische Motoren Werke well and truly back on its feet, with racing successes backing up their engineering.

Back at Unterturkheim I returned the 230S Mercedes-Benz safely and in one piece, having become once more enamoured of the superb Daimler-Benz hydraulic power-steering and the incredible control you have over the Mercedes-Benz when cornered enthusiastically, even if it is a bit wide for dashing down country lanes. The automatic 4-speed transmission is one of those things you like or you dislike on principle rather than from usage. I am still fit enough to use both my hands and both my feet, and get simple pleasure from changing gear on a good gearbox (like the 911 Porsche), but when I got back into the E-type I felt I was returning to “vintage” motoring, a form of motoring I enjoy very much. I drove up the winding road to Rotenberg that overlooks Stuttgart, to stay with Eugen Bohringer at his delightful hotel, and as I left black tyre marks out of the hairpins in second gear with a bit of opposite lock on I chuckled to myself and decided that I was not yet old and decrepit enough to want an automatic Mercedes-Benz for my own transport. If Daimler-Benz A.G. would design a modern version of the gull-wing 300SL coupe, using the V8 engine from the 600 limousine, with power-steering, then I would accept an automatic transmission for I would probably be far too busy to have time to change gear!

Eugen Bohringer is the well-known hotel keeper and chef who raced and rallied Mercedes-Benz saloon cars, as well as the 230SL roadster, winning the Liege-Sofia-Liege and the Argentine six-day race, among many other events. We spent a pleasant evening together, talking racing and cars, and his best stories were about the epic Monte Carlo Rally he did with a Porsche 904 racing/sports coupe, when he finished second overall, amid snow and ice. A French garage mechanic did not know that the 904 had its fuel tank in the front, and seeing a filler cap sticking out of the side of the car he took the capoff and squirted petrol into the dry-sump oil tank! Bohringer and his co-driver were a few hundred yards from the next control and time was running out, so they bought tins of oil, rushed the 904 through the control and then drained the oil by the roadside, refilled and pressed on.

From Stuttgart I went down to Freiburg to visit some friends and that meant is slight detour to make a climb of the Schauinsland, the mountain on which the annual hill-climb is held. Some while ago I regretted that Britain did not have a mountain billclimb and received a torrent of letters from the Lancashire Automobile Club pointing out that they ran events in the Isle of Man up the Tholt-y-Will pass and that it was up to European Hillclimb Championship standards. While I agree with them that it is a fine hill-climb, and certainly the best in Britain, the mountain climbs at such places as Schauinsland was what I had in mind. It is rather like accepting Brands Hatch as a Grand Prix circuit after racing at Francorchamps or Nurburgring. It is all relative.

My final call in this concentrated time in Germany was back at Hockmheim for the 500-kilometres sports car race, where I was relieved to hear that the A.v.D. intend to retain the 1967 German Grand Prix at Nurburgring, and then I was off into France.

Any European country is full of motor-racing interest for the enthusiast, but Germany is particularly good in that it is full of old and new interest and it is a pleasant country, where everything and everyone works efficiently. As I left I heard that Volkswagen had revived the “beetle” with disc brakes on the front and a 44-b.h.p. 1,500-c.c. engine. A “Deutsches Hot-Rod” indeed.