Mercedes and Auto Union brought crushing superiority to 1930s grand prix racing and big propaganda gains for the Nazi government.
Both are the focus of Hitler’s Supercars, a Channel 4 documentary that airs this Sunday and charts the rise of German might on the race track and in the world.
Hitler’s election in 1933 marked the start of German state support for motor racing, with Mercedes and Auto Union receiving funding for grand prix teams.
Rare footage shows the first appearance of the Ferdinand Porsche-designed Auto Union Type A, with its mid-engined supercharged V16 engine at AVUS, where it immediately set records and put Mercedes’s nose out of joint.
The rivalry between the two firms went on to drive a frantic pace of development that brought domination for German teams on the grand prix circuit.
It was a propaganda bounty for Hitler: the irresistible lure of racing success and its reflected glory, that sponsors pay millions for today, were broadcast to the nation on state radio and screened before films in cinemas.
Sport and politics were inseparable: as the Nazi-funded Auto Union team delivered a crushing pole at Montlhéry in 1934, the Night of the Long Knives played out the very same evening in Berlin.
Rosemeyer’s motorcycle experience came in useful with the wayward Auto Unions
Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images
The programme also highlights the discomforting imperfections of sporting heroes, with Bernd Rosemeyer, the brilliant motorcycle racer who had switched to four wheels to tame the wild Auto Unions.
His legendary performances on track made him an “Aryan superhero”. The blond-haired, blue-eyed racer was half of a celebrity couple along with his wife, Elly, a German aviation pioneer he had met on the podium after the 1935 Czech Grand Prix.
Should a top German racing driver in the mid-1930s have turned down an open door to one of the most successful, best-funded teams in the world? It’s a question left open.
German grand prix dominance was so predictable that crowds at Donington booed the Silver Arrows to slow down in 1936. At this point in time, the documentary wisely shifts focus to the ‘Reich Record Week’ speed trials.
These were held on a stretch of autobahn each January ahead of the Berlin Motor show where Hitler would be “presented” with a string of new records set by his gleaming silver machines. As they both competed to out-do each other, the event became a ‘space race’.