"Bernd literally did not know fear and sometimes that is not good"
- Rudolf Caracciola
"The risks he takes, sometimes bordering on the reckless, are unbelievable"
- George Monkhouse
"Rosemeyer never took any foolish risks. It was just that he drove faster than other people could"
- Dr. Porsche
Born on October 14 1909 in Lingen Germany. His father owned an auto repair shop and it was there that Bernd, along with his older brother Job, learned the ins and out of both two and four wheel vehicles.
He was known to his friends as "Spotte" or the sprat for his carefree joking manner. There are stories of how, at age 11, he commandered his father's car and along with several friends, drove to the neighboring town of Nordhorn, which ended at the local police station.
The next year, he and his brother organized a motorcycle race of their own, which of course Bernd won - an omen of future success. Bernd was a natural on two wheels, known for the ability to steer equally effectively while laying on the bike and steering with his feet, or sitting backwards on it as he roared down the street. There was a photo of him (which I cannot find) standing on his bike while at speed, waving with one hand and giving the old one finger salute with the other. His "stunt driving" nature caused him to lose his license on several occasions.
Bernd recieved a break in 1931 when the Zundap team, searching for a replacement for their ill driver, signed Bernd after a test session.
Entered in the 250cc class at the Oldenburg grasstrack, he won his first time out. The next year, he turned to road racing on a private entry BMW and dominated the Hohensyburg 500cc race and finished second in the 1000cc class. In 1933 he was signed by the NSU team, winning numerous races in Germany and Hungary. That drew the attention of the DKW team which signed him for 1934, which led to numerous victories again.
The Auto Union GP team was searching for new drivers for the 1935 season, and through DKW's connection with them, Bernd recieved a test at the Nurburgring, along with 11 other drivers. Bernd showed up for the test that day with no driving gear, save for goggles and hat, and wearing a new suit. Asked by team principle Wally Walb why he was dressed that way Bernd responded:
"I've never driven a race car before, so I wanted to dress appropriatly for the occassion"
Having raced the Nurburgring many times on a motorcycle, Bernd had little trouble setting a time of 11:20, about 45 seconds under veteran Paul Pietsch's time. The next test was at the Sudschliefe, which was unfamiliar to all the drivers. Bernd's time that day was just 1.6 seconds slower than Pietsch's.
Though he may not have known what to make of Bernds precocious nature, Walb signed Bernd to a test driver role that day.
The 1935 season was underway, yet Bernd had not driven the car in a race. He started leaving anonymous notes on Walb's desk saying "Why isn't Rosemeyer in the car?", "Where's the car for Rosemeyer?", "Why is Rosemeyer not driving?". Walb relented and let Bernd try to prove his mettle on the high-speed AVUS ring. He qualified third quickest, but was done in early by a bad mill.
His next race was the Eifelrennen at Nurburgring. With the other three Auto Unions cars suffering from mechanical ailments, Bernd was told to go on the attack and catch the leading Mercedes car of Rudy Caracciola.
It has been said that since Bernd had never driven a race car before he sat in the Auto Union, he was a perfect match because he had no idea how a front engine car handled, and the more experienced drivers on the team were at a disadvantage, since all were used to front engine machines. Bernd soon proved his worth as he powered by Luis Chiron and Faglioli and soon caught Caracciola, who he dispatched to second place with suprising ease. A presumably stunned Caracciola soon regained the lead and went on to win the race by a 1.8 second margin. He was promoted to lead driver based on that performance over Hans Stuck and Achille Varzi.
His next race saw him dueling with the great Tazio Nuvolari (with whom he would later become good friends). While attempting a pass for the lead on Tazio, Bernd slid off course and ruined his tires. He limped to the pits and was soon back trying to run Nuvolari down. In the process, he locked his brakes on a turn, went off-track, jumped a ditch and squeezed between a Telegraph pole and a stone wall. He would eventually finish second in the race behind teammate Achille Varzi.
After the race, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, who had witnessed the off track excursion, measured the distance between the pole and the wall. There was but a 1 inch difference in the width of it and the car. Porsche shook hands with Bernd and patted him on the back, never uttering a word to the young man about his lucky feat. In the last race of the year, Bernd would finally pick up his first win at the Masaryk GP in Brno, Czechoslovakia.
The next year, 1936, saw Bernd achieve one of his greatest victories at the Eifelrennen, on the familiar Nurburgring. It was a misty foggy day with conditions at near non visibility, yet Bernd won by 11 seconds over the other greats of the time Manfred von Brauchitsch, Caracciola, and Nuvolari. The win cemented his legend among the German people and earned him the name Neiblemeister - master of the mist.
He would go on that year to win at Pescara; the Swiss, Italian, and German GPs; and won the European driving championship for 1936. At that year's Swiss GP, Bernd battled with Caracciola after Caracciola blocked Bernd while being lapped. They roared down the course shaking fists at each other, and continued the fued after the race with, by the accounts of their wives, a loud name-calling argument at the hotel where they were staying. He and Caraciolla would remain friends, in spite of their argument that day.
That same day though, Bernd made a good friend in Tazio Nuvolari. Bernd was attemtpting to lap Nuvolari when Bernd's brakes failed, yet Bernd made a very dangerous (to himself) move to keep from hitting Tazio. Tazio approached Bernd after the race and thanked him for taking the risk which could have cost Bernd the win, or worse. Bernd and Tazio would go on to be very good friends, with Bernd naming Tazio as the god-father to his son.
At Monaco Bernd finished 4th - he never had a good run at Monaco. He did do something noteworthy, however. After hitting a patch of oil, he spun into a bridge and crashed, ending his race. The crash had knocked a stone vase-like column lose from the bridge, and in typical Bernd fashion, he carried the "vase" back to the pits. When his crew saw him with it, they asked why he had that thing and he replied:
"If I can't win the real cup, at least I'll take this home with me"
Serious pole position laps by Rosemeyer included a quick stop to fry up a breakfast egg on a back tyre. In the Italian heat he did the job wearing just helmet, swimshorts and shoes!
1937 saw him with more victories, including the Vanderbuilt cup in America where his driving style and good nature made him a favorite of the American crowd. At the GP race at AVUS, run under Formula Libre rules because construction wasn't complete on the track - which also allowed the "Stromlinienwagens" or streamliners to compete - he struck fear into the Mercedes team by qualifying 6 seconds ahead of them in first.
The streamliner proved a handful that day however and after a few slipups he finished 4th. Bernd did manage one outstanding feat that day though. In the heat race, while battling with the Mercedes streamliner driven by Rudy Caracciola, Bernd set a lap speed average of 171.78 mph/276.39 kmh. The fastest lap speed average of pre-war racing and it still stands as the fastest lap speed ever in GP competition. No F-1 race has ever reached that lap speed, so it remains the fastest lap ever made in Grand Prix racing. Those speeds were not seen at Indy until the 1970s.
Bernd would also score victories that year in the Coppa Acerbo, Eifelrennen and a convincing victory at the Donnington GP. He was said to be looking forward to his good friend Tazio Nuvolari joining the team in 1938.
No story about Bernd can be made without mention of his wife - the famous female aviator, Elly Beinhorn.
An old saying about a couple made for each other comes to mind: "that pot found it's lid". Just as brave and adventurous as Bernd, she was even more famous than he when they met and probably still. A daring pilot in the days were it was unusual to see a woman with such a skill, she was a globe trotting solo pilot who was friends with the likes of Amilia Earhart.
Her fame was what drew her to be asked to be at the victory rostrum for the Grand Prix race at Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1935. She accepted the invitation, hoping to meet fellow countryman and racing great Hans Stuck, but fate intervened, and it was Bernd Rosemeyer receiving the winners trophy that day.
Bernd immediately took to Elly and pursued her relentlessly, although Elly wanted no part of it. She would later say about him asking her to accompany him about
" 'Bernd, you innocent child', I thought to myself, 'you don't seriously imagine that I'm going to associate with your traveling circus of motor racing hooligans, do you?' Oh no, not me, not Elly Beinhorn"
In the end, love won out and they were married on July 13, 1936 which they chose as the date because they both regarded "13" as their lucky number. 13 days later, Bernd would win the German GP in impressive fashion.
Being the sporting type, Bernd and Elly had been looking for a chance for Elly to drive his Auto Union GP car on the track. That chance came at Monza during the last race weekend of the year. With the championship alrady wrapped up by Bernd, the mechanics relented and let Bernd and Elly have their fun. Here's Elly's recollection of that day:
"Bernd presented me with the challenge and at first I was not at all keen to accept it. I had always had a burning desire to drive what was by now the fastest car in the world, but not at Monza, where I was surrounded by friends and dozens of reporters and photographers. Before I knew it I found myself seated in the silver car with the long, long tail, equipped with Bernd's helmet and goggles and listening to his instructions. One of the reporters bent down towards Bernd, who was squatting by the car. 'Why are you so anxious to get rid of your wife, Rosemeyer?'
"The mechanics pushed me off. 'Let her go!' It was just like a race. I carefully dabbed at the accelerator and five hundred horsepower roared behind me. At first I was somewhat stunned and it took me a lap to begin to find my bearings. Miraculously enough, the monster could be driven slowly. Not very slowly, its true - but slowly - and the gearbox was very easy to deal with.
"After another, even more exciting lap I was given the signal to stop from the pits, just like one of the aces, and naturally, like a well-disciplined driver, I drew up at once. 'Bernd, I'm so pleased and grateful. That was wonderful!'
" 'I'm glad that you are still safe and sound,' he said. 'But you could have gone a bit faster on the straight - 200 kph (125 mph) at least!'. Needless to say, I have never forgotten the excitement of those two all-too-brief laps"
Perhaps an even more eventful experience was a ride in the car while sitting in Bernds lap. Here she recalls that experience:
"[H]e had long wanted to take me around the Ring in his racing car and here was his chance. 'This is a golden opportunity, Elly. You simply sit on the edge of my seat and I will drive very carefully, but fast enough that you may get an idea of what its like when I'm racing.'
"I was all for it, but my enthusiasm evaporated after the very first corner! At every bend I was ready to swear an oath that we would never get round and I was almost thrown out of the Auto Union by the centrifugal force. As I clung on for dear life my husband laughed himself silly. 'What are you complaining about? I can't drive fast at all on these running-in plugs. Dawdling along like this wouldn't get us tenth place!' I was by no means ashamed of my timidity. On the contrary, I was grateful for the chance to get some idea of what Bernd got up to on a circuit and it was abundantly clear to me that driving a racing car was infinitely more difficult than flying"
She would return the favor by teaching Bernd how to fly an Airplane, and the two spent many a day flying about, but always with Elly at the till, because of her vast experience at flying, which in those days was done without the covenience of modern navagational aids.
Apparently Bernd had faith in her ability, just as she did his. She would comment on his inate ability to see better than anyone in the fog, which is what probably gave him the advantage when he earned the Neibelmeister tag.
"When I was riding with him in his car shortly after we met, on a terribly foggy day, he would say 'do you see the man on the motorcycle approaching'? of course I couldn't, but in a couple of seconds, a motorcyclist would appear from the fog"
They would live a storybook life while it lasted, having a son, Bernd jr., who still resides in Germany to this day.
Elly would live to be 100 years old, passing away on November 28, 2007. But up until that time, even though she remarried and had a daughter, she referred to Bernd as "my man" and always made sure there were 13 roses placed on his grave on his birthdate every year.
Since Bernd was obliged to drive a company car on the public roads, he decided he wanted his own, one-of-a-kind car. Nothing "off the rack" would do for such a great Grand Prix driver, after all.
So in 1937, he worked closely with the designers at Horch (one of the four companies that made up Auto Union), who built him a one off car based on a Horch 853 chassis. Working from detailed instructions and sketches Bernd did himself, the car was soon completed. Bernd had input in the total design and configuration of the car, from body shape to upholstery, even an American made radio.
He dubbed the car "The Manuela" and it was a common site at race tracks of the time, that is when Bernd wasn't flying to them in his airplane. It was entered in the 1937 Concoures d'Elegance and took first place, with rave reviews for it's overall design. It is unknown what became of the car, but it was believed to have been destroyed during WWII.
The German regime had placed great value in the speed record attempts on their new "Autobahnen" which the Auto Union and Mercedes team gladly participated in. The drivers, though, hated it. They considered it unneccessary, though there wasn't much they could do but participate. They would have much rather been concentrating on the GP cars. Bernd had once been overcome by exhaust fumes during a record run and had to be attended to by a doctor before he could climb from the car. He had, however, set 15 world speed records during the runs.
Another round of "Rekordwoche" had been scheduled for for January 27 1938, however bad weather pushed it to the next day, the 28th. Bernd Rosemeyer was there for Auto Union, who decided to participate after the Mercedes team and driver Rudy Caracciola had announced they would attempt new records that day. Mercedes had re-established itself over AutoUnion in the 1937 GP season, and Auto Union wanted to show they could be as fast.
Both companies had on hand their "Stromlinienwagens" or streamliner. The "Silberfische" or silverfish of Auto Union and the "Silberpfeile" or silver arrows of Mercedes.
Bernd Rosemeyer on what the record runs were like:
"... at about 240 mph the joints in the concrete road surface are felt like blows, setting up a corresponding resonance through the car, but this disappears at a greater speed. Passing under bridges the driver receives a terrific blow to the chest, because the car is pushing air aside, which is trapped by the bridge. When you go under a bridge, for a split second the engine noise completely disappears and then returns like a thunderclap when you are through"
Rudy Caraciolla's words:
"I was unnerved. The road seemed like a narrow white band, the bridges like tiny black holes ahead. It was a matter of threading the car through them..."
It would turn out to be a fateful day for Bernd. Much had been made about the reason for the crash, from Bernd being a foolish driver to something breaking on the car. The final decision on that will never be known, but some things are.
Such as the fact that Auto Union was playing with technology that was not fully understood. With the fairing on the car, they had, in effect, created the first ground effects car, 40 years before Colin Chapman and Lotus would be given the credit for it.
The car itself had been a true workhorse, having been driven at AVUS in 1937 by Luis Fagioli and by Bernd during previous record runs. It's body had been built sturdier, on advise by Ferdinand Porsche. Eberan-Eberhorst had designed the totally new bodywork with panels close to the ground that channeled the air to create a vacuum, thus the ground effects.
It has been speculated that one of these panels came loose during Bernds fatal run, which could account for some witnesses hearing what they said was "an explosion" just before the crash. And as seen below, photographs by a professional photographer on hand show indentations where the body panels were attached, showing damage due possibly to "overtightening" of the connecting screws.
And weather has been blamed also - there was a crosswind that day which hit the cars as they went by a clearing in the forest. It was reported that Bernd was favoring the car to the left side of the road to compensate for the crosswind, leading to speculation he put a wheel off, causing him to lose control, however witness testimony seems to indicate something was going on with the car before that.
And Bernds last words that day to Auto Union's Wilhelm Seabastien have been used to indicate he was not cautious enough. There are two different versions of what he said.
"Wilhelm, Du kannst versichert sein, ich merke es alleine, wenn es nicht geht. Ich will nur noch einmal rantasten". Translation: "Wilhelm, be reassured, I can figure it out on my own if it doesn't go. I'll only try once again to approach it (the record speed)".
But August Jacob (chief engineer) tells a slightly different version:
"Ich will nur nochmal die Fahreingeschaften proefen, ohne etwas zu riskieren und will mich nur nochmal rantasten". Translation: "I'll only test the driving conditions once again, without taking any risk, and I'll only try once again to approach it".
Seabastiens words were used to show Bernd had assumed the risk himself, in what some said was, at worst, a coverup attempt by Auto Union, or at best, a CYA move. A moot point, considering the results, but it shows the controversy at the time surrounding what happened.
The final verdict of what actually happened that day will rest with the fates, but one thing is for certain - Auto Union was wanting badly to "one-up" Mercedes in the speed records, and were fooling around with unknown and unproven technology that hadn't been thoroughly tested and researched, and Bernd paid with his life.
It would be remiss to talk of Bernds career and not make mention of the Third Reich's involvement. After all, he was made a captain in the SS. However, that's one of those things that would have been hard to refuse and maintain his racing career. I'm pretty sure he, and the other Auto Union and Mercedes drivers wanted no part of any of that, and did what they had to do in order to keep racing.
Though no real proof exists of Bernds feelings on the matter exist, there's some anecdotal evidence of his true feelings.
After the German GP once, he and Caracciola were on the victors podium and Caracciola was awarded the trophy bearing the likeness of the "goddess of speed" by German racing official Adolf Huehnlien, a Nazi party official. To show his disdain for the likes of Huehnlein and his political party, Bernd placed a lit cigarrette in the mouth of the speed goddess statue. When the crowd erupted with laughter, Huhnlein turned around to see what was so funny, only to see Bernd feigning innocence and shrugging his shoulders.
And a quote from an interview by Elly Beinhorn shortly before her death in 2007 shows their contempt for Adolf Huehnlein, the annoyingly ever present, obnoxious head of the Nazi Organization for Motor Racing:
"Manure. Always around, unwanted. He would never have made it into our friend's circle".
It has been said that Elly tried to have her husband's funeral not treated as a spectacle for the ruling party, even threatining to walk out if it was, yet many of the officials spoke that day, and she was not in a position to make such demands and would not have left the services for her husband, under any circumstances.
And it's hard to imagine someone with the outgoing jovial personality of Bernd Rosemeyer being in agreement with those in charge of his country at the time. But perhaps the best evidence I've seen involves his Vanderbuilt cup win in New York City. A good portion of his winnings that day were deposited by he and his wife Elly into an account at a Bank in New York, where it remained until years later when Elly gave it to a group in the US trying to get Amelia Earhart memorialized on a postage stamp. One can only guess of their intentions. Elly would never say, but it would be reasonable that, knowing the political climate of the time, it was placed there because they intended to leave Germany if and when war broke out.
And it is equally hard to imagine him as an SS captain. As one writer put it "I could just see Bernd interogating British prisoners of war, with a bright light focused on them, saying 'What do you really think of my Donnington GP win ?' "
No, it's much easier to imagine him as the fun loving, good natured guy who did what he had to do to pursue his love of driving a race car, just as many of his peers at the time. I would prefer to remember him as a shooting star who burned out too quick, but was spectacular to see while it lasted.
Elly recieved condolences from many of the racing greats of the time, such as Nino Farina and Enzo Ferrari. Rudy Caraciolla gave a eulogy entitled "Your friend Rudolf Caracciola" that was published in German newspapers. Bernd was laid to rest beside his good friend Ernst von Delius, who himself was killed in a racing accident.
God Speed Bernd. You are gone, but not forgotten.