As interesting as the German cars, the pilots that drove them were just as colorful and unique. There was something about seeing streamline race machines capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph being driven by courageous men in open cockpits where they only stayed with great athletic effort. Unlike today, they were not protected with seat belts, roll bars, survival cells and the only deformable structure was the pilot. Routinely the drivers were pitched out of their cars as a result of high speed accidents. Amazingly, few died as a result of the racing. There were some notable exceptions, Dick Seaman in a Mercedes and Bernd Rosemeyer in an Auto Union being the most notable. Manfred von Brauchitsch told Nicholas Watts in The Motor Racing Art of Nicholas Watts that "driving these cars was akin to riding a wild horse. The only way a driver could stay in the saddle was to wedge his legs against the side of the car and hang on to the steering wheel." On some circuits, according to Watts, "Manfred could barely climb from the car after the battering a 3-hour race would give him."
The German cars were the result of rule changes for formula racing established in 1932 for the 1934 season. A car weight of 750 kilograms was mandated minus the driver, fluids and tires. Mercedes and Auto Union, a newer company with no racing history, decided to build unique answers to the problems of speed, endurance and durability. The Nazi regime provided seed money as they felt there were propaganda opportunities in highlighting German design and technological prowess through Grand Prix auto racing. Their stipend was split between two companies, though originally intended for Mercedes alone. Hitler was convinced that the competition between the two concerns might yield better results. Karl Ludvigsen in The Mercedes Benz Racing Cars points out that this was a Hitlerian management precept and used throughout the regime. The 450,000 Reich marks, which was the total amount of the Nazi participation, only amounted to about ten percent of any years racing budget for either firm.
Bugatti and Alfa Romeo dominated racing before 1934. Their response to the new rules was to conform their cars and not rethink the entire machine. The Germans showed up for racing with incredibly powerful cars that were light and agile. They had independent suspension on all four wheels, improved brakes, lightweight chassis materials, streamline bodies and in the case of Auto Union, a mid-engine configuration that is the custom today. Once the German cars were sorted out, for the next six years they swept everything before them. Occasionally a heroic effort would defeat them but it was more often machinery malfunction that allowed others to stand on the podium. Tazio Nuvolari, with his monumental talent, was usually the spoiler but even he gave up the chase and joined Auto Union for the 1938-1939 seasons.
Jack Juratovic's painting is of the 1935 German Grand Prix and the most famous instance where Nuvolari prevailed against a superior German team in his Alfa Romeo. Manfred von Brauchitsch in a Mercedes was leading towards the end of the race after having been doggedly pursued by Nuvolari. He chose to stay out and not change a tire and Tazio passed him for the win after it burst. It is doubtful that Nuvolari could have passed von Brauchitsch without the tire failure, but he positioned himself to win and it is one of the most remembered victories in history. In this piece Nuvolari and his red Alfa dominate the foreground and just behind is the Brauchitsch Mercedes in the process of losing the tire.
Once introduced, the Silver Cars did not remain static. They continued to develop new engines, chassis and suspension refinements and went through a series of models in both cases. Auto Union produced cars later to be famous as A through D-type and Mercedes responded with their W25, 125 and 154. Horsepower went from about 300 in 1934 to almost 500 with much higher rpm's by 1939. The other constructors eventually changed and adapted their cars to the new realities but were not competitive. The foundations Mercedes and Auto Union established in the early 1930s carried them to the outbreak of war and the end of the Golden Era.
There is no way to duplicate the experience that was 1930s Grand Prix racing. 350,000 people attended some of the events and the cars had distinctive exhaust notes and high whines from the superchargers. The speed of the cars must have been unbelievable to these audiences. Not until the modern era have racing machines been able to achieve higher straight line speed. Some of the "around the house" courses must have required earplugs from the reverberations off the buildings.
There is no lack of historical and photo essay books done on the period. There is also film and videotape that shows these monsters underway. One example is titled Racing the Silver Arrows Part 1 and Part 2. Some of the better books are Chris Nixon's three volumes, The Robert Fellowes Collection: Grands Prix, 1934-1939, Auto Union Album, 1934-1939 and Racing the Silver Arrows, which is the best single volume on the era. George Monkhouse has done Mercedes Benz: Grand Prix Racing, 1934-1955. Monkhouse was contemporary with these times and wrote Motor Racing with Mercedes-Benz in 1937 having traveled with the team for the season. He updated the work in 1948 with additional material on 1938 and 1939. His correspondence with Dick Seaman during this period has been the subject of Doug Nye's Dick and George. Probably the best book on the Nazification of the German racing effort and the tensions it created is found in Peter Stevenson's Driving Forces.
Many of these books are still in print or available in libraries and from used book dealers on the Internet. As interesting are the autobiographies of the contestants. Rudolph Caracciola has given us A Racing Car Driver's World, Hermann Lang wrote Grand Prix Driver and the irrepressible Mercedes team manager Alfred Neubauer kissed and told with Speed Was My Life. Though many would challenge the voracity of all of these books as to fact they are never-the-less interesting because they were written by participants. Alice "Baby" Hoffman-Caracciola, Rudi's wife, was interviewed for an article in Automobile Quarterly, which has published many other pieces describing this era. An index of Automobile Quarterly by title, author and subject has recently been completed of volumes 1 through 40 in two books.
Every automotive artist of the last fifty years has done at least one painting of the Silver Cars. To include all of them would run the article to 50 pages or so. It has been hard for these artists to resist the drama, personalities and design of the cars of this era. The machines are powerful visual statements, evocative of 1930s design and so recognizable. The pilots are still identifiable in the cockpits with their unique driving habits and mannerisms.
Walter Gotschke, who is most closely associated with these cars from an artistic standpoint, was Daimler-Benz' art director until roughly 1975. He illustrated numerous articles, sold a huge number of paintings and today is highly collected. He was a charter member of the Automotive Fine Arts Society (AFAS) and published a book of his paintings titled The Mercedes-Benz Racing Car. It is a limited edition of 2,000 and sometimes can be found unbound with loose pages suitable for framing.
This painting by Gotschke is of the hubbub surrounding the start of the July 25, 1937 Grand Prix of Germany held at the Nürburgring course in the Eifel Mountains. The drivers are standing around talking to guests and discussing pre-race strategy. Individuals are noticeable such as Alice Carraciola, most of the drivers, Alfred Neubauer, Korpsführer Adolf Hühnlein and many others. It is interesting to note that the Auto Union team members are to the left and Mercedes to the right and Nuvolari stands out in the background in his usual driving habit of yellow sweater and blue pants. It appears an airplane fly-by is in progress, a huge crowd is in place and Nazi flags, uniforms and technology is everywhere. German races were intended to be demonstrations of Nazi power…internal propaganda.
While there would be much saluting after the race which Caracciola won with Manfred von Brauchitsch second and Bernd Rosemeyer third, in a pre-race meeting Korpsführer Hühnlein told the German drivers that their custom of kissing girlfriends and wives before the start of a race was non-Aryan behavior and must be stopped. After all the pageantry and just before the cars were fired up all the German drivers got out of their cars and kissed their women. While confusing to the fans I guess it proved a point to the Nazi director of motor sports.
Ernst von Delius died as a result of a crash with Dick Seaman. He is identifiable in the painting as the short bald guy to the left. Told to move up as other Auto Union cars were either out of the race or far back in the pack, von Delius made an error in passing Seaman at 170 mph and crashed both of them. He was thrown from the car, suffering major injuries.
This charcoal drawing by Gordon Crosby is again at Nürburgring. It shows Bernd Rosemeyer in a C-Type Auto Union being chased by Tazio Nuvolari in an Alfa Romeo. The year is 1936. Bernd Rosemeyer won the race by almost four minutes over Hans Stuck, the other principal Auto Union driver. He supposedly commented to his wife, Elly Beinhorn Rosemeyer that it was a wedding present. They had been married 13 days before, Bernd's lucky number! 1936 was the most productive year for Auto Union. They dominated the Mercedes team who had changed the W25 car and not gotten it right. They struggled all year. Bernd was the recognized master of the Auto Union. He joined the team in 1935 and quickly became its best pilot. He was fearless and had a touch with the difficult to handle car that no one really matched. By 1936 this Silver Arrow had a 16 cylinder 6-liter supercharged engine that put out 520 bhp at 5,000 rpm. Its speed approached 200 mph depending on gearing. The car had a 50 gallon fuel tank within the wheelbase with the driver far forward. It was demanding because of rear-end swing as the car became lighter. The theory was that Bernd was able to make the minute adjustments necessary for total control quicker than most because of his motorcycle racing background. Both Achille Varzi and Tazio Nuvolari, who were motorcycle champions, also did well in the car.
Gordon Crosby is one of the most historically important and revered automotive artists. He may be responsible for the modern art form. He was the main illustrator for The Motor, the most respected of the early automotive publications. Crosby would attend the races and draw to illustrate the articles written by staff on the European racing scene. He was the first of a long line of British artists that have concentrated on the automobile. A wonderful collection of his work can be found in Peter Garnier, The Art of Gordon Crosby.
Carlo Demand was a charter member of AFAS. He is regarded as the consummate transportation artist, illustrating 17 books in his lifetime. The Big Race, published in 1955, is the most famous. He completed 128 charcoal drawings for the book to illustrate automobile racing from 1895 to 1955.
This piece is number 79 and shows the 1937 George Vanderbilt Cup Race held on Long Island. The race had a two year history. Nuvolari won in 1936 and Rosemeyer in 1937. The best of the European drivers and equipment participated against a mixture of American cars and pilots. The layout of the course did not help the Americans and the Grand Prix contingent won going away. The German interest was to win for the Führer and the Vaterland. It was to be a victorious display of German technology. The charcoal drawing by Demand shows Dick Seaman in the W125 Mercedes chasing the C-type Auto Union of Rosemeyer. The German teams traveled together to the United States on the Bremen, a luxurious art deco ocean liner. It was the honeymoon for the Caracciola's, Rudi and Alice Hoffman. Alice ran her previous husbands racing activities before meeting Rudi and falling in love. For several years she was involved with Louis Chiron, her lead driver. He was a very good friend of Caracciola and the three of them were particularly close after the death of Rudi's first wife, Charly, in an avalanche while skiing in 1933. The marriage complicated things for awhile.
Tazio Nuvolari on the westward voyage aboard the French liner Normandie learned that his son had died. He was deeply saddened but elected to race rather than immediately return home. An American, Rex Mays, finished third in an Alfa Romeo left from the 1936 race. He was quicker than any of the new Scuderia Ferrari Alfas in practice as well as the race. Caracciola was out early with supercharger failure.
The following painting is by Graham Turner, the son of Michael Turner who is the most famous contemporary British automotive artist. Accomplished in his own right, Graham painted this for the cover of Chris Nixon's book Rosemeyer!. It was a re-publication and expanded biography originally written by Elly Beinhorn-Rosemeyer about her husband. The book is an interesting and quick read if a little breathless about their relationship, her accomplishments as one of the best lady pilots of her day and Bernd's racing. The original book sold 300,000 copies, a runaway best seller for the time. The collage has Bernd's cars, the C-type and land speed Auto Unions, their portraits and Elly's airplane, a Messerschmitt Taifun. It was a high performance plane quicker than most if not all commercial aircraft of the day. She taught Bernd how to fly and they traveled many times together in the Taifun to races. Bernd one time landed it on the main straight of Nürburgring got out and strolled to his car. Rosemeyer was always a little unusual and unpredictable.
The era was as much about the people as the cars and no one had higher recognition than the Rosemeyer's. Elly was breaking long distance flight records for Germany, while Bernd was tearing up the Grand Prix circuit becoming one of the most gifted and charismatic drivers ever.
On a more serious note, Bernd, after winning the 1936 Eifel Race at Nürburgring was made a full member of the SS by an impressed Heinrich Himmler. At the time of his death he was a captain. Elly comments in the book that the Nazi focus was all bothersome but one had to do certain things to get along and you couldn't refuse... I wonder. Bernd supposedly had a humorous imitation of Hitler which Elly claims nearly got him in trouble on several occasions. Many of the drivers were tolerant of the Nazi involvement in their sport. Many learned how to correctly Sieg Heil after each win. The foreign drivers were a little less correct. There are many amusing photographs of Seaman, Fagioli and Nuvolari, among others, waving to the camera while the Germans are in full salute. Rudi Caracciola sat out the war in Switzerland, where he had lived for many years. Alfred Neubauer in his book claims he had to go to the airport and pull Manfred von Brauchitsch off a plane bound for Switzerland the morning of the Belgrade Grand Prix, the last race before war. The story seems fanciful since Manfred came form a Prussian military family and his uncle was a high ranking general.
The still life shown below of Rudi Caracciola's hardware is painted by Jim Dietz. Jim is a member of AFAS and paints historic airplanes, automobiles and military scenes for all branches of the service.
Rudi Caracciola has been described by Alfred Neubauer as the best driver he was ever associated with. Compared to Nuvolari, Rosemeyer, Lang, Chiron, Fangio, Moss and others he said Rudi was the best. He was driving champion three times and acknowledged as the best in the rain. He suffers by comparison to the drama of Nuvolari and charisma of Rosemeyer but his results were more consistent. He made outdated cars competitive and won when he should have with better equipment. He was the consummate professional and his trophy room and bank account proved it.
Dietz' still life shows many of Rudi's trophies and awards as well as personal effects from his racing career, all arranged around a bust of Caracciola and the nose of a Mercedes W125. The reference material comes from the Indianapolis Speedway Museum that houses and displays the Caracciola collection. It seems odd that Indianapolis would have these items as it would make more sense in a museum in Germany or the Daimler-Chrysler corporate headquarters. Donald Davidson, the Speedway Historian, explains Rudi Caracciola participated in the 1946 Indianapolis 500 and was seriously injured in practice. During his recovery, the Hulman's and Caracciola's became friends. After Rudi's death Alice was invited every year to the 500 as the guest of Tony and Mary Hulman. She apparently came often and stayed at the Speedway Motel. Upon her death she willed the memorabilia and trophies to the Speedway.
The title page artwork is a stunning picture of Caracciola standing in his Mercedes W25 after victory in the 1935 Tripoli Grand Prix painted by English and AFAS artist Peter Hearsey. In his soft impressionistic style Peter has captured Rudi's and the locals thrill with his victory. Peter is totally in control of his use of color and technique. A very evocative and expressive piece.
The Tripoli Grand Prix was the first of many victories in 1935, one of the great champion's best years. The race was particularly hard fought with Nuvolari early on and Achille Varzi right to the end. Caracciola won by a little over a minute from Varzi on Auto Union. Because of the heat, all the cars experienced tire failure and the race was dictated by pit stops. Varzi had won the Tunis Grand Prix the week before.
The race was on the fastest road circuit in the world and drew a huge starting field of 28 cars. The prize money was substantially more than usual because it was an Italian lottery race. Tickets were sold throughout Italy and its colonies. It was supervised by the Italian Governor of Libya, Marshall Italo Balbo who was a gracious host and gave the best parties on the circuit. Some of his victory banquets are legendary. There is a good description by Elly in Rosemeyer! of the one she attended.
If the Silver Cars are the most frequently painted race machines, Tazio Nuvolari is the most frequently painted driver. He was very expressive in the cockpit and the most recognizable because of his driving uniform of red or brown leather helmet and yellow sweater. He developed his own logo, a blocked TN and usually wore a gold turtle pin. In printed material the TN was on the turtle's back.
Most interested parties that attempt to answer the question who is/was the greatest race car driver? invariably mention Nuvolari. He would at least be on everyone's short list. He may even have even been a better motorcycle racer.
He started racing cars in early 1924 and finished in 1950. He did not know how to do anything else and he won races into his late forties. He drove Bugattis, Alfa Romeos, Maseratis and C and D-type Auto Unions. He was successful with all of them but perhaps is best known as a driver in the Scuderia Ferrari that raced Alfa Romeos. Before the German cars he won often for Ferrari and he was the only driver to win regularly after 1934 in inferior equipment. He joined Auto Union late in 1937 and became with Hans Stuck the principal pilot for the 1938 and 1939 seasons after the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in January of 1938.
His impact on the Italian racing fan might be compared to a refined Barney Oldfield and in popularity to Babe Ruth in the United States. His accomplishments are legendary and his name symbolizes every kind of daring and recklessness at the wheel to an Italian. He is a cultural icon. English artist Gary Whinn successfully captures the spirit of Nuvolari in this pastel. The Flying Mantuan, as he was known, was direct, talented and a gentleman in every respect. When he got behind the wheel of a racing machine his expectation was that he would win.
The next painting is by Walter Gotschke of Bernd Rosemeyer and the Auto Union record car. It's about 11am on January 28, 1938. It was a cold windy morning. People around the car are all bundled up and the man's overcoat, who is standing by the right front wheel, is being blown around. This piece is loose as Gotschke normally paints and the shine and reflection off the metalwork of the body ads to the slippery look of the record car. The record machine is in the process of being positioned relative to the course on a turn-table as there was only a minor turning radius because of the covered wheels and ground effects. The mechanics are then going to push-start the car.
Rosemeyer's car had been altered since October, when he set the original sped records, by raising the side panels to the tops of the wheel enclosures and creating ground effects by lowering the bodywork. Fairings were added front and back. These additions are clearly seen in the painting. Some cautioned Rosemeyer about how dangerous the course had become with a stiff cross wind which he shrugged off with his supreme confidence. On a warm-up run he attained a speed of 267.1 mph. He announced he was happy with the car and set off to regain his records. At full chat a cross wind caught the side of the car and blew it off course killing Rosemeyer who was ejected from the vehicle. The straight-through fender line acted like a sail and the side-force was more than Rosemeyer could compensate for. There is another explanation that would claim the downforce of the ground effects released because of a failure in the structure of the car and it simply was torn apart by the physical forces at work at over 250 mph. In any case Bernd was dead.
The Regenmeister by Peter Helck shows Rudi Caracciola in a Mercedes W154 at practice on the Nürburgring circuit, in the rain, in 1938. Peter Helck during a long lifetime was one of the most prolific automotive artists with something over 3,500 works done for private, corporate and museum clients plus various published books and articles. Peter was a serious historian and regularly contributed to such periodicals as the Horseless Carriage Gazette, Automobile Quarterly and Bulb Horn. His most famous books The Checkered Flag and Great Auto Races are important historical source books. He was a charter member of AFAS and is the most revered and collected American automotive artist.
The 1938 German Grand Prix was the first and only win by Dick Seaman at the highest level of the sport. He had been a standout in other classes of racing which had gotten him the offer to drive for Mercedes. But he seemed to lack something. Maybe it was just there were so many good drivers between the two German teams while the cars seemed evenly matched. He was the first Englishman to win a Grand Prix since the 1924 French Grand Prix won by Henry Segrave. Alfred Neubauer, the Mercedes team manager and Rudolf Uhlenhaut, the talented Mercedes engineer, liked him and felt he gave excellent feedback on car setup and behavior. Rudi Caracciola, while winning here five times over the course of his career, finished second with Hermann Lang driving his car for the better part of the race.
The Mercedes W154 owed much to the W125 of 1937. The company did not make the same mistake as in 1936 when they fiddled with the W25 and had a hard time winning. The new machine had a revised drive train (propeller shaft) that passed through the cockpit and lowered the car ten inches. Improvements to handling and aerodynamics kept the W154 as quick as the W125 with about 100 less horsepower. The new formula for Grand Prix racing effective for 1938 restricted engine size to 3 liters, supercharged, in an attempt to control the speeds. The W154 was very competitive with the D-type Auto Union and won often. Auto Union was is disarray because of the death of Rosemeyer and the firing of Hans Stuck. It was only later in the year that they got things sorted out and returned to the winners circle.
Nicholas Watts says the "W154 was an awesome beast." In his The Motor Racing Art of Nicholas Watts he has painted them in repose.
These kinds of paintings are just as interesting as cars pounding around the circuit. In this case it adds to the character of the machine and suggests the human interaction and effort to keep them running in practice and race conditions.
Nicholas Watts is a very accomplished English artist at the top of his craft. He does not specialize in any one era, but paints across all time periods and marques.
The end of the era is captured by Barry Rowe with this dramatic little work which has Nuvolari leading von Brauchitsch at the Belgrade Grand Prix in Yugoslavia. It is from his book Atmosphere and Light: The Automotive Paintings of Barry Rowe. Barry is a member of AFAS and displays yearly at Pebble Beach, Meadow Brook and Cavallino in Florida. He lives in Devon, England.
As mentioned before, one of the legends of the era is Neubauer fetched Manfred von Brauchitsch off a plane bound for Switzerland the morning of the race. I stated earlier that it is hard to believe this given his background and family connections to the Third Reich. However, in re-reading portions of A Racing Car Drivers World, Caracciola mentions that they stored Manfred's clothes in the Lugano villa. Why would they be doing this if he was not going to collect them?
There were only five starters for the race, two Auto Unions, two Mercedes and a local in a Bugatti. It was reported that von Brauchitsch was very erratic during the race, like he was thinking of something else. Nuvolari prevailed in the end by less than a minute. Manfred is driving the number 5 Mercedes W154 chasing Tazio Nuvolari in the sliding D-Type Auto Union.
The company had solved some of the cars handling problems by placing fuel on both sides of the cockpit and moving the driver closer to the center of the car. It has an elegant look to it. Unfortunately, the season just ended with the start of hostilities before any car could demonstrate dominance. Germany had invaded Poland by the second day of practice and England declared war on Germany by the start of the race. Before the race was over France was involved. Europe had been unsettled for the previous year and it had affected attitudes and effort.
Such was the interest in these cars that immediately after the war the British Government sponsored a report on the German cars which was re-published recently as Quicksilver: An Investigation into the Development of German Grand Prix Cars, 1934-1939.
There are few periods of racing that have excited as much interest, event attendance and sophistication of equipment as the era of the Silver Cars. They were so far ahead of their time that many of their accomplishments were not duplicated until Mercedes went racing again in the early 1950s. The speeds were not duplicated for another decade. Today's Grand Prix is highly technological, maybe even more so than the 1930s on a comparative basis but it is not as exciting. Other than advertising logos, drivers helmets and car color it is hard to spot any difference between the modern racers. The Silver Cars were unique and different approaches to the same formula and physics problems. The Auto Union A-type might as well have been from outer space compared to a Bugatti when they showed up in 1934.
While today's racing is safer and a driver can go end to end in the air three times and walk away as Mario Andretti did in a practice session, there is something about men who faced the challenges of staying in a cockpit of a highly sophisticated machine capable of 200 mph with no safety systems. They were giants and there were a lot of them. The people who raced the cars and were associated with the teams had color. The drivers were national sports hero's who regularly and spectacularly performed in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. They were interesting people. Some became legends.
Demand captures two of them, Lang and Rosemeyer at Avus in 1937
This is a reproduction of an article by Gary Doyle for the Journal of the Automotive Fine Arts Society
Reproduced with permission from the author.
© 2004, Gary Doyle
No part of this article nor any of the pictures may be reproduced without permission.
Last updated: 06.10.2004