14 Oct 1909 - 28 Jan 1938

65 years ago, on 28 January 1938, Bernd Rosemeyer, one of the most exceptional racing drivers in racing history, was killed in a world record attempt when his Auto Union Streamliner rolled over several times at some 430 km/h on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn.

Italian motor journalist Aldo Zana has digged deep into the Auto Union archives and done an in-depth research on the accident, based on first-hand reports, i.e. articles, witness statements, internal AU memos and drafts.

I'm proud to have the opportunity to publish this document with a new, quite controversial idea of what might have happened, here at "The Golden Era":


As Aldo assumes that the reader is familiar with the events of 28 January 1938 I have added a short introduction here with some drawings to assist the readers to follow Aldo's document. Therefore the document opens on a new page, making it possible to jump between the text and my pictures. I recommend that you also take a look at my speed records page.

During the 30s the German National Socialistic regime had recognized the propaganda value of speed record attempts on "die Autobahnen", the new German highways. But by 1938 the speeds had gone up by 115 km/h in just three years and were coming close to the limits of human reaction. The road was just 8 meters wide and the track went under several bridges with central pillars. With such a speed as the German cars now reached the driver only had to turn the car one degree and he would have a wheel up in the grass in less than 1.5 seconds. The race for speed had reached what Chris Nixon calls "lunatic extremes".
      Of course the drivers hated it and considered that a run demanded as much concentration as a whole Grand Prix race. In fact Bernd Rosemeyer had collapsed after a 5 km run in October 1937 and had had to be lifted out of the cockpit.
      Early in the morning 28 January 1938 at the highway between Frankfurt and Darmstadt Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz broke the road speed records for 1 km and 1 Mile flying start that Rosemeyer had set during the "Rekordwoche" in October 1937. On the first southbound towards Darmstadt run Caracciola made the flying km in 8.40 seconds and the flying mile in 13.42 seconds. His return run back towards Frankfurt went even faster with times of 8.24 s & 13.38 s.
      The Auto Union team was immediately ready to re-take the record. A car had been completely rebuilt by Professor Eberan-Eberhorst from experience gained by recent wind tunnel experiments. Even if it wasn't completely understood at that time, the Auto Union technicians had, by covering the underside of the car with "skirts", in fact created something that well may be called a ground effect car. At about 11 a.m. Rosemeyer started his first run. He had no wish to fool around more than neccessary and immediately selected a high speed configuration with all new fairings in place.
      The starting place was near the 2 km mark on the highway so a distance of some 5.5 km was reserved for the cars to accelerate before the timed sector started. The finish line for the 1 km run was at 8.6 km and for the Mile run near the 9.2 km mark. The car then had to make a return run in a restricted time period for the record to be valid, the mean of the two times giving the end result.
      Rosemeyer made a fairly slow first stint (9.17s/14.82s) but during the return run he reached a speed of 429.9 km/h (8.39s/13.61s). The engine had not reached the optimum temperature during the first attempt and Rosemeyer decided to have a second try. The radiator was closed a bit more and the air escape outlets under the car were also closed, at that time probably considered a minor change, and Rosemeyer started on his final run at 11.46 a.m. One and a half minute later after passing the 1 km finish line at a speed of approximately 432 km/h the car moved left towards the grass, returned in a slide, rolled over and disintegrated in a series of somersaults. The events can be followed in the picture below. Bernd Rosemeyer was found in the woods over 100 m from the wreck. His heart was still beating when Dr. Gläser reached him but it stopped shortly afterwards.
      Caracciola's run in the morning of 28 January 1938 remains to this day the fastest ever made by a car on a normal road.

During a discussion with Gerald Hennig in 2010 he was able not only to show me that the clearing had a rather venturi like shape and confirm it was continuing on the other side of the road but also to show me a detailed variant of the plan of the accident where, unlike the variant found in Kirchberg's "Grand Prix Report", the position of the marker pole "f", obviously hit by the car is seen. He also provided evidence that the left front tyre, even if pulled off the wheel remained intact, a fact that to him could indicate that the car had slided sideways and hit the pole with the rear wheel.

The controversial lower and upper fairings that converted the
Auto Union into a ground effect car, 40 years before Lotus 79.

The place in 2004. From North, the memorial stone, from South. Images courtesy of Wolfgang Knoke.


© 2004 Leif Snellman, Wolfgang Knoke - Last updated: 11.11.2010