The Nazis were horrible. Unfathomably horrible. Any time you think you've seen just how horrible they were, go to your local Holocaust museum, and it'll be so much worse than you thought. But the thing about them is, they thought they were better. And they tried to prove it on the road.
The Nazi ethos, at its core, was the belief that its invented concept of an "Aryan nation" was better than every other person on Earth. That ethos was obviously incredibly flawed right at its heart, so to help the German citizenry believe it, the German leadership decided it was going to prove it, somehow. They failed spectacularly at times, like when Jesse Owens successfully kicked Hitler in the face with each successive kick in his stride, winning four gold medals in track events at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
But one thing they did manage to set records in was with world land speed records. Setting land speed records accomplished two goals – one, it "proved" somehow that the Nazis were "better," and it showed off their fabulous new Autobahn. Now famous for containing some of the last unrestricted highways in the world, the Autobahn system that connected Germany was a point of pride for the racist regime.
Ironically, the Autobahn system of highways that connected Germany was originally opposed by the Nazis. Conceived by the previous Weimar government, the Nazis rejected them, only to totally embrace the idea of a national road network once they got into power. Because the Nazis were stupid hypocrites like that.
But automotive history is loaded with stupid hypocrites making interesting cars (looking at you, Ferdinand Porsche and Henry Ford). And some of those interesting cars happened to be the low, sleek streamliners, specially built just to break records. Records that stand to this day.
No matter the records, though, we should remember that these sleek speed machines were the product of a vast and evil propaganda machine, and their drivers were willing participants.
The Germans dominated Grand Prix racing in the 1930s, with automakers like Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union slugging it out in the "Silver Arrows." The Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen, which means record, uh,
wagon car, was derived from the original W125, which was a Grand Prix racer in its own right. It was quite a successful car, too, winning six of the 12 races it was entered in.
The W125 was highly modified for its record run in 1937, ditching the open-wheeled layout of track racing and trading it for some highly sculpted body work. Also ditched was the original inline eight cylinder engine, in favor of a 736-horsepower V12 that could be mounted lower in the belly of the car.
Every adjustment was made for top speed, from the new housing for the side-mounted exhaust to the two small inlets up front for the air intake. The radiator, which normally gets air from the outside to help with cooling, didn't get an air intake. Instead, it was stuck in a chest full of ice. Because when you're competing for the world record, a mere air- or water-cooled engine won't do. No, it has to be ice-cool.
One thing that wasn't adjusted in the car was its driver, Rudolf Caracciola. He was used to driving the original W125, so it wasn't a huge change for him. Caracciola, like most German racing drivers of his day, was a member of the NSKK, a Nazi organization devoted to cars. He made his way up in the world not only through his prowess behind the wheel, but also through a chance encounter with Adolf Hitler.
Hitler had ordered a Mercedes-Benz 770 in 1931, which is that car you always see Nazis being trucked around in from which they stood up and made that funny looking salute of theirs. Caracciola, being one of Mercedes' best racing drivers, was asked to make the delivery, and drove Hitler and his niece all around town. Hitler clearly took some sort of liking to the guy, as Caracciola's career advanced, but Caracciola later claimed the fascist nut didn't impress him very much. That didn't stop him from making enthusiastic public statements in support of the Nazis later on, but after the war he mostly went the route of "oh, I was totally not into that," and he was never officially a member of the Nazi party. So there's that.
On the 28th of January, 1938, Caracciola lined up his W125 Rekordwagen on the Bundesautobahn 5 and began his run. He eventually reached the mark of 268 miles per hour over the flying kilometer, which is a ridiculous, incredible speed to achieve on what is, even now, a public highway.
And 268 miles per hour remains, to this day, the record for top speed on a public road. 76 years later, nobody has been tempted to try and break it.
Ninety minutes after Caracciola set his record, it was time for his archrival to make an attempt. Not only was Bernd Rosemeyer also a successful racing driver, but he was a successful racing driver for Auto Union.
Today, you might know the remnants of Auto Union as Audi, but in the 1930s Auto Union was Mercedes' greatest foe. Its four-ringed logo derived from its four constituent car companies, DKW, Audi, Horch, and Wanderer, and everything Mercedes-Benz did, Auto Union tried to do better.
And so it came to pass that when Mercedes set the new record for the top speed on a public road, Auto Union had to beat it. They sent out Rosemeyer, their top driver, in their V16 Streamliner.
Like the W125 Rekordwagen, the V16 was a land-speed record car derived from a race car. Except instead of what would today be known as an open-wheel Formula One car, it was derived from the already-pretty sleek 1937 Auto Union Type C.
The Type C was created to compete at the Avusrennen, which was one of the fastest races in the world. A bit of a crazy track by today's standards, it was basically two six mile-long straightaways, with tight hairpin turns at each end, one of which was steeply banked. The North curve, with its big incline, was called "The Wall of Death," because there was no retaining wall. If you went too close to the edge, you flew off, and that was pretty much the end of you.
Because the cars developed for the Avusrennen were so fast already in a straight line, it didn't take much to turn one into the engineering basis for a world record holder. Extra body work was added, and Rosemeyer set out in the new Auto Union V16 Streamliner on the Autobahn.
That extra body work may have been what killed him.
Aerodynamics weren't understood back then the way they are now, and the thinking was pretty much that to make a slippery car even slippery-er, you just make it cut through the air that much more smoothly with the proper shaping.
What wasn't clear, though, was the notorious physics of ground effect. It's now theorized that Rosemeyer's V16 Streamliner may have become one of the world's first ground effects cars, which later revolutionized F1 in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Either that, or it was done in by a big gust of wind.
Unfortunately, ground effect doesn't really work unless the car that utilizes it has been truly created for it, with stronger suspension and chassis work. It's theorized that Rosemeyer's car may have broken under the extreme forces, sending the driver wildly out of control, onto the highway median to the left, at which point Rosemeyer may have overcorrected, and the car then shot to the right, where it flew into the air and hit a bridge embankment.
Rosemeyer was thrown out of the car, and killed. He very briefly may have topped Caracciola's record, but if he did, the mark remains unofficial.
It's unclear what Rosemeyer's Nazi leanings were, but he was essentially forced to become a member of Hitler's infamous SS when he met a young and famous aviatrix on the podium of a race he won in Czechoslovakia in 1935, named Elly Beinhorn. The couple was basically the Brangelina or the Bennifer or the Bernelly (I just made that one up, see) of their day. This was clearly a fantastic propaganda coup, and Hitler's right hand man and architect of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, invited them to become members of the Nazi murder group.
This was not exactly a thing you'd say no to, as you'd likely end up as one of their millions of victims.
Elly gave birth to a son, Bernd Jr., just ten weeks before his father's death.
The younger Bernd Rosemeyer is now an orthopedist. Because why not.
After the elder Rosemeyer's death on that fateful day in 1938, the Nazi desire for world speed records seemed to diminish. But only for a little while. By 1940, a third great Grand Prix driver, Hans Stuck, was itching for another shot at the top spot.
World War II was already raging by this point, so if a car was going to be built, it would take some serious personal connections to surmount the challenges that the war effort presented. Materials like metal and rubber were rationed, as was fuel.
Luckily for Hans Stuck, Hans Stuck was exactly that man. A personal acquaintance of Hitler's, they had met in 1925 on a hunting trip. Hitler wasn't really the close-personal-buddy kind of guy, what with all the murdering he was doing, but clearly the relationship was strong enough that Stuck was able to get placed back on his racing team in 1938, after being fired and/or quitting, despite the fact that his wife had a Jewish grandfather.
Stuck didn't want to just go for the top speed record on public roads, he wanted the whole shebang, the absolute record. To that end he enlisted Ferdinand Porsche to design a six-wheeled beast of a car, the Mercedes-Benz T80.
The T80 was originally intended to only target a top speed of around 340 miles per hour, which sounds like a lot, until competing British land speed records forced the target speed up to over 465 miles per hour by 1939.
Unfortunately for Stuck, the lack of real jet engine progress before the war prevented him from sticking a massive one from a plane onto his Merc, like his land speed successors later did. He did manage to get a plane engine, though.
The Daimler DB 603 which powered it was a true monster. A 44.5-liter V12 straight out of use in bomber aircraft like the Messerschmitt Me 410, it was fueled by a mixture of alcohol and avgas, with a pinch of ether, too. It put out near-as-makes-no-difference 3,000 horsepower, with the help of methanol and water injection boost.
Yeah, this ain't your modified Grand Prix racer.
The car was more than 27 feet long, and over the aforementioned six wheels, four of them were driven. The twin tails were supposed to keep it stable, and had a drag coefficient of only 0.18, which is kind of crazy for how huge it was.
When the T80 was first imagined, it was intended to run out on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. By 1940, when it was supposed to run, young men from Utah were getting ready to shoot Germans like Hans Stuck in a battle for Europe, so the attempt was instead planned for, of course, the Autobahn.
Even though the car was completed in 1939, even Stuck's personal connections couldn't keep the car intact for its big day. Shortly before its intended run, the huge V12 that lay inside was yanked out, so that it could be used in a bomber for the war effort.
The rest of the car amazingly survived the war, and now sits in the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart.
Hans Stuck survived the war, too, and later turned to become a total beast at hillclimb events.
Like Rosemeyer, Stuck also had a son that he named after himself. Hans-Joachim Stuck is no orthopedist, though. He won Le Mans, twice.
There were a few other streamliners during the Nazi era, and sometimes the cars were the same chassis modified a few different ways for different races. They were all beautiful, but the context in which they were created is incredibly sad.
These three, though, were the once and intended champions of the German land speed effort. Despite the horror they helped promote, they were beautiful.
More importantly, though, is that they were fast.
Photo credits: Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Wikimedia Commons User Morio