There once was a girl called Elly…

It had passed the S&G by, but a made-for-TV biopic was made of the life of Elly Beinhorn a couple of years ago by the German channel ZDF – and seems to have received some fairly glowing reviews. Most of the glow appears to have been targeted towards the Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps, who played the feisty aviatrix – which seems fitting enough.

Surely for any actress, filling Elly’s flying boots would be a fairly daunting prospect. On this occasion it seems that the all-female team of producer Ariane Kampe and director Christine Hartmann picked a winner.

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Vicky Krieps as Elly Beinhorn in ZDF’s movie Alleinflug

Elly’s story itself is the stuff of legend: a middle-class girl from Hannover falls in love with the idea of flying and defies her family’s wishes to make record-breaking solo flights to Africa, around Mount Everest and all the way to Australia. The media made her a newsreel star and celebrated photojournalist – although when she was at her zenith that media was the state-controlled propaganda machine operated by Josef Göbbels.

In 1935 Elly meets the love of her life: the Grand Prix racing driver, Bernd Rosemeyer. There is a will-they won’t-they romance while she wrestles with fears of losing her hard-won independence, but then the couple are joyously united to become the ‘Posh and Becks’ of the Third Reich.

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Bernd and Elly in their recreated courtship

The couple welcome their first child, Bernd Jr., in late 1937 but then Rosemeyer is killed on a blustery morning in January 1938 during a foolhardy record breaking run on the Frankfurt-Darmstadt autobahn. Our girl Elly is bereft but still she rises, with her little boy and her love of the skies. Fine stuff, indeed.

It’s all very beautiful and glamorous and there is much to savour, from Elly’s time stranded with the Tuareg in the Sahara to the sight of her Klemm and Messerschmitt aircraft floating artfully through the sky.

Interestingly, the good folk at Audi Tradition were obviously brought in to support the film with their Auto Unions and pre-war paraphernalia.  This is interesting because they usually fight shy of placing their silver arrows anywhere near a period setting, for fear of the dreaded swastika appearing in shot with what is the centrepiece of Audi’s worldwide heritage PR programme.

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Audi Tradition weighed in with a V16 (not sure about the modern pit trolley, though!)

Perhaps it is Audi’s presence that puts the government of the day so far out of the spotlight in the film, when in real time the swastika was plastered all over the exploits of both Bernd and Elly – whether they liked it or not. In Elly’s own accounts they did not like it one iota… although subsequent research by German historians certainly calls Bernd’s reluctance into question.

Nikolaus von Festenberg, reviewing the film in der Tagesspiel, felt that this was the one important element missing from the film, saying: “The apolitical celebrity couple served, whether they knew it or not, the Nazi regime. Today’s filmmakers need to make clear the traces of brown in the shadows… it is not silenced when the hero remains silent.”

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It was pretty hard to avoid the swastika at a German team in the Thirties

All things being equal, however, it’s a well-deserved film of a woman well worth naming one’s daughter after, if an adventurer she be. The real Elly Beinhorn lived to 100 years of age, feisty to the last and an inspiration to many.

Should the chance arise, do treat yourself to an evening with Alleinflug. The DVD is available on Amazon but it hasn’t yet made it on an overseas release so there are no subtitles. No doubt some enterprising soul will put it out on the internet before long, though. In the meanwhile here’s a rather nice picture of Bernd Rosemeyer Jr. with the actors who played his parents… a nice touch, I thought.

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Bernd Rosemeyer Jr. with the leading man and leading lady

Fitting AVUS into the living room

Flat-out in Berlin – and in miniature

We love a bit of slot car racing here at the S&G – be it Scalextric, Carrerabahn or anything wild and wacky. Not much can compare with this layout in the latter stakes – a recreation of Berlin’s mighty AVUS circuit in its 1930s prime.

At the time of opening, AVUS was 19½ km (12 miles) long – each straight being approximately half that length. Before the 1937 AVUS-Rennen the North Turn was rebuilt to become a towering banked curve made of bricks and tilted at 43 degrees in order to maximise the speed of the cars. As the AVUS race did not count towards the championship, the use of streamlined cars, similar to the cars used for high speed record attempts, was permitted.

Given their vast weight and speed, all of the streamliners had holes cut into their bodywork to allow drivers to check on the condition of their Continental tyres. Blowouts were one risk to life and limb but so too were the aerodynamic forces at play – in practice Hermann Lang’s streamliner was fitted with covers over the wheels and, while doing roughly 390 km/h on the straight, enough air became trapped under the to lift the front wheels lifted from the ground.

While Mercedes struggled to configure its cars appropriately, the Auto Union team had a much less dramatic time and Bernd Rosemeyer set a time of 4m 4.2s (averaging 284.31km/h or 176.7mph). Such feats and glorious spring weather prompted a crowd estimated at 400,000 to witness the races – staged in two heats and a final – from which the overall winner would pocket 12000 Reichmarks. The winners of the heats would get 2000 RM, second place 1000 RM.

That prize ultimately fell to Lang for Mercedes in an event that has rightly been set into legend – and now it has been recreated – in spirit at least – for smaller scale racing.

The daunting North Turn at AVUS in 1937

There’s clearly still some work to do on the scenery, but even at this early stage it’s clear that a masterpiece is taking shape.

The view from Howe’s Corner

Almost all of the various Brooklands circuits remain, despite the passing of years. Motor sport gave way to the aerospace industry in 1939, and since BAe left it has been absorbed into the urban sprawl with light haulage, out-of-town shopping and the gigantic Mercedes-Benz showroom now crowding the space that lies within Brooklands’ concrete-banked perimeter.

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

As such one can always dig out a little something to take home – a snapshot beyond the fabulous Brooklands Museum tour. One such is Howe’s Corner and the smaller crossing of the River Wey made by the Campbell Circuit – see map below.

The Campbell Circuit today - Howe's Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit today – Howe’s Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit was built as an answer to demand for more of the European-style ‘road racing’ with circuits which were formed of closed roads, such as Spa-Francorchamps or Brno. All motor sport on the British mainland had to take place within private land and, by the mid-1930s, the circuit around Crystal Palace was enthralling Londoners while nationally the picturesque Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire was attracting racers and crowds with its twisty parkland layout – and even had its own Grand Prix.

Brooklands was under threat and as a result this new layout was debuted in 1937, which saw runners thunder round the steep Members’ Banking and down the Railway Straight as usual, but then brake sharply for a hairpin left, Railway Turn, back into the infield just before they reached the main part of the aerodrome.

Railway Turn effectively doubled back on the Outer Circuit along Solomon Straight before entering a long, looping right-hander called Aerodrome Curve. The bulk of this bend still exists; the frayed old concrete now ringing the Mercedes-Benz skid pan and display area before setting off down Sahara Straight, which is now used by Mercedes as part of its young driver training course.

Howe’s Corner was a left-hander towards the river (taken looking back towards Sahara Straight)

Sahara Straight led into a ninety-degree left-hander: Howe’s Corner. It was then a quick squirt on a narrow straight, incorporating a second crossing of the River Wey, on a service bridge before crossing the Finishing Straight of the main track and joining the parallel Campbell Straight. The straight turned sharp right at the Test Hill Hairpin and swept away uphill into the left-hand Banking Bend – this now acting the members’ entrance to the Museum, rejoining the Members’ Banking in what is now the Gallagher HQ car park.

In the picture above the white B-Class of the Mercedes-Benz driver tuition fleet is just driving around the outside of Howe’s Corner in the wrong direction, about to join the Sahara Straight. Nevertheless it is easy to imagine Prince Bira hammering towards this vantage point in one of his sky blue ERAs, elbows working away against the kick in the steering as he powered onto the short straight that included the river crossing, shown below.

The bridge over the Wey is currently blocked off and broken but remains in 1939 trim

The bridge itself was hugely important as it allowed aircraft built at the Vickers works to cross over the Wey to reach the aerodrome for onward flight. Now it is, like much of the rest of the Brooklands site beyond the Museum, a little careworn and lying in the shadow of The Heights business park, which now covers the Vickers/BAE works as well as the returning Campbell Straight from this road course.

The bridge over the Wey as it looks today

To reach Howe’s Corner and the bridge, one simply needs to take a stroll down to the bottom of the Museum car park to the end of the gravel path. It’s a fairly restful spot now, as the traffic heading to and from the A3 is carried on an overpass at this point. Well worth a visit and to conjure up a little spot of the sport’s rich heritage.

Howe’s Corner and the bridge in their heyday

Now that’s some locomotion

Doing a little more about trains seemed to be a good idea. So what could be more in keeping of a place at the S&G than the beautiful, streamlined LMS Coronation Class locomotives – the most powerful ever to have turned a wheel on the British network…

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Power is one thing – and that came in the form of around 3,300hp twinned with astonishing torque from its four cylinder engine, which saw the valve gear driving the outside valves directly and the inside valves via rocking shafts in William Stanier’s design. But it’s the fabulous art deco lines of these locomotives, from the pen of the chief draughtsman at the LMS works at Derby, Tom Coleman, which really defined the type.

The first five locomotives, Nos. 6220–6224, were built in 1937 at the LMS works in Crewe. They were streamlined and painted in the rich blue of the Caledonian Railway with its rakish silver piping to match the coaches of the Coronation Scot express service from Euston to Glasgow that was to be the principal service for the breed.

The speed with which express services could make the run from London to Scotland delivered enormous prestige to the two competing lines – LMS to the west and the London and North Eastern line to the east. LNER had hogged the limelight with the Flying Scotsman but the sleek new Coronation class attained 114mph on test and would complete its scheduled journey in just six and a half hours, stopping just once at Carlisle for crew change and to pick up and set down passengers.

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

LMS adverts proclaimed the strength and speed of the Coronation Class

Impressive though the speeds attained by the Coronation class were, they also ended the era of high speed demonstrations after it proved rather difficult to rein in the big beasts in order to negotiate mundane but potentially treacherous sections of track. A white knuckle ride awaited passengers on the 114mph run when they reached Crewe and were unable to slow down to the required 50mph, staying on the rails but causing chaos in the restaurant car and kitchen.

The second five locomotives of the class, Nos. 6225–6229, were also streamlined but their elegant lines were not painted blue and silver, but rather the traditional LMS hue of crimson lake with gold horizontal stripes. The problem was that the benefits of the wrap-around streamlined body of the Coronation class were only felt above 90mph. At normal speeds and in the maintenance sheds, the fabulous styling was simply a hindrance.

The Coronation class eventually totalled 38 locomotives, which served through World War 2 and through until the last was retired in 1964. They were shorn of their beautiful streamlining and painted in rather more plebeian liveries – wartime black without coachlines and later black and green under British Railways operation – but their character endured and enchanted successive generations.

After the abandonment of steam, three of these fabulous engines were preserved and one, No. 6229 Duchess of Hamilton, was recently returned to her full streamlined glory. She resides in the National Railway Museum in York and remains a thrilling sight more than 75 years after her debut.

The Duchess of Hamilton today

The Duchess of Hamilton today

Back in business…

The S&G office is now ready to go, complete with a signed photo of Manfred von Brauchitsch smiling beatifically out upon one’s workspace and an art deco cabinet for putting PR samples of automobilia in… hint hint.

At home with Manfred von Brauchitsch and Ian Fleming

There are also some vintage Pan covers from some of James Bond’s greatest adventures lining the wall. It’s the blind, you see, that gives the place an air of… well, of Goldeneye I think.

That's the way to write... now, where's my cigarette holder gone?

That’s the way to write… now, where’s my cigarette holder gone?

Gladiator Survivors #1 – RAF Museum, Hendon

The Gloster Gladiator was the first aeroplane to really get my attention. I don’t actually remember the occasion, being rather young, but my parents took me to The Shuttleworth Collection where my particular excitement about the ‘Gladys’ – Gladiator being a bit of a mouthful – entered family folklore. I’ve also sought out as many as possible of the survivors…

This old stager has sat in a corner of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Hall since the day it was built. Two squadrons of Gladiators were sent to France in 1939 and not one aircraft survived the Luftwaffe’s assault when Hitler finally pushed west in May 1940. A further two squadrons were on the strength of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, hence the longtime presence of K8042 in the Hendon display.

The RAF Museum's Gladiator, K8042

The RAF Museum’s Gladiator, K8042

Delivered to the RAF in 1937, K8042 immediately went into storage, where she stayed until 1941. Gladiator aircraft were meanwhile making a name for themselves elsewhere in the world – most famously in the defence of Malta but also in Greece, North Africa and the bizarre but vicious little battle for control of Iraq’s oil fields where British and Iraqi forces both flew Gladiators against one another.

It was at this time that K8042 emerged from storage to try out some of the improvised ‘enhancements’ being made in the field, such as recreating the six-gun ‘Bloodiator’ that was hastily thrown together in a desperate bid for more firepower on Malta. This was not a success – in fact spent bullet casings from the extra guns caused considerable damage!

Thereafter the Gladiators were mothballed once again, although K8042 was used briefly for a propaganda film about British heroism in the defence of Greece. In this fictitious scheme she was stored for most of the next 25 years, save the occasional appearance for ceremonial duties, before being restored to pre-war colours in 1968 and then put on display in the new Battle of Britain Hall at Hendon in 1978.

The RAF's first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

The RAF’s first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

For more information on the Battle of Britain Hall at RAF Hendon, go to the website.

The mystery of Seaman’s grave

Last month I paid a visit to Dick Seaman’s grave for the first time in a few years. I had almost forgotten that February 2013 marked what would have been his 100th birthday, but this pre-war hero has been a constant companion over the years so it seemed an appropriate moment to catch up.

Dick Seaman’s grave, February 2013

In fact it was thanks in no small part to the late Richard John Beattie-Seaman that I became a member of the accredited Formula One media. I wrote a little story about this young man who looked like the one character that Ralph Fiennes was born to play in what could be the most astonishing movie ever made. A few people liked it and soon enough I was on a plane to cover the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Of course, we used to think that we knew everything about Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. We had contemporary newsreels and race reports but more than this we had the testimonies of the survivors, credulously recorded by the most esteemed scribes in motor sport.

The trouble was, of course, that many of the survivors didn’t half tell some whoppers. If you read their autobiographies, interviews and the great works of automotive literature that they inspired, the only insights on offer from the greatest sporting stars of the Third Reich were that Adolf Hitler was a curious little chap with an amusing moustache.

Dick Seaman's Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Dick Seaman’s Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Then, in the late 1990s, came a change. For the first time a German writer, Eberhard Reuss, took an interest in the Silver Arrows. Here was someone with time to dig deep in archives written in his mother tongue, and who dedicated time and talent to follow evidence that was never going to be accessible to the mainly British chroniclers who preceded him.

Suddenly there was much less to laugh about… although that’s another story in itself.

Poor old Seaman never had the opportunity to tell tall tales of how he cocked a snook at the jumped-up little Austrian corporal and his cronies. He died from the severe burns that he suffered in a crash while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

Today, his tombstone may be fading fast but the grave itself is conspicuously well kept – just as it always has been.

When the fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union heritage cars gathered for their over-blown ‘reunion’ at last year’s Goodwood Revival I was chatting with another historian and the subject of Seaman duly cropped up. ‘As far as I can tell,’ said he, ‘maintaining Seaman’s grave is probably the last of Hitler’s direct orders that is still being carried out.’

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

It’s one of those little comments that will always raise an eyebrow. It tantalises when, after all, the fact is now long established that appointing a British driver to the propaganda machine that was the ‘Silver Arrows’ required sign-off by Hitler himself.

That was in 1937, and for two-and-a-half seasons Seaman drove well while making himself at home in the Third Reich. Indeed, he even married the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of BMW’s founder Franz Josef Popp. This was exactly why he was approved: to underline Hitler’s good intentions toward Britain and display the virtues of the Reich to the British public.

Unfortunately for the Führer, nobody listened.

When Seaman took his first and only Grand Prix victory it should have been manna from heaven to the media. This dashing young Englishman beat a phalanx of all-conquering German drivers in their home race at the Nürburgring – with a spectacular fire in the pits to boot. But of the 14 daily newspapers in Britain only the Daily Mail gave it even a cursory mention.

Afterwards, in 1941, while the Luftwaffe’s bombs were raining down on British cities, the racing team owner Prince Chula of Siam wrote his biography Dick Seaman Racing Motorist. Even in those dark days he felt it important to emphasise that after Seaman’s death ‘…orders came from Berlin that he was to be given full honours.’

Indeed he was. The German ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, stage-managed proceedings including liaison with Seaman’s widowed mother over the funeral arrangements. He also ensured that Mercedes-Benz’s British importers, headquartered in London’s Camberwell Road, ensured that portraits of the fallen star were prominent in all dealerships across the country.

At the service itself in Putney Vale, the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams were present along with Ambassador von Dirksen and other dignitaries. It was said that the German contingent kept a low profile but many accounts remarked upon the gigantic wreath of white lilies with a red sash and a swastika, bearing the inscription ‘Adolf Hitler’.

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman's funeral

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman’s funeral

When leaving Putney Vale this year, I suddenly remembered my colleague’s allegation that Seaman’s grave was being tended at Hitler’s bidding. Thus a little detour was made to the cemetery offices and, after a bit of digging through files by the extremely accommodating staff, the answer came back: Mercedes-Benz has always tended the grave, they said.

Out of courtesy I called up Mercedes-Benz UK’s press office the next morning to find out more. “Oh! We had the cemetery on the phone yesterday,” said the helpful girl who answered. “Can we call you back?”

A short while later Angus Fitton from the Mercedes-Benz PR team rang to say that, in fact, they had no knowledge of who tends Seaman’s plot and indeed never had. “Since the question came up I’ve checked this with Stuttgart and can say categorically that Mercedes-Benz would not impinge upon the family’s private arrangements on such a personal matter,” he said.

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

I did remind Angus that the Beattie-Seaman family was effectively extinct. Dick left behind only an ageing mother and elder half-sister with whom he had no known contact throughout his life. His young German widow emigrated to the USA during the war and died in 1990 after two further marriages. Was he sure that they were somehow footing the bill?

“Richard played a very big part in Mercedes’ competition history of course, and we honour that memory at events like the Goodwood Revival last year,” Angus said. “But we would never directly involve ourselves in the private memorial of an individual driver.”

Golly! I thought. This was getting interesting.

Angus’s statement also came as news to the Official Mercedes-Benz Club, to whom I put in a call to check if they had anything about it in the archives. After all, Mercedes-Benz UK has only existed since 1990, so perhaps there might be a prior arrangement that the friendly young folk of Milton Keynes might not be aware of?

“Mercedes pays a small fee to the cemetery every year to keep it tidy,” was the response. “They always have done.”

Other graves around the Seaman family plot are long forgotten

Much as I would like to believe that there is a stack of post-dated cheques written in 1939 that gets passed, as some sacred rite, from each Superintendent at Putney Vale Cemetery to the next, I’m inclined to believe that payment is made annually. And that, despite protestations to the contrary, it is made by Mercedes-Benz.

I’m also inclined to believe that, despite such a ludicrous response, this is not in itself  evidence that Hitler’s last unbroken order is carried out in a Surrey suburb each year. It is simply yet another example of the cack-handed airbrushing of history that has been going on throughout the German automobile industry for almost 70 years.

This story should have been a positive one for those involved. One unseen little act of kindness each year does not atone for the Third Reich, but it does reflect an enormous credit on those responsible.  If only they had wished to accept it.

The way Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember the 1930s: no swastikas in sight

Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember their past with swastikas omitted