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

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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 remarkable Whitney Straight – Part 1: racing driver

It is undoubted that wealth and privilege could get you a long way in the age of adventure – but not without talent. One man who enjoyed more talent and privilege than most was Whitney Willard Straight.

Whitney Straight flies the mighty Duesenberg at Brooklands

Whitney Straight flies the mighty Duesenberg at Brooklands in 1934

Born in New York in 1912, Straight’s mother Dorothy was the beautiful heiress of prominent American politician and banker William Collins Whitney; a man who was credited with founding the modern US Navy in the 1880s.

His father, Willard Dickerman Straight, was an aspiring politician and financier who also involved himself in journalism and publishing – launching The New Republic magazine in 1914. This glamorous young couple married in Switzerland and moved to Beijing until Dorothy became pregnant with Whitney, having two more children – Beatrice and Michael – two years apart.

During the early years of World War 1, Willard Straight did considerable campaigning in America to support Britain and France against Germany. When the United States finally entered the conflict in 1917, Straight joined up and became a pivotal member of the US staff but succumbed to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 on the eve of the peace negotiations, leaving Dorothy to carry on philanthropic work in his name.

In 1920, Dorothy met and fell in love with Leonard Knight Elmhirst, an Englishman studying at the Cornell University. The university was one of the major causes of her and Willard’s life, and after Elmhirst had completed his studies and carried out philanthropic missions in India, Africa, Southern Asia and South America, he and Dorothy were married in 1925.

Dartington Hall, where Whitney Straight arrived age 13

Dartington Hall, where Whitney Straight arrived age 13

The couple moved to England, together with the three children, where they settled upon Dartington Hall in Devon as a new family home. While his mother and stepfather involved themselves in plans to revive traditional rural life among the population, young Whitney developed an abiding passion for speed and mechanization.

By the time he was 16 (long before he was allowed to hold a licence), Straight had accumulated 60 hours of flying time. He duly went up to Trinity College at Cambridge where, in 1931, he decided to become an international racing racing driver. It was clear that there was talent which he demonstrated at the wheel of a Brooklands Riley – often piloting his own aircraft to different events while keeping a weather-eye on his studies!

It was not long before Straight met a kindred spirit at Trinity – a younger student called Dick Seaman, who was being groomed for a life in the diplomatic corps but who, like Straight, also wanted to be a racing driver. Straight encouraged Seaman to follow his passions – which he did, but only after convincing his parents that a Bugatti Type 35 was the ideal student runabout!

Straight's contemporaries: Dick Seaman, Prince Bira of Siam and Count Felice Trossi

Straight’s contemporaries: Dick Seaman, Prince Bira of Siam and Count Felice Trossi

Straight, meanwhile, spent the 1933 season attacking a full schedule of both national and international events with his supercharged MG Magnette and a 2.5-litre Maserati that he bought from Sir Henry Birkin. Star performances took him to victory in the Brooklands mountain championship, Mont Ventoux Hillclimb, Brighton Speed Trials and the Coppa Acerbo Junior, putting the precocious American firmly on the map.

His talent and speed were evident and Straight himself even felt confident that he could take on the Maestro, Tazio Nuvolari, without fear – particularly if it was raining. Such was his confidence at the end of the 1933 season that Straight decided to drop out of Cambridge altogether and set about building a team with operations in Italy and Britain.

Straight ordered three of the new three-litre 8CM Maseratis direct from the factory and took delivery of two for the start of the season – together with three racing transporters, all of which being painted in the American racing colours of blue and white. These two 8CMs were passed over to Reid Railton for custom modifying at Thomson & Taylor. The modifications included different fuel tanks, different cockpit arrangements and the installation of a Wilson preselector gearbox.

The Wilson gearbox worked well enough but it sapped power and added weight. Frustratingly for Straight, the one time it failed cost him a certain victory in the Casablanca Grand Prix. The cars were certainly a talking point in the sport, and the most striking external feature of the Straight Maseratis was the replacement of the slab-fronted Italian radiator grille with a stylish heart-shaped cowl which was to become a Straight trademark.

Whitney Straight on his way to seventh at the 1934 Monaco GP

Whitney Straight on his way to seventh at the 1934 Monaco GP

To drive with him, Straight signed Hugh Hamilton, Marcel Lehoux and Buddy Featherstonehaugh. Among the key figures involved with the team were future Jaguar giant “Lofty” England, Reid Railton and Bill Rockell.

Fortune also smiled upon Straight’s ambitions when it became clear that Alfa Romeo’s celebrated chief engineer, Giulio Ramponi, had resigned his position with Enzo Ferrari’s team. A deal was quickly struck and the Adrian Newey of his era came into the employ of this young American star.

Nevertheless, while there was racing genius behind the experimental developments being carried on his cars, even the might of Whitney Straight’s wallet met its match with the arrival of the government-backed giants from Germany. The works teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, with the full backing of their factories and the government, meant that even the indomitable Straight’s ambitions faltered beneath this technological blitzkrieg.

A 1935 Auto Union streamliner - Whitney Straight declined it

A 1935 Auto Union streamliner – Whitney Straight declined it

The 1934 season ended with a trip to South Africa. To make it a memorable occasion, Straight decided to fly his own aircraft, a de Havilland Dragon, down to East London for the race accompanied by Ramponi, his younger brother Michael and Dick Seaman.

Michael Straight had never raced a car before, but was entered in a four-litre Railton sports car developed by Jack Shuttleworth. Seaman was to drive Straight’s old MG, while Straight himself had the Maserati 8CM. Overloaded with fuel and racing spares, the plane ran out of runway while taking off in Rhodesia and landed in a ditch – but the party managed to effect repairs and carry on to reach their destination.

The six-lap handicap event is today considered to have been South Africa’s first Grand Prix – and Straight won it with panache. Nevertheless, this was to be his last competitive performance, for it was clear that conventional Grand Prix machines such as the Maserati were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans.

Straight (leading) knew that a privateer car couldn't beat the Third Reich's racers

Straight (leading) knew that a privateer car couldn’t beat the Third Reich

Initially, Straight decided to buy one of the German cars. Mercedes dismissed his advances out of hand but Auto Union did seriously consider selling him one of its 1934-specification V16s. Ultimately the team chose – or was quite possibly ordered – not to allow a foreign team to enter a German car, but instead invited Straight to join the works Auto Union team for 1935.

Having spent much of 1933 and 1934 travelling through Europe, Straight was only too keenly aware of the ways in which the ‘silver arrows’ were a propaganda tool for the Third Reich – and that taking up such an offer could only be an endorsement of Nazism.  While he had no interest in pursuing the pastoral, philanthropic ideals of his mother, father and stepfather, there was also no way that Straight could conscionably support Hitler.

Without a German car, Straight had no means of winning at the top level. So it was that after just one promising season the talented and determined young man abandoned his motor racing career. He made sure that Ramponi had a profitable business to run in Britain and also ensured that his services were available to Dick Seaman, who had completed a strong season in the MG through 1934 and, having reached his majority and inherited sufficient funds, was about to make the step to international racing in an ERA voiturette.

The ex-Straight 8CM in historic racing action

The ex-Straight 8CM in historic racing action

Straight, meanwhile, began to investigate the means of turning his passion for aviation into a profitable business. It became his new mission to ensure that, in the face of an increasingly bellicose and militaristic Germany, a culture of air-mindedness was fostered in Britain.

A new chapter was beginning in the life of Whitney Straight, of which more in Part 2…

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

Sites we like #3: Lief Snellman’s Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing

The chronicle of great races by Lief

The chronicle of great races by Lief

Dear old Lief has been chronicling the pre-war Grands Prix with skill and detail for more than a dozen years. If ever you need a reference for the ‘Silver Arrows’ in particular, then look no further.

The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing

Porsche’s Greatest Strength (through joy!)

It is the summer of 1937 and, in the run-up to the annual Eifelrennen on the twisting, rolling Nürburgring circuit, the Auto Union grand prix team receives a welcome visit from the man to whom they owe their very existence: Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.

Of late Porsche has been only a sporadic visitor to the team, because he is understandably preoccupied by his latest venture as managing director of the “Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH” or “Gezuvor” for short (translated as the “Company for Preparation of the German People’s Car Ltd”)

The Volkswagen – rebranded by the Nazi government investors as the KdF-Wagen as part of its ‘Strength through Joy’ economic reforms – shares much in common with the mighty Auto Union grand prix cars – not least its suspension design and rear-engined layout.

So who better to hand the latest prototype to than the racing team’s lead driver, Bernd Rosemeyer? Bernd, who has flown himself to the Nürburgring in a Bücker Jungmann trainer aircraft that he landed on the pit straight, sets out for a jaunt in Porsche’s latest marvel while Dr. Porsche looks on – what impressions the future ‘Beetle’ made upon the racing ace we can only guess!

Dr. Porsche sees his latest masterpiece head out into the unknown...

Dr. Porsche sends Rosemeyer out into the unknown…

Bernd and Elly, 1936

They were the most glamorous and celebrated couple in Nazi Germany… each of them winning honours in the technological marvels that were being produced throughout the pre-war days of the Reich.

In this photo we see them just weeks into their marriage. Elly Beinhorn, the celebrated aviatrix, embraces her victorious husband Bernd Rosemeyer after he has won the 1936 German Grand Prix.

She is already a record breaker and hero. He is about to claim the European Championship for Auto Union at only his second attempt against the might of Mercedes-Benz and the experience of Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

Together they are the human face of those years of astounding German achievement…

Auto Union star Bernd Rosemeyer with his wife, aircraft pilot Elly Beinhorn