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Auto Union’s South African adventure



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Ernst von Delius, Bernd Rosemeyer


Auto Union Typ C, Auto Union Typ C


Grosvenor Park, Pollsmoor, Cape Town


I Grosvenor GP (January 16, 1937)


South African motor sport of the 1930s was a Spartan affair that saw an enthusiastic and dedicated motley crew of drivers and cars competing against each other. Once so often international drivers were also invited to show off their talents against the local speedsters and to spark some patriotism amongst the crowd.

The first foreign drivers that competed here were men like Whitney Straight and Richard Seaman, when they accepted an invitation to compete in the 1st South African GP that was held on 27 December 1934 at East London’s Marine Drive circuit. Later in the same decade, South Africans also had the opportunity to see well-known drivers like Villoresi, Wimille, Taruffi, Lord Howe, Mays, Lurani, etc. competing in various races in this country. Men that left an immortal impression over the years and that are still on the lips of racing enthusiasts worldwide.

It was, however, the visit of the Auto Union men early in 1937 that is still considered as the highlight of pre-WW2 racing in South Africa.

Brud Bishop, who was instrumental in organising and staging the pre-war South African GPs, met the remarkable Baron Klaus von Oertzen at a party one day, when the latter was the Auto Union representative in this country. Bishop, a shrewd promoter and an eternal optimist, tried to convince the German that if he could bring out the Auto Union racers to South Africa it would be a tremendous sales boost for especially the DKW models out here. In general German car sales would benefit from this visit. In the end Von Oertzen agreed and the team was informed to prepare for a racing excursion to the southern tip of the African continent where they would contest the 3rd South African GP in East London on 1 January 1937, as well as the 1st Grosvenor GP in Cape Town on 16 January 1937.

Much hype and media attention focused on the team’s arrival in December 1936. The two “silver bullets”, as they were dubbed by a local newspaper, were to be driven by Bernd Rosemeyer and Ernst von Delius. Both drivers had proved their brilliance in European races, but they were not well known amongst the general public in South Africa. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that news reporters had difficulty in deciding on a correct name for Herr Rosemeyer. Berndt, Berant, Bernard, Bernhardt, Bernhard were all names that was attributed to the German ace. One newspaper report even referred to him as Hans Rosemeyer.

Bernd was flown from Germany to East London by his new bride Elly Beinhorn, Germany’s most famous aviatrix in her own right, in a Messerschmitt Taifun aeroplane. The rest of the Auto Union contingent that arrived in South Africa included the two C-type supercharged cars, a team of eight mechanics, a scientist to test for coast carburetion density, a tyre specialist, a timekeeper and manager, and also their spares that included 500 plugs, 146 tyres of various sizes and 60 wheels.

The men from Zwickau were inclined to take the South African race as a venture not as serious as events in Europe. Tyre experimentation was also high on the agenda.

3rd South African GP, Prince George Circuit, East London (1 January 1937)

The Auto Unions were brought to the circuit on the back of a lorry for the 2-hour long trial runs that were held on Monday, 28 December 1936. That afternoon von Delius was the first driver to go on to the circuit. For a couple of laps he felt his way round the many sharp bends and lapped at under 90 miles an hour.

Later it was Rosemeyer’s turn and he shot away, and after a steady first lap proceeded to do the next lap of 11 miles 57 yards in 6 min 2 sec. After he visited the pits for a tune-up he went out again and lapped the circuit in 6 minutes dead for an average speed of 110 miles an hour. This was done while there were about 14 other cars circulating on the track.

It was expected from Rosemeyer to average 108 miles an hour in the race, considering his pre-determined handicap, so he was immediately seen as a race favourite after the trial runs. Von Delius did not corner as well as his compatriot and this was mainly the reason for his slower lap times. Both the German aces were concerned, though, that the track was too narrow and bumpy and that this characteristic would sideline the Auto Union’s abilities.

Foul weather on the day before to the race, as well as fog on New Year’s Day morning, nearly led to the postponement of the race. Luckily the mist broke by noon and at 13h30, the 60,000 spectators saw the four limit men tore away from the start, while the remaining 20 competitors followed at intervals that were determined by their handicap times. Bernd Rosemeyer’s Auto Union was the last car to leave the start-line, exactly 52 min 53 seconds after the limit men departed. Von Delius had left the start 2 minutes 5 seconds before Rosemeyer. The entrants with their handicap times were as follow:

Race No. Driver Car Handicap  
1 Les Miller MG L Magna 52:53  
2 Hector Wiggill Ford 10 Special 52:53  
3 E.R. Nesbitt MG Magna 52:53  
4 A.W. Payne MG NA Magnette 52:53  
5 Tom Scheckter Brooklands Riley 49:38  
6 Buller Meyer Riley Ulster 48:33  
7 Francis Chiappini Riley Special 48:33  
8 Dennis Woodhead * MG NA Magnette 46:28  
9 Johannes van den Dool * Bugatti Type 37 46:28  
10 Vernon Berrange * Willys Special 34:58  
11 Herbert Case Ford V8 Special 34:58  
12 Mickey Hooper * Talbot 105 33:14  
13 Roy Hesketh MG "R" type 33:14  
14 Lionel Meyer Bugatti Type 35 31:32  
15 James Clarke Riley Sprite 31:32  
16 Billy Mills Aston Martin Ulster 31:32  
17 Kay Petre (Mrs.) Riley 28:13  
18 Cyril Paul Riley 28:13  
19 Pat Fairfield ERA R4A 28:13  
20 Bobby Bothner Bugatti Type 35B 25:04  
21 Bill Roderick Alfa Romeo Monza 20:37  
22 Richard Seaman Delage 15S8 17:48  
23 Earl Howe Bugatti Type 59 16:27  
24 Piero Taruffi Maserati 8CM 11:16  
25 "Mario" (M. Massacurati) Maserati Type 6C/34 6:30  
26 Hans Ruesch Alfa Romeo 8C-35 6:30  
27 Ernst von Delius Auto Union Type C 2:05  
28 Bernd Rosemeyer Auto Union Type C scratch  
* did not start      

A frantic battle was raging amongst the earlier starters, but the crowd was soon on their feet when the phenomenal Auto Unions began attracting their attention, with flames shooting from their stubby exhausts. They were storming down the track and lapping at steadily higher speeds. Von Delius who had to average 106mph, soon lapped at 92mph and then at 110mph, while Rosemeyer rose in lap speeds to a best lap of over 114mph. The crowd were incredulous as the two silver bullets tore round the circuit. Past the grandstands, Rosemeyer and von Delius, heedless of the roughness and narrowness of the track they had noted before the start, tore down the straight at 180mph.

After about 5 laps the German cars were in trouble, though. The experimental synthetic tyres that they had opted to use could not cope with the pace of the cars and road surface. Rosemeyer, with the canvas of his nearside rear tyre stripping away rapidly, showed no sign of slacking. Pit stops where his downfall, though, and he had to make no less than 5 stops during the race to change tyres. In one such incident he swung round Potter’s Pass, the last corner before the pits, at about 135mph. One hundred and fifty yards from the pits the tyre cover blew completely. The crowd saw in amazement how the car slid broadside for the next 50 yards before Rosemeyer again gained control. He wrestled the car in on the wheel rim before stopping in his pit in a shower of stones. The team changed all four wheels on the car and also refuelled it within 48 seconds. The despondent driver was shouting at his mechanics and pointing to his tyres during stops.

If Bernd could just made one pit stop less during the race, he surely would have won the race with an average well above his set mark of 108 mph, but he had to be satisfied with fifth place in the end. First place went to Pat Fairfield in an ERA, followed by Buller Meyer (Riley Ulster), Francis “Steve” Chiappini (Riley Special) and Hans Ruesch (Alfa Romeo). If it were not for the handicap system under which the race was held, Rosemeyer would have run away with the race on scratch. After the race he told reporters that he must have touched nearly 200mph on the fast Orange Grove back section of the circuit. Spectators mentioned that it seemed to them that his car took off only to touch the ground every 15 yards.

Von Delius was in even more trouble than his teammate during the race and after a few pit stops due to shredded tyres, he eventually came into the pits on lap 17 to retire for good with terminal tyre problems.

The final result of the race that was held over 18 laps, was as follows:

Result *

1(5) Pat Fairfield ERA R4A 2 h 13 min 37,6sec 89,17 mph
2 Buller Meyer Riley Ulster    
3 Francis Chiappini Riley Special    
4(2) Hans Ruesch Alfa Romeo 8C-35    
5(1) Bernd Rosemeyer Auto Union Type C 1 h 50 min 12 sec 108,16 mph
6(4) Earl Howe Bugatti Type 59    
7 Cyril Paul Riley    
8 Herbert Case Ford V8 Special    
9 Les Miller MG Magna    
10(3) "Mario" Maserati Type 6C/34    
11 Kay Petre Riley    

dnf A.W. Payne MG Magnette   lap 3
dnf Tom Scheckter Booklands Riley carburettor lap 3
dnf Billy Mills Aston Martin Ulster oil pressure lap 3
dnf E.R. Nesbitt MG Magna accident lap 5
dnf Roy Hesketh MG "R" type supercharger lap 5
dnf Hector Wiggill Ford 10 Special broken steering lap 7
dnf Bill Roderick Alfa Romeo Monza accident lap 7
dnf Dick Seaman Delage broken hub lap 8
dnf Piero Taruffi Maserati 8CM   lap 8
dnf Lionel Meyer Bugatti Type 35   lap 10
dnf James Clarke Riley Sprite accident lap 14
dnf Bobby Bothner Bugatti Type 35B   lap 14
dnf Ernst von Delius Auto Union Type C tyres lap 17

dns Dennis Woodhead MG Magnette practice accident  
dns Johannes van den Dool Bugatti Type 37 engine problems  
dns Vernon Berrange Willys Special engine problems  
dns Mickey Hooper Talbot 105 engine problems  
* handicap result (scratch result in brackets)    
Fastest lap: Bernd Rosemeyer (Auto Union Type C) in 5 min 46,4 sec (114,69 mph)  

1st Grosvenor Grand Prix, Grosvenor Park, Pollsmoor, Cape Town (16 Jan. 1937)

The Grosvenor Grand Prix was held on 16 January 1937 and despite qualms about their handicap times the Auto Union team decided to take part.

The Grosvenor GP was the brainchild of a British tycoon, Mr. A.O. Edwards, who was the chairman of Grosvenor House, a luxury hotel in London. When he extended his business and property interests to South Africa, he appointed two local men to plan and built a racing circuit near Cape Town. The track was built in less than six months on a section of the farm, Pollsmoor, near the villages of Steenberg, Retreat and Tokai. The first owner of the farm, which was situated about 15km due south from the Cape Town city centre, was a chap with the name of Hendrik van der Poll.

The circuit covered a length of 7.56 miles and was 8.3 metres wide on the straights and up to 15.2 metres wide on the corners. A run-off area of 12 metres wide surrounded the whole circuit. Spectator facilities were excellent and included a purposely-built grandstand that had seating for nearly 2,000 people.

Practice was held on Thursday, 14 January 1937, in gusting southeasterly winds. The Auto Union team was quite concerned about these weather conditions. Rosemeyer said that he could not hold his car straight at full speed and that the dust on the circuit was so thick that he could not see the corners even when he was going into them.

The entrants with their respective handicap times were as follow:

Race No. Driver Car Handicap
1 G. Anderson * Austin Ulster 39:40
2 N. Clayton MG C Type 39:40
3 F. Chiappini Riley Special 36:11
4 D. van Riet Austin Brooklands 36:11
5 M.E. Bothner Bugatti Type 35B 35:01
6 V.C. Berrange * Riley Offset 35:01
7 R.O. Hesketh MG R Type 32:50
8 K. Petre (Mrs.) Riley 24:38
9 W.H. Roderick Alfa Romeo Monza 20:48
10 C. Paul Riley 20:48
11 R.T. Rohr * Bugatti Type 35 19:52
12 P.G. Fairfield ERA R4A 15:26
13 Earl Howe ERA R8B 13:42
14 Earl Howe * Bugatti Type 59 10:27
15 P. Taruffi Maserati 8CM 9:39
16 "Mario" (M. Massacurati) Maserati 6C-34 8:50
17 H. Ruesch Alfa Romeo 8C-35 5:47
18 E. von Delius Auto Union C 2:06
19 B. Rosemeyer Auto Union C scratch
  * non starter    

Punctually at 14h30 the first of the 15 competitors was flagged off to start the race over 45 laps (340km) in fine, but very windy conditions. The organisers had arranged to send off each starter under his national flag.

Scratchman, Bernd Rosemeyer, was shown the Swastika 39 minutes and 40 seconds later than the limit drivers, who had already covered 9 laps by that time. Von Delius left 2 minutes 6 seconds earlier to his teammate. Baron von Oertzen worked out a strategy where Rosemeyer would save his tyres and thereby limiting his pit stops. Ernst von Delius was given the order to drive flat-out and to change tyres as often as he was flagged in.

After he had completed 8 laps, Rosemeyer was flagged in, but he ignored the pit signal. He eventually pitted after 18 laps and it only took his team 41 seconds to refuel the car and change all four wheels. He steadily lapped in the region of 132km/h. The other Auto Union in the hands of Von Delius was also going great guns and at times it seemed that he and Rosemeyer almost frightened the other competitors off the course. Von Delius had pitted as early as his 7th lap and had the edge on his teammate throughout the race.

As the race grew to an end excitement inevitably increased. With four laps left Lord Howe in an ERA was leading from Von Delius, but then had to pit to change plugs. Ernst was set to take the lead, but was at the same time flagged in for a final tyre change. Earl Howe roared away from the pits, in the lead. It however took Von Delius just one lap, after his pit stop, to catch the Englishman, much to the dismay of some supporters in the crowd.

Rosemeyer was then given a signal from the pit to speed up. This he did and by doing so he not only set the fastest lap of the race at 83.73 mph, but also overtook Howe’s ERA to clinch second place by a narrow margin of 10 seconds. Despite of poor visibility due to the dust on the circuit and also the fact that he was recovering from a bout of tonsillitis, Rosemeyer gave a performance that had the Capetonians on their feet for the final couple of laps.

It is interesting to note that Von Delius covered the race in 2 hours, 31 minutes and 39 seconds and that Rosemeyer’s time was 2 hours 31 minutes and 14 seconds. Considering the 2 minutes 6 seconds head start that Von Delius had on Rosemeyer, the result suggested that Rosemeyer would have won by 25 seconds if they started together. During the race Ernst made a total of four tyre stops while Bernd had managed with two. Von Delius was a popular winner, though, and was heartily congratulated by his fellow competitors after the race.

Von Delius won £750 and the Grosvenor Floating Trophy, while Rosemeyer won £250 and a plaque. To put Von Delius’s prize money in perspective, it was worth the price of nearly four DKW sedan cars. The race programme carried an advertisement for the DKW/Auto Union dealer in Cape Town and they were selling the DKW sedan for £197 at the time.

In general the race provided a great spectacle, but the organisers made quite a financial loss. They made provision for a crowd in the order of 120,000 people, but in the end not even half that number showed up.

The final result was as follows:

Result *

1 Ernst von Delius Auto Union C 2 h 35 min 39 sec

80,37 mph

2 Bernd Rosemeyer Auto Union C    
3 Earl Howe ERA R8B    
4 Pat Fairfield ERA R4A    
5 Hans Ruesch Alfa Romeo 8C-35    
6 Kay Petre Riley    
7(1) Doug van Riet Riley Brooklands    
8(2) Bill Roderick Alfa Romeo 6C    

dnf Cyril Paul Riley bearings lap 2
dnf Piero Taruffi Maserati 8CM supercharger lap 3
dnf Roy Hesketh MG R type plugs lap 4
dnf "Mario" Maserati 6C radiator lap 15
dnf Bobby Bothner Bugatti Type 35B con rod lap 22
dnf Neville Clayton MG C type engine lap 30
dnf Francis Chiappini Riley Special engine lap 37

dns George Anderson Austin Ulster    
dns Vernon Berrange Riley Offset    
dns Ralph Rohr Bugatti Type 35    
dns Earl Howe Bugatti Type 59 competed in ERA R8B  
* scratch result (handicap result in brackets)    
Fastest lap: Bernd Rosemeyer (Auto Union) in 3min. 14,1 sec. (83,73 mph)  


In compiling the item on the Auto Union team’s visit, the following newspapers were consulted and proof to be invaluable in the contemporary reports that they covered:

Brud Bishop’s South African Grand Prix as well as the ever-popular Sun on the Grid (Ken Stewart/Norman Reich) empowered me with additional information.

André Loubser’s excellent article on the Grosvenor Grand Prix that featured in CAR magazine (March 1984) also deserves credit.

Entrant lists were obtained from the official race programmes in my private collection and the late Peter Macintosh’s meticulous records of South African race results were used to compare and to add to my own race statistics.