Being There

Wherein our author imagines himself in Europe watching BMW prepare for—and win!—the 1940 Gran Premio Brescia della Mille Miglia, the last big road race before World War II.

Photo: Being There 1
October 12, 2010

Stepping back in time, author William Edgar plays fictional witness to BMW’s racing activities in the late 1930s, when the 328s were dominating racetracks and the world was edging toward war. But though the journal may be a literary invention along with the author’s presence, the facts and the photos it contains are real.

Wednesday, February 16, 1938

I’m sailing by steamer from New York for Le Havre, France, en route to Brescia, Italy and the Mille Miglia. I’ll also be visiting Munich and the Bayerische Motoren Werke, hoping to see how the racing program has progressed since Ernst Henne won at the 328’s Nürburgring debut in June of ’36. I’ve been following these cars ever since I witnessed that surprising victory in Germany two summers ago, and I’m eager to see them race in this year’s Mille Miglia.

I have with me my faithful Leica III and 50mm Leitz lens, and plenty of Kodak Panchromatic film plus a few rolls of Agfacolor-Neu, to capture what I see for reporting on BMW racing in Europe.

The newspaper I picked up before boarding has more on Adolf Hitler’s gall earlier this month to promote himself to Germany’s supreme military commander, which has added to the fear that he’ll heave his so-called “Third Reich” into war before long. Already there’s fighting in Spain, and so much is unstable all over Europe. But I must concentrate on why I am going there—for the cars, the racing. Am I delusional? Time will tell.

At dinner, I met an elder shipmate who knows BMW 328s inside and out. He insists they’re the most advanced of today’s sports cars, describing in detail Kurt Illmann’s class win driving one in last August’s Freiburg-Schauinsland hillclimb. He said, too, that these 2-liter cars had impressed even those who’d come solely to watch the grand Silver Arrows of Stuck, Caracciola and Rosemeyer. He added that Adolf Brudes set fastest sports car lap and won with the 328 at Hohensyburg, then he promised to introduce me to BMW racing boss Ernst Loof when in Munich. We toasted his pledge with Armagnac L’lzaute ’26.

We were later joined by an enthusiast from Marseilles who insisted Bugatti’s “Tank” is superior to all other cars in endurance and speed, as proven with its win at Le Mans last year followed by two Delahayes and a Delage—French, of course. He pointed out that all three German BMW-motored entries had retired, but I cited one that did not, a 328-powered Frazer-Nash in which Pat Fairfield collided with René Kippeurt’s Bugatti Type 44, killing them both. These have been dangerous, contentious times, on and off the track.

Photo: Being There 2

Monday, February 21, 1938

France! All here are apprehensive over British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s frail attitude toward Italy and Germany, a situation considerably more distressing and perilous than Americans at home might imagine.

In any case, my immediate aim is to get quickly by rail to Brescia, where BMW’s 328 works team will test for the upcoming Mille Miglia. The German roadsters will arrive early in March by road, driven from Bavaria over the Brenner Pass and crossing the Italian frontier. They’d best be wearing heavy coats, taking into account that Northern Italy is on the same chilling latitude as Maine.

Some motor-racing fans I’ve met over here are full of expectations about a Berlin-to-Rome race planned for the German Autobahn and Italy’s Autostrada. “Faster than the Mille!” they predict. “With motorbikes, too!” In all, they say, 34 BMW 328s are to compete in the 2-liter class.

Problem is, Benito Mussolini’s military move into North Africa has “for political reasons” postponed this Berlin-Rome invention. The proposed race in itself is clearly propaganda to rally Germans and their Italian allies in case there’s a war soon, but it would still be quite a spectacle.

Monday, March 14, 1938

Brescia. BMW’s Mille tests hereabouts are favorable enough, even though the 328s aren’t as fast as the Alfas, causing heated dialogues in the city’s cafes. Allies they well may be, but German and Italian pride in their automobiles is unshakable.

I’m staying at the Hotel Vittoria and have met the BMW drivers headquartered here, including Britons Albert Fane and his navigator, Bill James, who will do the Mille’s 1,000 miles from Brescia down to Rome and back in their factory-prepared 328 roadster. At Le Mans last year, this same BMW driven by Fane and Aldy Aldington DNF’d with a broken timing gear.

Photo: Being There 3

Monday, April 4, 1938

At scrutinizing two days ago in Piazza Vittoria, I was introduced to Alfred Kempter, engineer in charge of BMW testing. I shot a picture of him looking quite confident while seated in Fane’s 328 number 113, and was told that all the BMWs are prepared to last the full thousand miles.

From the start of the Mille Miglia at two o’clock yesterday morning, I’ve remained in Brescia compiling notes from check-point reports as 141 cars sped south to Cremona, Piacenza, Bologna, Florence, Siena and on to Rome, where they headed back north through Perugia, Ancona, Bologna, Ferrara and Venice to conclude the Mille Miglia here in Brescia.

First to finish was Clemente Biondetti’s supercharged Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B ahead of two other Alfa team cars driven by Carlo Pintacuda and Piero Dusio. 1-2-3 for Alfa Romeo and glory for Italy. Alfisti here in Brescia refuse to stop celebrating!

Though much overshadowed by the Italian triumph, BMW still has its own victory among 2-liter cars. After the Alfas, a Delahaye, a Talbot and another Alfa, Fane and James are 1st in the 2-liter class and 7th overall in their 328, followed by the 2nd, 3rd and 4th in class 328s.

The BMW contingent cannot be more pleased. With little expectation of an overall success, every effort was made to win the under-2,000cc class and the worthy recognition that goes with it.

Wednesday, April 6, 1938

I’ve the good fortune to catch a ride north in one of BMW’s trucks used to service the Mille cars, and so go with Bavarians into Germany. Putting off Munich until later, my destination will be Hamburg and the city park races there the second Sunday in May.

Photo: Being There 4

The Anschluss of Austria is now history and Nazi dogma—Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer—is heard everywhere. At the same time, our realm of motorsport seems held apart from the rise of Nazi terror and demands. It’s an odd sort of clique, and we clearly understand the regime’s fixated interest in machinery if there’s to be war. Automobile racing here has gained a status of privilege. In addition, the few Americans in Germany are the most preferred of foreigners. How strange it all is.

Sunday, May 8, 1938

Hamburg’s City Park Races are over, and I say good for that. Intermittent rain and hail pounded the 80,000 who came out to watch, I and my wet Leica among them. Regardless, the all-BMW 2-liter contest was an enormous success. Paul Heinemann’s win created enough excitement—and promise of more—for me to book a hotel in Antwerp for the upcoming Sports Car GP there.

Monday, May 23, 1938

Yesterday at the Antwerp course I stood with Ernst Loof along with his four-car 328 team leader, Prince Max zu Schaumburg-Lippe. Both were wearing proper suits, with the BMW drivers all in white coveralls, goggles and headgear—an imposing sight. Ralph Roese’s privateer 328 won the Challenge Trophy race and special honor from the Royal Belgian Automobile Club. I’m saving news clips from Motorvelt detailing yet another 328 victory before I leave by rail for next week’s races at Avus.

Sunday, May 29, 1938

There were nine BMW 328s in today’s Internationales Avusrennen here in Berlin, where Illmann used the 12-mile circuit’s fast Autobahn straights cut through the Grunewald forest to average 95 mph and win ahead of second- and third-place BMWs. Only 20,000 spectators were counted, probably because the sports cars were anticlimactic after 1937’s big race, when the treacherously swift Mercedes and Auto Union Silver Arrows streamliners ran 160 mph here.

Today, swastika flags snapped ominously in the breeze atop towers overlooking the Avus’ high north banking. I have been reading Motor und Sport about a BMW privateer who’s doing quite well on these German circuits in his 328 roadster, painted black unlike the many white BMWs seen. He is Fritz Huschke von Hanstein, a young aristocrat from Wahlhausen-Unterhof, who arrives ready to race with his own transporter and mechanic provided for or aided in some way by the Waffen-SS. Huschke, he’s called, has both driving skill and an obvious sway with the regime—someone to keep an eye on.

If I were in the States now, I’d be at the Indianapolis “500” to see how Floyd Roberts with the Miller car does tomorrow from pole against the Offenhausers. I miss the big oval more than I thought.

Photo: Being There 5

Tuesday, May 31, 1938

The Berlin wire reports Roberts won. Good for Harry Miller’s engine in showing Wilbur Shaw’s Offy who’s tough, and fast!

I’ve decided, finally, to go down to Munich for a while—BMW will not attend Le Mans this year—to see what the factory is preparing for racing even though there will be no Mille Miglia next year. A Lancia crashed outside Bologna during this year’s Mille and killed ten spectators, forcing cancellation of the race for 1939.

We also hear that the Berlin-to-Rome speed marathon is being postponed once again. In propaganda, they say, promise is as effectual as truth, sometimes more so.

Monday, June 20, 1938

In the 24 Hours of Le Mans yesterday, French cars and drivers finished first through fifth, followed by two German Adlers. I didn’t go, choosing instead to soak up the Old World splendor here in Munich. Its heart, for me, is the Residenz Theater opera house where Mozart himself conducted. I’m told that last year the führer attended a gala performance here of Aïda and lavished roses on the prima donna “borrowed” from La Scala in Milan. The bouquet’s sash bore Adolf Hitler’s name in gold. But yesterday, lost in Figaro, I was without thought of dictators, racing cars or anything other than Amadeus’ stage.

And today I had my first look at the BMW factory in Lerchenauer Strasse, and I was very impressed. With the design and development activities going on, and from what I have seen and heard, BMW is bringing new strength to racing in the 2-liter class. Most interesting is work being done to create faster, more stable cars for competition. Professor Wunibald Kamm has drawn designs from aerodynamic testing while using a wind tunnel.

Wednesday, June 22, 1938

Packed and ready for time-off in England, I had bid auf wiedersehen to Munich until next year when I found myself peculiarly drawn to 45 Brienner Strasse, the Munich offices for Hitler, Himmler, Göring, Hess and others.

Photo: Being There 6

Was I afraid that I might not see Munich again before war breaks, if and when? The edifice’s grim façade of Paul Troost’s architecture, this Nazi “Brown House,” as it’s called, gave me a sudden chill. If there’s war in Europe, will Britain be pulled in? And America?

Saturday, June 10, 1939

Back in France again for this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans a week from today. The evening news here is that King George and Queen Elizabeth toured the New York World’s Fair this morning, taking in the Merrie England exhibit at the Perisphere and a show of 25 girl bagpipers in kilts. More seriously, Parliament is deeply concerned over the recent Pact of Steel signed by Germany and Italy that unifies the two powers in their plan to “reorganize” Europe. Motor-racing, though, is more tangible for those devout professionals who live by it.

While Professor Kamm has continued to wrestle with stability problems on his closed car design, Herr Loof and staff have somewhat desperately enlisted Carrozzeria Touring to body a streamlined BMW coupe for Le Mans, rushing a 328 chassis in an Opel Blitz truck from Munich down to Milan. Touring has used the shape of a 1938 Le Mans Alfa coupe for the BMW profile, and the car has been finished just in time for Le Mans. How typical in racing!

Saturday, June 17, 1939

A sunny day here at Circuit de la Sarthe. Swarmed about by adoring French and foreign spectators alike, the sleek blue “Tank” of Jean Bugatti’s design is on hand again, this year as a supercharged 3.3-liter driven by Jean-Pierre Wimille and Pierre Veyron. Fresh from Milan, the white 2-liter BMW Touring coupe has Prince Max zu Schaumburg-Lippe and Fritz Hans Wenscher poised to drive. There are also two open 328s, one with Ralph Roese and Paul Heinemann, the other with Willi Briem and Rudolf Scholz.

Sunday, June 18, 1939

It was glory today at Le Mans for the BMWs. Averaging 82.53 mph over 1,976 miles, the 328 Touring coupe won its class and scored fifth overall behind the winning Bugatti, a Delage and two Lagondas. A well-earned victory for the Bavarians.

Saturday, August 12, 1939

The summer is almost gone, and so much has happened since Le Mans! The crisis over Danzig, the Reich’s demands on Poland, Nazi U-boats sighted in the North Atlantic, Polish troops on guard at their borders. Hitler and Stalin have become strange bedfellows in their non-aggression treaty—and Europe is mobilized for the inevitable.

Photo: Being There 7

In a blow to France and all of motor-racing, Jean Bugatti was killed last evening while testing his Le Mans-winning “Tank” on a closed section of road near the factory at Molsheim. He tried to avoid a postman on a bicycle, lost control of the race car and hit a tree.

Sunday, September 3, 1939

Just as he did in Prague six months earlier, the Nazi führer has now sent his invading army into Poland, leaving England and France no rational choice but to declare war on Germany.

Friday, October 20, 1939

With England’s and France’s rejection of Hitler’s so-called “peace offer,” the Nazi dictator vows to fight to the end in Europe. That has indefinitely scuttled the planned Berlin-to-Rome race and a rumored multi-nation London-to-Cape Town tour of 11,000 miles over 45 days, and which would have included the BMWs. Instead, tanks, trucks and troops are on the march.

But there’s still the Mille Miglia for 1940, crazy as it may seem. Rather than follow the usual route from Brescia to Rome and back, the NSKK [National Socialist Motor Corps] chief Adolf Huhnlein and FASI, a Fascist federation of teams and drivers, announced plans to close-off roads for a 103-mile circuit through Italy’s level Po Valley.

As in the past, the race will still start and finish at Brescia and will triangulate at Cremona and Mantua. The Gran Premio Brescia delle Mille Miglia, as it’s called, will be run in nine laps and will field some 80 starters in five classes, with five BMWs favored for the 2-liter category.

Wednesday, January 10, 1940

Three ships were sunk off the British coast today in an attack by Nazi planes, and fear is that total war is not far away. It’s hard to concentrate on motorsport in times like this, but much is happening in that realm.

Photo: Being There 8

BMW’s Fritz Fiedler and Wilhelm Meyerhuber are pursuing Dr. Kamm’s aim for an aerodynamic closed 328, derived from his wind tunnel tests. To help cure the stability problems, they’re working from a chassis nearly eight inches longer than standard. This, of course, is done under racing boss Loof, but signs of the job being rushed are evident in the car’s bodywork.

Wearing two winter coats, I went out to the Munich-Ramersdorf Autobahn to wait for the new Bügelfalten 328 roadster, named from the “pressed crease” on its streamlined fenders. I was thrilled to finally see it unloaded from BMW’s covered truck and put to its test runs. Two more like it are planned, but building them has taken so long that BMW decided to send those two chassis to Touring in order to have their aluminum bodies ready for Brescia on April 28.

Friday, March 22, 1940

I’ve come down to Milan to see Carrozzeria Touring’s superleggera methods at work and meet the great “superlight” coachbuilder, Bianchi Anderloni. Three days on Via Ludovico de Breme have been the education of a lifetime, and thankfully there is less tension here than in Germany.

Two years ago, Touring’s Alfa Romeo 8C 2900 Mille Miglia was the most stunning coachwork I’d ever seen. Now Touring is building the pair of low-drag 328 roadsters, Milanese siblings of the Bavarian Bügelfalten, though without Munich’s trademark fender creases. BMW’s Huber and Nowack are on hand here in Milan with BMW factory plans and designs, while Touring assembles both cars with uncanny quickness.

As I and others see it, the upcoming 1,000-mile Gran Premio Brescia has become a broadly political matter. Rudolf Caracciola has been the only German to win the Mille Miglia, and BMW wants, insists, to be first overall this time regardless of race day weather or wind. BMW will now have three streamlined roadsters and two aerodynamic closed cars—the 328 Touring coupe and the extreme profile Kamm Coupe, with an abruptly sculpted tail for better airflow stability.

More saloon than coupe, and not as handsome, I’ve heard the elongated Kamm is being tested on the Munich-Salzburg Autobahn, to be driven in the 1,000 miles by veteran Mille Miglia piloti Giovanni Lurani and Paolo Cortese. Also, BMW engine compression ratio has been upped to 11:1, hiking horsepower to 135, good for 135 mph on the scarce natural rubber Continental tires made in Hanover.

Photo: Being There 9

One of BMW’s testers these past months has been Huschke von Hanstein, well qualified with his endurance and streamliner racing experience. He’s now set to drive the 328 Touring coupe on the Mille triangle with the popular co-driver from Westphalia, Walter Baumer.

Thursday, March 28, 1940

It’s a month before the 1,000-miler, and I shot a picture today of the BMW cars with their drivers posed in suits and ties, an awkward moment but afterward a good-spirited laugh.

I understand orders for the drivers are to keep their cars fairly close together, to not rush, but to race with a cool head.

Practice has continued. Walter Baumer did a fast lap at an average speed of 110 mph while traffic was still on the roads, then Huschke did one at 111 mph. The heavier Alfas have larger frontal areas and are slower, but Alfa is well staffed and can refuel much faster than the BMW teams.

The concentration on the upcoming race here almost wipes clean the canvas of surrounding war. Ships are being torpedoed, and there has been a plot to kill Hitler in a packed Munich beer hall—he left 15 minutes before the bomb went off.

Misfortune repeats in many ways.

Photo: Being There 10

Saturday, April 27, 1940

Only a day to go before the race and the Touring coupe had problems with the engine in testing; now it has to be replaced. I have seen Mercedes racing director Alfred Neubauer here in Brescia speaking with Ernst Loof, who seems concerned that the clutches in the BMWs have to be babied because of the increased torque in these BMW race-tuned engines.

Sunday, April 28, 1940

The race began before sunup this morning in Brescia. The 2-liter class started at 6:40, and the cars took off at one-minute intervals. At the end of the first lap, von Hanstein, with Baumer in the Touring coupe’s passenger seat, led by over a minute, almost a minute and a half!

I got a ride down to BMW’s service camp 15 miles away at Castiglione, between Montichiari and Goito, with my Leica in hand. The mechanics had spare wheels, levered jacks and gasoline set up for refueling all three roadsters and two coupes during the race. Rules don’t allow fast-fueling, so BMW mechanics in the courtyard at Castiglione filled the cars by hand, using gas cans and funnels.

What the BMW crew didn’t know is that the rule pertained only to pressurized fueling. More rapid gravity flow from large holding tanks was permitted—and it was used by the Alfas.

The race pace was very fast, and BMW held onto hope of an overall win as the day wore on. If anyone could do it, I kept hearing, it would be Huschke.

I went back to Brescia for the finish. A crowd gathered at the line where the official stood holding the checkered flag, waiting, spectators straining for a better look over the 10-ft. barbed-wire fence between them and the race course.

Photo: Being There 11

The Touring coupe managed the shortest overall time of 8 hours, 54 minutes, 46 seconds, and average a speed of 103.53 mph. This is Alfa’s first Mille loss in eight years.

Huschke von Hanstein had driven from the start, but when his BMW crossed the finish Walter Baumer was at the wheel. Huschke had stopped at Castiglione to let Baumer drive the last few kilometers. A full 15 minutes behind von Hanstein and Baumer came the Alfa 6C2500 SS of Nino Farina and Paride Mambelli. Third was the Brudes and Roese BMW ahead of another Alfa, then the fifth-place Briem and Richter 328, and in sixth the BMW of Wencher and Scholz.

The Kamm coupe had clocked 134 mph, but crosswinds hindered the tall-sided body in handling and near the end it had ignition and engine oil problems, causing Lurani and Cortese to slow in order to make it to the finish line in Brescia. When von Hanstein climbed from the winning Touring coupe, he kissed Lurani’s mother on her hand. Germany owned the victory and Italy had its Mille Miglia (actually 934 miles) once more.

Wednesday, May 1, 1940

Back in Munich today after the Mille’s BMWs were driven home by those who raced them. The cars have been displayed all day in the Odeonsplatz, and BMW’s managing director, Franz-Joseph Popp, has come to congratulate the teams. The celebration and interviews have been going on forever.

Friday, May 10, 1940

My BMW experience is over, and I’ll be going home to America as soon as arrangements can be made. Civilian travel has become very difficult, with the so-termed “Phoney War” creating new obstacles daily.

And now the war has turned real in every sense. This morning, the Nazis invaded France through the Low Countries, Neville Chamberlain has resigned and Winston Churchill has come in as Britain’s new Prime Minister. Speaking today in the House of Commons, Churchill offered words that will no doubt epitomize this social servant with trademark cigar and staunch determination: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

History lives and speaks for itself, no matter voice or manner. BMW shone brightly in those dark times before World War II, and this heritage helped build a new postwar future. Even so, it would take many years before the BMW automobile on road and track would pick up where it left off after that landmark victory at Brescia 70 years ago.—W.E.

Also from Issue 95

  • E92 335is Coupe road test
  • F01 750i xDrive road test
  • Not for U.S. F11 5 Series Touring
  • Active Autowerke E90, E92 M3s
  • Hamann X6 Tycoon Evo M
  • Mark David’s E30 325is
  • Jack Croul’s 328 at Mille Miglia
  • BMW NA’s ex-Polak 2002ti racer
  • Bimmerfest 2010
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