Nördliches Torhaus, historische Ansichtskarte, undatiert
© Sammlung eAUTOBAHN.de

The AVUS, part 1

The history of the AVUS begins in January 1909 with the founding of the Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße GmbH by affluent, private car owners and members of the automotive industry. The reason was the poor performance by German vehicles in previous races compared with the international competition. A “Car-Only-Road” for practice, test and racing purposes was needed, because at that time the few motorised vehicles still shared the roads with pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, and increasingly they were getting into one another’s way. The AVUS was to address this problem and facilitate the competitiveness of the German automobile industry, just as already happening in Great Britain and the USA.

Construction work started in 1913. The race track was due to be opened in autumn 1914. Just before it was completed, however, the First World War began and the track was abandoned for several years. After 1918, there was no question of removing the damage caused by neglect. It was only on the initiative of private investors that the AVUS could be finished and on 24th September 1921 finally inaugurated with the staging of a two-day motor race.

Fritz von Opel wearing a racing mask, historical picture postcard, 1921
© Collection eAUTOBAHN.de

The AVUS was opened on 24th and 25th September 1921, fittingly with a race weekend, just five days after it had been made ready. Each day around 300,000 spectators attended the races. From the outset, the AVUS was a crowd puller although no international drivers were represented at these opening races; this is because there was still a boycott in place by the victorious powers in the wake of the First World War. Fritz von Opel was the first racing driver to cross the finish line, and would later go on to cause a sensation in his rocket-propelled car, the “RAK2”.

Opel Raketenantriebsprogramm – Rocket Propulsion Program, 1928/1929

Opel Rocket Propulsion Program, 1928/1929
© The Wheel Network
View of AVUS with gatehouse, undated
© Collection eAUTOBAHN.de
After the opening races at the end of September the AVUS was cleared for general motor traffic on 1st October 1921. This did not happen without a cost however. With the first road also came the first toll. The ticket for a single journey cost ten reichsmark and was available for purchase from both gatehouses at the northern and southern end of the stretch of road. This corresponded to the price of four eggs or half a pound of butter; by way of comparison a stamp cost 60 pfennig.

German Grand Prix

After the successful opening, a slightly quieter period ensued in the following years. Motor races and other more minor races served to “plug the gap” until 1926, with the German Grand Prix, the next major event was carried out on the AVUS. Hundreds of thousands turned out once more in order to share in the experience of the competition.

Motorcycle racing by D.M.V. (Deutscher Motorsport Verband) on the AVUS, about 1923
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: H. Wolter

In contrast to the opening five years earlier, international drivers from Italy, Czechoslovakia, France and Switzerland were once again there at the start. A young German driver made a name for himself in this race for the first time: Rudolf Caracciola. He went on to win in his Mercedes-Benz and, with an average speed of 154.8 kph, set a new track record – despite adverse track conditions with heavy rain, which earned him the respectful name of “Regenmeister” [rain master].

1926 German Gran Prix Win for Caracciola

German Gran Prix Win for Caracciola, 1926
© King Rose Archives

Notwithstanding this success, the “Grand Prix” was plagued by ill fortune which seriously damaged the reputation of the AVUS. Four people, a driver and three helpers, died in a spate of accidents. The asphalt used on the AVUS released oils during wet weather and this resulted in a very slippery track. Even now, it was no longer considered appropriate, and from that point on, the German Grand Prix was carried out on the Nürburgring in the Eifel which was opened in 1927. Races on the AVUS did not take place again until 1931, and it was here that the “rain master” was able to increase his own lap record of 1926 by approximately 30 kph.

Exploitation by the Nazis

In 1932 and 1933, it was the foreign drivers who earned victories in the AVUS races. Something which naturally was not to the liking of the National Socialists who had been in power since 1933. They wanted to exploit enthusiasm for motor sports and “demonstrate” the alleged supremacy of the Germans. Subsequently, they invested a lot of money into funding motor racing and domestic vehicle manufacturers. The era of the famous “Silver Arrows” began, Mercedes Benz performance racing cars in metallic aluminium, which was unusual for the time. Increasingly powerful engines, guaranteeing greater and greater speeds. At around 350 kph these exceeded current Formula 1 speeds.

Spectators on the AVUS stand, 1937
© Stadtmuseum Berlin | Photo: Harry Croner

The grandstand, which is still visible to this day, was built in 1936 between the AVUS and the Messedamm. At 200 metres in length, it provided room for around 4,000 people. At the same time as the stand, the old north loop was replaced by a massive 8-metre-high and 18-metre-wide banking. For decades, it made the AVUS the world’s fastest track because the drivers hardly had to decelerate into the straights, and this became a hallmark of its legendary status. This section of the track was also extremely dangerous however. The centrifugal forces pinned the cars to the outer edge of the racing track and made the curve extremely perilous. In the ensuing years, several racing drivers were to lose their lives here. The opening race on the AVUS was though the final major race for a long time, following the successful reconstruction work in 1937. The Second World War put a premature end to race operations. In 1939, the hitherto private AVUS was sold to the German Reich and in 1940 connected to the Berlin ring road. It was used exclusively for road traffic until the end of the war in 1945.

North curve with gatehouse, finish line complex and grandstand, historical picture postcard, 1937
© Collection eAUTOBAHN.de

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