This article presents a race-by-race account of the inaugural 1921 Avus Rennen meeting, with information sourced from contemporary German, Austrian and French reports. This article below is based on a direct translation of the original texts, but with some modern adaptations. Multiple sources, including lap charts and biographies, have also been referenced in order to provide the most accurate and correct information.
With thanks to Lucas, Andy and Simon Davis
In 1909, a private consortium based in Berlin began drawing up plans for a 10km stretch of motorway which had no intersections, was exclusively for cars and could be used as a testing ground for German vehicles and road construction. The consortium called themselves Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße GmbH (AVUS). The road would consist of two parallel straights that ran alongside the Wetzlar railway between Charlottenburg and Nikolassee with hairpin turns at each end. Builders began work in 1913, however as it neared completion, war broke out forcing construction to cease. Work resumed after the war and a race meeting was planned there to showcase the might of German engineering and ingenuity.
The inaugural event, known as the Grunewald Automobilrennen, was held with great success and popularity during the weekend of Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th September 1921, attracting works entries from two dozen manufacturers and a large crowd. The Avus Rennen¹ became an annual event on the German racing calendar thereafter.
The entries were to be divided into six classes – VIA and VIB, VIIIA and VIIIB, XA and XB. Cars in the VI class were rated at 6 Steuer-PS (tax horsepower²) and carried a minimum weight of 650kg. Minimum tyre width would be 100mm. The VIII class featured cars of 8 Steuer-PS, a minimum weight of 800kg and a tyre width of 105mm or greater. Finally, the X class featured 10 Steuer-PS cars weighing no less than 950kg and tyres no less than 120mm wide. The cars were then subdivided into either the A or B category depending on whether they had sidevalve (A) or overhead valve configurations (B). The B classes were also reserved for two-strokes and vehicles with sleeve valve engines should any such cars wish to enter. Minimum weight was to be achieved without fenders, lights, spare parts/tyres, fuel and lubricants and driver/passenger. All vehicles were required to have a minimum total width of 900mm.
Before each event, the competitors would be queued in the staging area in front of the iconic gate building where they could make final adjustments to their machines. Drivers would be released in pairs at 45 second intervals, with their car numbers determining the order in which they lined up. The start-line proper was a white line, situated 800m ahead of the staging area and judges stood by with stop watches ready to time each car. The race was, in effect, a time trial and the winner would be the one who completed the race distance in the shortest time.
Most machines were directly adapted by the factory from their road-going touring cars, with coach-builders fashioning racing bodies to go over existing engines and chassis’. Suspension and brake technology was admittedly behind the rest of the world, with only the Benz and the Apollo (which was withdrawn before its race) having brakes on all four wheels. All other machines had rear-braking only. Equally, most were sprung on the rear with leaf springs.
Engines were fuelled with benzene and were lubricated with castor oil, a standard lubricant for racing and aeroplane engines at the time, which created a distinct and powerful odour when burned. Tyres were pneumatic and most competitors selected Continental’s Conti-Cord tyres or the Peters Union brand. Tyres were, as one would expect, treaded, however one entrant reportedly ran a treadless wheel and found it wasn’t any slower. Carburettors were supplied by many brands, including Pallas, Solex, Zenith, Einhorn and Meco.
Most cars carried riding mechanics, though it was likely more a necessity rather than a requirement – his job being to manually pump the fuel, keep an eye on the oil flow and the gauges and assist with any repairs should the car fail on the track.
The first cars appeared for practice on Saturday 10th September, two weeks before the first official day of racing.
Sporting their easily recognisable grills, the Fafnirs of Carl Springsfeld and Wilhelm Uren were the first to go out. Like the majority of those on the entry list, they were high-level managers or employees at their vehicle’s factory. Springsfeld, for example, was Fafnir company director, while Uren was the Chief Engineer.
Two of the blue Stoewer cars were also present on this first day, with their employees Carl Reedl and Ernst Kordewan driving well lap after lap. The Aga’s piloted by engineer Otto Phillip and manager Hugo Wilhelm completed some especially quick laps, while works driver Franz Hörner took driving duties in the only Benz.
As everybody became comfortable with the new track, so speeds began to rise and lap times were already averaging 140kph. Inevitably, some became a little too comfortable. First, a small incident occurred in the Nordkurve when a Dinos braked a little too hard and shed a rear tyre. The car ran up the embankment, where it became stuck, the shaken drivers able to walk away unharmed.
Later, at the same turn, there was a far more serious incident. The No. 7 Horch, which was not being piloted by its designated driver Hirrlinger, ran wide at 120kph and put a wheel up the bank. The car overturned twice and finished belly up, with its pilot and co-driver ejected onto the track. The driver, Schneider, who was navigating the circuit for the first time, suffered a fractured arm, while his co-driver Müller suffered abdominal injuries and bruising. A group of rescuers were on hand to carry the drivers away and right the stricken vehicle, which had left fluid all over the road.
Practice resumed on the Sunday, but reportedly without incident.
The following weekend, the roar of engines once again returned to the AVUS. This was a less lively occasion than the earlier practice days, partly because different cars were in attendance, partly because a large number of drivers believed they were sufficiently familiar with the track and had no further need to drive it. The incidents that befell the Dinos and Horch were particularly felt by the other drivers and everyone took the Südkurve a little more carefully. The two Fafnir and Stoewer cars were very busy, and they were now joined by two Prestos, three Dürkopps, two Brennabors and three N. A.Gs, as well as a Dixi and a Steiger. The two Horch’s made a brilliant impression, as did the N. A. G. cars whose pilots Riecken and Zerbst drove in a well-behaved manner. Earlier in the morning, the special 200bhp Blitzen Benz record car was taken for a test drive, achieving a speed of 168kph in places.
The track had, therefore, proved itself worthy as a temple of speed. The Südkurve presented the greatest challenge on the course and the race director had warned drivers not to take the turns too hard to avoid any potential accidents. Those who mastered them, however, chose to adopt a slow-in, fast-out approach.
Since practice times did not count for anything, very little was documented, however the Opels and the Benz cars looked fast, while the number of spectators – who were mostly gathered in the paddock and at the Südkurve – demonstrated that this was to be a popular event.
¹ ‘Avus Rennen’ is not an official title, merely a translation of ‘Avus Races’ into English.
² German vehicles were divided into different tax bands depending on how much horsepower they had. If you read the model information in the results, e.g. Selve 8/32, this means it was in tax category 8 and it had 32bhp.