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In conducting research for “The Lost Royale,” I had the good fortune to stumble across fascinating and worthy stories depicting events in Europe during the months leading up to WWII. For me, one story rose above the others. Left forgotten in the dustbin of pre-WWII history, this heroic tale captured what would prove to be the unfathomable irony that informed daily lives as the fevered madness of a few evil men propelled mankind towards unthinkable horror and world war.
The following recounts the efforts of Britain’s MG in 1939 to set land speed records and break the 200 mph barrier in Adolf Hitler’s back yard.
MG shatters records on Hitler’s “Salt Flats” in the shadow of WWII
As the ominous clouds of impending conflict gathered on the horizon, May 1939 witnessed a factory racing team from Britain’s MG set sail for Nazi Germany with great hopes for returning with a fistful of records set by its experimental MG EX135. The “Dessauer Rennstrecke” (Dessau race track) ultra high speed test track section of the autobahn awaited MGs arrival.
Led by its accomplished driver Major Alfred Thomas “Goldie Gardner,” a highly decorated British army officer in WWI, MG had set its sights on breaking speed records for the 750cc to 1100cc International Light Car Class.
Though an ambitious goal, MG eagerly embraced the challenge. It reflected the plucky little company’s DNA. While the Depression had exacted a terrible toll in bankrupting many small car companies, MG’s decision to embark on a racing program had produced international recognition and with it many orders. Right up MG’s alley, the challenge to set 1100cc class records now sat squarely in its sites. Only time would reveal an added opportunity that MG would seize to expand the EX135’s record performance.
In retrospect, the choice of the Dessau track represented an interesting window into the mind of Adolf Hitler and a curious insensitivity by others to the realities of the day. Hitler’s notorious envy of things possessed by others often lead to his taking that which he desired or if not possible, then to at least copy it. That America had the Bonneville Salt Flats to test high speed vehicles and set records galled “The Fuhrer.” Nothing similar existed in all of Europe much less Germany. The Dessauer Rennstrecke represented Hitler’s effort to address this German shortcoming.
In the 1930’s the great ribbons of concrete comprising the German autobahn system ranked in the minds of many as an amazing wonder of the world. As well, for Hitler it provided a solution for solving his lack of a high speed testing site. To create his German “Salt Flats” Hitler had a ten kilometer section of the new autobahn between Dessau and Leipzig widened to roughly 25 meters with the center median paved to make one exquisitely flat concrete race track. Its surface so perfect some believed it to be hand finished. Its pillarless bridges and absence of interchange exits left no doubt as to its intended use as a high-speed track ideal for races and record attempts. The gracefully arched bridges seemed intended to serve as gun sights to guide drivers attempting high speed records. Here Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes-Benz W154-based streamlined special achieved 399.6 km/h (248.2 mph) over the measured mile for a world record.
For MG, the Dessauer Rennstrecke’s close proximity to England as compared to the Bonneville Salt Flats certainly made it attractive. However, the choice of Dessau, as well, seemed to indicate a certain resignation to the existing troubled world condition leavened with a bit of British “Carry on regardless.” And MG would indeed carry on with a very sweet piece of performance engineering and one very special driver at its wheel.
No standard MG sports car, the EX135 featured a 1086cc supercharged, 6-cylinder, 195-horsepower streamlined vehicle with a single purpose, go fast in a straight line. A British Racing Green beauty over 16-feet long, 5-feet wide and a little over 2-feet high with a wheelbase of 99”, EX135’s beautifully sleek streamlined design reflected the genius of designer Reid Railton. Those knowledgeable of his accomplishments consider Railton “A titan of 20th century high speed automotive engineering having collaborated with the likes of Sir Malcolm Campbell and John Cobb.”
Called upon by MG to wrap the EX135 within a slippery wind cheating skin, Railton drew upon design concepts developed by Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union that employed aerodynamic patents of visionary designer and aerodynamics pioneer Paul Jaray. In the early 20th century Jaray advanced the use of wind tunnels in streamlining automobile and Zeppelin bodies. An added design challenge facing Railton included the six-foot three-inch and somewhat immobile frame of driver Major Goldie Gardner. It demanded special consideration. Indeed, Goldie Gardner stood out in many ways as a very special man.
Bearing his mother’s maiden name of “Goldie” as his lifetime nickname, Gardner, a decorated WWI British army officer had quickly risen through the ranks to be the youngest Major in the British armed forces. In 1915 as one of the first 98 officers to receive the British Military Cross (Similar to the American Silver Star) Britain recognized Gardner for bravery in battle.
In 1917 his reconnaissance plane succumbed to withering enemy fire. The crash resulted in Gardner sustaining leg and hip injuries that required two years of hospitalization, twenty surgeries and a subsequent life without the full use of his right leg. He would walk with a cane for the rest of his days. In 1921 the army discharged him as being medically unfit for military service. By 1924 Gardner despite his disability had embarked on a path to becoming one of the most accomplish racing drivers of his time. Through the 1920s and 1930s Gardner established a reputation not only for driving excellence but a broad spectrum of competencies. In 1935 he served as team manager for Sir Malcolm Campbell’s World Land Speed Record attempt.
In retrospect, while the focus of the story rests squarely on MG’s efforts to set records, stepping back for a broader view affords a noir undercurrent recalling the movie Casablanca.
John Dugdale a respected editor of The AutoCar Magazine in the 1930s had been invited to accompany the MG racing team to Dessau. His notes from that experience profile a world for which the phrase “whistling past the graveyard” seemed painfully accurate. After crossing the English Channel Dugdale, accompanied by Goldie Gardner; Alan Bickwell, Public Relations Manager for Lagonda and George Tuck,
Publicity Manager of MG picked up their car and set out for Dessau Germany. Anyone long in the car business knows that publicity events in the good old days had many perquisites. In this case the four companions had at their disposal the latest V-12 Lagonda Saloon-de-Ville, the brainchild of W.O. Bentley, revered founder of Bentley Cars. Dugdale swooned over the luxurious Lagonda saying, “A real beauty. A 4-door sedan with silky smooth multi-cylinder engine, 4-speed manual transmission and independent front suspension.” Living in the moment with Goldie Gardner at the wheel, they enjoyed the ride. Dugdale recalled cruising through Belgium and passing through the German town of Aachen. He said, “In that gorgeous summer of 1939 that balmy sunshine denied the ominous war clouds which had threatened for years.” How prescient, as not many years later Aachen would be the sight of possibly the toughest urban battle of WWII for American troops. Dugdale went on to recall his experience when he wrote, “We dined deliciously at the Rotisserie d’Alsace in Brussels then crossed the sinister fortress lined frontier passing both the Belgium Maginot and German Siegfried Lines.”
Dugdale’s recollections of positive interactions with members of the German military and public who would soon become sworn enemies took on a surreal quality considering what the near future held. Dugdale said, “It was quite an adventure going to Germany. War was likely to break out at any time. But that did not deter our little party of Englishmen led by Goldie Gardner. Besides he was popular among Germans as a typical British soldier type. The Germans even called him “Der Herr Major’” A few years earlier Gardner had been chasing speed records near Frankfort and as a former Royal Artillery Officer, he received an invitation to a local Wehrmacht officer’s mess to dine.
Interestingly Dugdale noted that in traveling to Dessau they passed through Hanover, once the house of Britain’s own royal family. Interestingly in 1917 with England during WWI experiencing a strong anti-German sentiment, England’s King George V decried that that all British descendants of Queen Victoria (A Hanover) in the male line would adopt the surname Windsor. Apparently it made things less confusing when explaining the mortal enemy thing.
All stood ready to run the next day. The plan called for challenging the records for the kilometer, the mile and the five kilometer on all the same runs.
6:00 am Wednesday May 31st found the EX135 poised and ready facing the length of the Dessauer Rennstrecke. Red lighting boards to mark the timed sections stood ready, painted lines had been retouched and a huge Zamboni-like machine swept the road surface.
With the sun bright and rising, 7:00 am saw Gardner arrive. At 8:00 am the EX135‘s super-tuned engine fired up after maybe a ten-yard push. After first sputtering and coughing as it woke from a week in storage, it then quickly smoothed to reach a crackling perfection. Time to go. Following the awakening EX135 down the track, observers in the Lagonda at 100 mph quickly fell behind.
Now ready for the run at the record, Dugdale positioned himself on a cross bridge about a kilometer south of the measured mile. If all went well the MG would be doing 200 mph as it passed below. EX135 though almost 10 kilometers away could be heard in the distance. Like a symphony of mechanical perfection, the music of the MG rose to a crescendo and then at 7,500 rpm held the note at a high pitched whine. A black dot first quite small in the distance, then ever larger grew to where its green color could be distinguished. Locked on to the center line the EX135 announced its passing with a trumpeting blast from its vertical exhaust.
Since the record would be calculated by averaging the speed out and back, the MG had been turned around and began its charge north with the record now at stake. In the distance the black dot again grew and the symphony reached its crescendo. The roar blasted up from below and the EX135 had again passed below. History had been made. It had set the “under 1100 cc” class record for all three distances with class records of 200 mph set for the kilometer and mile. EX135 broke 200 mph for the kilometer (203.54 mph) and mile (203.16 mph). The 5-kilometer finish fell just short (197.54 mph) while still setting a record.
Gardner felt so pleased that he decided to go for the 1100cc to 1500 cc records. For Gardner it only required boring the 1086 cc engine out to 1186 cc and rebuilding the engine overnight. Interestingly, the MG team lacked some of the capabilities to do the rebuild and happily found that the Junkers aeronautics engine factory just outside of Dessau showed a willingness to help. Dugdale remarked that their generosity was quite startling considering that Junkers had the task of developing Germany’s latest twin-engine medium bomber the Junker JU88. Dugdale wrote, “This JU88 was a hot secret at the time. One of them flew fast and low over the record road early one morning. I snapped a photo that I brought back providing a useful record of its profile for RAF reconnaissance for the mass bombing to come.”
The record runs on Friday for the 1500cc class proved even more successful. EX135 broke 200 mph for the kilometer (204.28 mph), mile (203.85 mph) and 5-kilometer (200.62 mph)
With the record run completed but before departing Germany, Dugdale and his three travel buddies would drive the Lagonda to Berlin. There Gardner would speak of the record braking success for the BBC. While there Dugdale learned of a big event planned for the next day to celebrate the visit of a Yugoslavian dignitary. Dugdale chose to stay. His companions chose to return home.
The following day Dugdale witnessed what he called, “A glimpse of the Nazi propaganda machine at the height of its powers.” A mammoth celebration staged within the Berlin East/West City Axis, a massive 5-kilometer long central mall created as the centerpiece for Albert Speer’s grand architectural plan for Berlin. Dugdale wrote, “The city was crowded with marching spontaneous demonstrators escorted to their posts by double rows of SS troops. Little three-wheeled vans puffed among the crowds distributing the appropriate flags of the Reich and Yugoslavia. Postcards of the Fuhrer and Yugoslavian prince were on sale. Special magazines celebrating the return of the Condor Legion from the Spanish Civil War were selling well. Overhead roared over 150 Junkels and Heinkels, quite a lot of aircraft for 1939. A particularly hearty cheer went up for the Yugoslavian prince by the single expedient that 60,000 lusty throated Hitler youth had been imported. When all was done, the apparently carefree crowd broke up mixing with the helmeted Herman Goering troops whose marching songs echoed among Alfred Speer’s new government buildings.”
Shortly afterward, on a train back to Dessau Dugdale pondered the meaning of all he had witnessed.
Within weeks WWII would provide answers.