Cape Town - Somewhere in South Africa an invaluable, irreplaceable piece of motor sport history – the sixth, and probably last, Type C Auto Union Grand Prix car of 1937 – may still be hidden away locally.
Well, that’s the rumour… and it has been going around for years.
It seems at least one man still avidly believes it is stashed away in a barn, on a farm, in a storage yard or an old garage somewhere in the country…
R100 000 reward
So convinced, he seems that he has recently taken out an ad in the local weekly paper People’s Post requesting anyone with information on the whereabouts of this exceptional vehicle to come forward.
He is even offering a reward of R100 000 for any clues that could help him find the unique, inimitable race car – now valued at $12 million (the equivalent of R202-million)…
He’s not just anybody, though.
A veritable expert searching
While a local attorney given as reference in the advertisement did not want to divulge any details, local veteran journalist Adrian Pheiffer confirmed he is none other than German automobile historian, vintage cars specialist and Auto Union racing history expert Martin Schroder.
Herr Schroder has since 1973 studied the history of Auto Union GP automobiles, is the co-author of a book on the subject published in 1979 and was instrumental in finding and returning a Type D Auto Union GP car from the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In 2007 he also uncovered a fake Type D that was up for auction through Christie – which was then promptly withdrawn.
But why after all these years is he still searching for the missing Type C in South Africa?
The advert as seen in the People's Post:
The ‘Silver Bullets’ in SA
The monstrous, all-conquering Auto Union Grand Prix cars were built in Zwickau, Germany, between 1933 and 1939.
They dominated the pre-war racing era with V16 engines producing over 350kW, spinning their wheels in all gears on puny cross-ply tyres even at speeds above 160km/h.
The cars were purpose-built to battle for supremacy with rival Mercedes throughout the Thirties, and reached speeds of up to 340km/h with legendary drivers such as Achille Varzi, Hans Stuck, Tazio Nuvolari and Rosemeyer.
Weighing only 850kg the final Type D car used a 3.0-litre 60-degree V12 twin-supercharged mill to deliver nearly 350kW at 7000rpm, while the earlier Type A to Type C cars, even with bigger V16 engines, from 4.4-litre to 6.0-litre in capacity, producing up to 850Nm of torque, weighed even less.
According to Audi only five original Grand Prix cars survive today and the company owns three of them – the most recent addition (added in 2012) a Type D twin-supercharged V12 model lost behind the Iron Curtain for decades.
The Type C, as the final evolution of the 45-degree V16 engine before being replaced by the V12, was arguably the best of all, and the version brought to South Africa.
It was legendary race promoter Brud Bishop, organiser of the pre-WW2 South African GPs, who got the racers here. He convinced Baron Klaus von Oertzen, the man who later brought Volkswagen to South Africa, that bringing out the Auto Union racers would generate a tremendous sales boost for DKW and German cars in general.
Von Oertzen eventually agreed and the team shipped out to Africa after the 1936 Grand Prix season for some friendly competition with locally piloted Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, ERA and other British cars.
They would participate in the third South African GP in East London on 1 January 1937 and the first Grosvenor GP in Cape Town on 16 January 1937 and then conclude their African tour a fortnight later in Johannesburg around the new Lord Howe circuit.
Watch: The roaring V12 engine of the Auto Union Type C
Legendary German ace
Their headline act was none other than legendary ace Bernd Rosemeyer, the newly crowned 1936 world champion after winning three races (Germany, Switzerland and Italy) as well as two non-championship Grand Prix, supported by Ernst von Delius.
Much hype and media attention surrounded the team’s arrival in December 1936 and the impressive cars were dubbed the “silver bullets” by a local newspaper.
In keeping with his daredevil image Rosemeyer was flown from Berlin to East London by his new bride Elly Beinhorn, Germany’s most famous aviatrix, in a Messerschmitt BF-108 Taifun ’plane.
The rest of the contingent included the two C-type cars, eight mechanics, a scientist to test for coast carburetion density, a tyre specialist, a timekeeper and manager, and also spares including 500 sparkplugs, 146 tyres of various sizes and 60 wheels.
After the Grosvenor Grand Prix race at Pollsmoor, won by Von Delius with Rosemeyer second, events get murky. After inspecting the Earl Howe circuit in Johannesburg it was decided the cars were unsuitable for the track, and the team pulled out of the event.
Instead, only one car was sent to Johannesburg for a public demonstration, with the second remaining in Cape Town. It is this 1937 V16-engined Type C chassis that Schröder believes never got back to Germany.
The paper trail stops in Cape Town and no records exist of its passage back to Zwickau.
Schröder, who visits South Africa quite frequently, has according to Pheiffer so far established that during the Pollsmoor race weekend both Rosemeyer and Von Delius’ cars were serviced at the ‘Marsiglio Brothers’ garage in Sea Point.
However, today there’s no trace of said Marsiglio Brothers or the service station and a private residence is now built on the premise.
“Up until now all enquiries have led to dead ends,” says Pheiffer, “but Mr Shröder refuses to give up in his quest to find this rare vehicle; hence this latest effort to see if more info can be garnered on its whereabouts…”
Considering he has dedicated his life to preserving the Grand Prix cars’ histories one can only hope he gets to open a creaky barn door some day soon, to be greeted by his holy grail.
So, if you find something with dusty cigar-shaped silver aluminium plates, lots of neatly aligned round pipes and oversised pram wheels during a long overdue spring clean of that long-forgotten storage space, take a closer look.
It may be worth much more than you thought…
*Read the full story of the Auto Union Grand Prix cars in South Africa by Marius Matthee