Austro-Daimler tested Stuck’s racer on the road. Stuck’s mountain racer. Mick Walsh enjoys an exclusive drive aboard the ace’s Austro-Daimler. Mick Walsh gets to grips with the spectacular Austro-Daimler in which Bergmeister Hans Stuck conquered Europe’s most demanding hillclimbs. Photography Sarah Wimmer/WK Photo & Mick Walsh.
Shelsley Walsh hillclimb had attracted British speed heroes to the idyllic Worcestershire valley since the first event in 1905, but 1930 featured the arrival of European specialists. Their ranks were headed by the legendary Austrian Hans Stuck von Villiez – better known as Bergmeister – with his dazzling white Austro-Daimler.
The handsome, 6ft 2in ace had been competing for seven years and his continued success on the greatest hillclimbs had earned him a works drive with the illustrious but struggling Austrian marque. The reason for his long journey – with his friend, German Rudi Caracciola in his exotic factory team Mercedes-Benz SSK – was Shelsley’s selection for the first time as a round of the European Hillclimb Championship. A class victory would give the 30-year-old star the prestigious crown, but Stuck had set his sights on claiming the record at the 1000-yard English venue from Raymond Mays’ Vauxhall-Villiers.
The sleek 3.6-litre racer was transported by truck from Vienna, while the dashing Stuck arrived in his glamorous ADR Bergmeister – a coachbuilt drophead coupé sporting a huge rear trunk adorned with badges from previous victories.
The lofty, stylish hotshoe, who was dating a mystery English girl from Birmingham called Xenia, no doubt intrigued local fans. Story has it that he had won her affections after a bet with Count Szichy at Semmerin. Xenia tragically vanished from his life later that summer when she secretly checked into the Sanatorium Leysin and refused to see the heartbroken Stuck again.
Austro-Daimler looks impressive from all angles but particularly the rear as it storms up the Alpine road. Below: look out ladies – the ever-dapper hillclimb hero. Inset left: original altimeter and team’s box of carb jets.
Together with Caracciola’s spectacular 7.1-litre blown SSK, the spotless overseas equipes must have really stood out in the old orchard paddock. The teams were immaculately presented, with the proud drivers in tailored race gear and precision-made goggles.
Compared to Mays’ supercharged Vauxhall, the Austro-Daimler may have puzzled enthusiasts. With no blower, the single-overhead-cam straight-six sat well back in a conventional chassis that swept high over its live rear axle underslung below the long semi-elliptic springs. It looked very much an antiquated design, with the broad steering wheel extended high above the low, long body, and its pointed tail. With the cockpit positioned well back, putting the driver’s seat close to the rear axle, the cramped two-seater had a spartan style that had been developed over three dominant years competing at epic mountain courses. How the tall Stuck contorted into the cockpit no doubt baffled onlookers.
This famous car’s colour scheme was regularly changed for events and, at Shelsley, the main body was light blue with white tail and chassis. The radiator grille still carried the Austrian’s lucky 18 while a canvas number 66 was strapped onto the scuttle. The intense Shelsley course was a shock for the overseas visitors, but at least the route was in better condition with no surprise gullies or precipice drops. In respect of its new championship status, Shelsley’s old loose track had even been resurfaced and rolled. If it stayed dry, the records were guaranteed to tumble.
Tension mounted for Stuck’s first run on race day when a problem on the hill delayed his start, and the star became frustrated with the officials as boy scouts busied around his car. After much gesturing, Stuck pulled down his dark tinted goggles and focused on the hill. Finally the flag dropped and, with ferocious wheelspin, the Austro-Daimler blasted away, its ‘six’ sounding crisp and loud across the scenic valley.
Bergmeister in classic drift at Schwabenberg. Left: cramped cockpit with low scuttle and high wheel.
From the launch, the champion looked quick – as Motor Sport reported: ‘His getaway was terrific, and the speed on the lower slopes of the hill made even the most hardened spectators sit up and take very special notice.’ Stuck was on a mission and, through the Esses, he clipped the bottom corner tight before drifting the lean Austro-Daimler in a smooth progressive slide with a cloud of dust in its wake. ‘Von Stuck’s cornering was a model of neatness [the British press regularly confused his name], and one of the most noticeable things was the terrific acceleration between the two curves of the Ess.’
Everyone expected a fast time and cheering burst out along the packed spectator banks when the commentary announced that he’d taken just 42.8 secs. Stuck had cut three full seconds off Mays’ 1929 record in the supercharged 3-litre Vauxhall. The Englishman had frustratingly withdrawn with engine problems, although the redoubtable Basil Davenport aboard his hairy 80hp 1496cc vee-twin special ‘Spider’ upheld local honour with a blistering climb of 44.6 secs.
For the sports car class, entrants were required to carry a passenger and Caracciola took Alfred Neubauer, the former Sascha works driver and future Mercedes team manager. With throttle right to the floor through Crossing and supercharger squealing, the SSK clocked an impressive 46.8 secs to top the group. Davenport no doubt felt a little smug at beating the German supercar with his seven-year- old, home-built special, but Stuck’s benchmark would remain unbeaten for three years until American Whitney Straight gunned his Maserati 26M to the first sub-42 secs ascent. Stuck would return to Shelsley six years later with another Porsche design, the sensational Auto Union V16 Type C.
Clockwise: dramatic challenge against biplane around the frozen Eibsee; two-headed eagle badge and mascot styled by Neumann Neander; high-revving straight-six was designed by Dr Porsche. From top: Prince Henry Trial team car; magnificent ADR Bergmeister; Stuck’s road car at Shelsley Walsh.
Shelsley was part of Stuck’s last season with the fabled Austro-Daimler, which took 11 victories at climbs across Europe. Priorities changed for the great Austrian marque as the banks put the squeeze on finances, and these superb cars – particularly the swansong ADR models – were rarely seen. The racer vanished, its hillclimb achievements living on only in vivid shots of Stuck drifting the famous white thoroughbred in clouds of dust. Artists were inspired, including pre-war Mercedes illustrator Walter Gotschke, who loved sketching the car on the limit.
That victorious, one-off Shelsley visit in 1930 has always fascinated me because never in the event’s history had a driver clipped so much time off the record. Over the years, I’ve collected photos of Stuck’s iconic machine. When I first met Austrian specialist Egon Zweimüller, the conversation inevitably switched to Austro- Daimler Bergmeister hillclimb cars and, to my amazement, I learnt how his father had saved the remains of two in the ’70s. Business and other projects – including restoring the advanced 1915 Prince Henry model for Ernst Piëch, Porsche’s grandson – took priority. In 2014, though, came exciting reports that the rebuild of Stuck’s landmark car had finally begun at his workshop in Enns. The rare engine ran on the dyno earlier this year, producing 142bhp at 3500rpm on petrol with mighty reserves of low-down torque.
A last-minute entry for the Goodwood Festival of Speed was arranged – so late that it didn’t make the programme – but a return to Shelsley in July was disappointingly postponed. Keen to drive the Bergmeister up an authentic venue with relevant history, Zweimüller and I discuss a return to Semmering near Vienna, but a recce reveals that little of the course survives. Finally, we settle on a breathtaking mountain road in the picturesque Almtal Valley, a favourite test route of Austro-Daimler and Steyr in the 1920s.
Zweimüller is the ideal guide to the area and, en route, he relates Porsche’s links to the region, the illustrious industrial history including Steyr, the grim underground WW2 tank factories, and the key foundries that drew manufacturing to Upper Austria. We even sample Porsche’s favourite meal, Rindsgulasch, in the very hotel that he visited during war design work.
On arrival in Kasberg, low clouds punctured by mountain peaks hover in the valley. The twisty, dead-end pass to the ski slopes under Bergstraße Farrenau is the perfect location, the narrow road climbing dramatically to 1200m through dark, moody pine woods with open straights linked via endless tight hairpins. In the rain and mist, we push the Austr-Daimler under the shelter of the trees, its sleek two-tone white and blue profile evoking a menacing shark on wheels.
With the engine warmed and checked, Zweimüller’s crew usher me into the cockpit and, given the combination of centre throttle, slippery pass and an unknown driver, they naturally appear apprehensive. Getting in proves difficult and, even with the high steering wheel, it’s awkward to contort yourself into the flat seat. Stuck must have practised yoga. So low is the scuttle that the instruments and magneto are grouped either side of the body. The broad four-spoke wheel is close to your chest, so the steering action is all elbows with a firm grip on the rim.
Pump the fuel pressure, slot in the clockwork toy-style key, push the mag switch, and it’s time to hit the floor starter button with your left foot. The engine is still fresh so we’re limited to 3000rpm, but the ‘six’ catches eagerly, its throaty burble reminiscent of a tuned vintage Bentley.
With the centre throttle mounted from the steering column, the pedals are close but the brakes have little feel and don’t inspire. The tall fly-off handbrake is really effective, and it’s easy to appreciate how Stuck used it rally style on the tighter, loose bends because old images confirm his lurid angles of drift. The long, ball-topped gearlever hooks back close to the wheel rim, and the shift has a precise action. The ratios are closely matched with first needed only for starts, second for the tighter hairpins and third for the longer straights, but the tall fourth is best for fast valley floors. Zweimüller says that it’s a long gear just for Klausen’s middle section where Stuck reached 190kph. Once warm, with deft double-declutching down through the gears, the change is a treat, the slick action better than any Alfa 8C.
Clockwise: impressive torque and sharp steering but brakes need respect; jubilant Stuck after 1930 Shelsley record run; mag switch and gauges to left to give more room for 6ft 2in Stuck; famous initials. Inset: 1933 autobiography.
The steering, too, is well weighted, loading nicely into turns, but with no brawny shoulder action required through the hairpins. The engine pulls like a DR loco, the urgent torque making it easy to break traction when accelerating out of the uphill bends on the wet road, but the chassis feels progressive. As you sit so close to the rear axle with such direct controls, the Bergmeister lives up to its name, and it would be easy to play to the crowd on a loose surface. “Stuck used to place his inside wheel in the apex gulley, and power slide the rear,” says Zweimüller. “He was the Walter Röhrl of the 1920s.”
Running down the hill is more alarming because the brakes have little effect, while the engine pops and bangs like an artillery barrage on the overrun. My second run up the twisty pass, roaring through the woods and into the mountain mist, is fantastic. Compared to an SSK that I tested at the Großglockner, the Austro- Daimler’s controls feel light, slick and direct. Stuck must have had quite a shock when he drove the brutal supercharged Mercedes in 1931-’1932.
Splattered with mud from the open wheels, Zweimüller is similarly enthusiastic: “It must have felt like riding on a bullet back then.” The Austro-Daimler is scheduled for display at the Porsche museum but, once back, Zweimüller would love to run it at Klausen, where it was the poster car in ’1932. The epic 21.4km Swiss mountain challenge resulted in two fierce battles with Bugattis driven by Louis Chiron. Stuck’s debut at the famous event in 1926 resulted in his ADM catching fire and burning out halfway up. After his defeat in ’1929 by Chiron’s GP Type 35B, the factory fitted a special 4.2-litre ‘six’ for 1930 while Chiron switched to the mighty twinblower 16-cylinder T45. The Austrian team struggled with carburettor jetting for the bigger unit and, in the heat of the battle, Stuck overrevved the engine, which caused the Bosch magneto to fail. Chiron, however, made good use of the torque delivered by the Bugatti’s 250bhp aero-style motor. After a 16 mins 24.6 secs climb, he beat Stuck by 4.2 secs. Such was the pace that both rivals improved on the previous year’s best by 20 secs. The Bergmeister seemed jinxed at Klausen for, in ’34, his Auto Union V16 was vanquished by Caracciola’s Mercedes W25.
The car was developed for intense hillclimb competitions, but Austro-Daimler did occasionally enter Grands Prix, including Monaco. Stuck crashed in practice and failed to start in 1929, while the following year he was no match for the Bugatti Type 35s around the tight street course and retired with brake problems after 31 laps. The Austro-Daimler, however, proved fast against strong grids at two Italian outings in ’1929, with Stuck leading the Premio Reale di Roma, and chasing Brilli-Peri’s rapid Talbot at Mugello until sidelined by mechanical gremlins.
The Austro-Daimler’s final victory came at Zirler Berg in Austria, but financial problems and a merger with Puch led to the closure of the competition department. Stuck switched to a privately entered Mercedes SSKL for 1931.
Although the greatest Austro-Daimlers are often linked to Porsche, the later cars should be equally credited to his younger assistant Karl Rabe. After Porsche had left the Austrian firm to join Mercedes-Benz in 1923, the talented Rabe was promoted to engineering chief. Porsche’s legacy is clear through the outstanding ADM engine design, but it was Rabe’s chassis ideas that put these fine cars back on the map with the ADM III, a short-wheelbase sports model. The legendary Bergmeister was a lightened ADM that was developed and raced by Josef Wetske before the young Stuck signed up for 1926.
At the heart of the works racers is the 3-litre ‘six’, which, following Porsche’s aero-engine designs, features an overhead camshaft driven by a hefty vertical shaft at the rear of the block, with spiral bevel gears at both ends. The cylinder head has sparkplugs on the inlet side, plus a pair of sidedraught Zeniths or Solexes. The team had various jets – all packaged in neat wooden boxes with an altimeter – for fine-tuning and to match particular mountain ascents. Long head studs ran right through the block to secure it to the crankcase, which proved a curse during restoration due to deep electro-corrosion.
The crankcase is cast with broad mounting feet that greatly helped the chassis rigidity. The pistons also benefited from aircraft technology, with beautiful lightweight forged, hollow conrods and thin liners held by a lip at the top of the block. Shell and later Mobil made special oils for the unit. Stuck had a reputation as a leadfoot, so his frustrated mechanics fitted a telltale that confirmed he used more than 7000rpm on occasions with terminal results. Austro-Daimler reputedly built 27 special engines for his racer, and even a second car was prepared. The spare motors were later fitted to road-going Bergmeisters while one went into a racing speedboat.
Methanol was carried in a 40-litre tank mounted in the tail, which was carefully measured for the longer climbs such as Klausen.
While Rabe further developed the road car, with a tubular backbone enclosing the propshaft and a box-section fork at the front to carry the engine and suspension, the racers retained a wellbraced ladder chassis with live axles. Stuck tried a swing-axle set-up with transverse leaf springs, but much preferred the more predictable live axle – particularly on rough mountain roads. The car tipped the scales dry at 970kg, so, with about 200bhp from the most potent 3.8-litre engine, the racer had a strong power-to-weight ratio. Little wonder Stuck’s starts were so rapid.
Hillclimb dominance provided prestigious publicity for Austro-Daimler, with the racer regularly featuring in its advertising. During the winter months, Stuck gained further glory by taking part in ice races on studded tyres. Few could match him on the frozen Eibsee and, as an extra draw, the popular Austrian challenged aviators including celebrated German WW1 fighter pilot Ernst Udet to three-lap contests. Such high-profile victories had Stuck featured on the front page of the Munich Illustrated Press. Now wouldn’t that be something to recreate?
Fall of a climber
The illustrious Austro-Daimler marque was consigned to the history books after banks forced closure in 1934 but, together with Vauxhall and Hispano Suiza, it has a strong claim as the originator of the sports car.
Thanks to the visionary engineering of Dr Ferdinand Porsche, it broke the mould of the leviathan road kings with a light, high-revving 5.7-litre tourer that dominated the 1911 Prince Henry Trials. Before WW1, the 27/80 with its aviation-influenced 86bhp ohc ‘four’ and 88mph top speed, was the ultimate road car. It even had streamlined bodywork, thanks to Ernst Neumann-Neander, one of the many talents that the great Austrian nurtured. As Porsche proved in demanding German trials, the Austro-Daimler left its rivals for dust. These fine cars always featured sharp steering and superb handling.
Early models were basically Mercedes designs built under licence at Wiener Neustadt, but from 1905 – when Porsche joined – the make took a bold, independent direction with exciting machines including the Sascha racers. When Porsche left, his young protégé Karl Rabe took the reins and continued work on a six-cylinder engine that evolved from the ADM launched in 1923 through to the magnificent coachbuilt ADMR Bergmeister of the late ’20s. Closest in spirit to Stuck’s hillclimber was the ADM 3 Sport. With lightened short chassis, underslung rear axle, four-wheel brakes and sohc 3-litre 100bhp ‘six’ fed by twin Zeniths, it was good for 100mph – as proven in the 1928 Ulster TT with a class win and team prize.
The last great Austro-Daimler was the 4624cc straight-eight ADR8, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. Once absorbed into Steyr and Puch, the famous badge ignobly continued until 1942 on 6×4 armoured trucks.
‘OUR SEARCH FOR A VENUE LEADS US TO A BREATHTAKING MOUNTAIN ROAD, A FAVOURITE TEST ROUTE IN THE 1920s’