The famed writer Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Now combine racing cars with a temper of a bull, and a road climbing into the clouds, and you have the ingredients of the Großer Bergpreis von Österreich, better known as the Grossglockner Grand Prix ‒ a race which surely would have impressed Hemingway.
The Grossglockner is the highest mountain of Austria, its peak rises to 3,798 metres (12,461 ft). The top of the mountain was first reached in 1800. Tourism in the area started to grow in later years, and eventually a plan for a road over the high pass was proposed in 1922. This idea was immediately ridiculed, according to critics the amount of cars and roads in Central Europe wasn’t sufficient to justify the expensive construction of the Alpine road.
But then in 1929 the stock market crashed on Wall Street, triggering a worldwide economic crisis that hit Austria like an avalanche. In order to fight the Great Depression, the regional government in Salzburg initiated various large projects, including the previously ridiculed road over the Grossglockner ‒ officially not for tourism, but for “excessive international traffic”. Construction started on 30 August 1930 and five years later the 48 km-long road with 67 bridges, 200 bends and 36 hairpins was completed.
The automobile became more popular in Europe, and motor racing followed in its slipstream. The 24 Hours of Le Mans was held for the first time in 1923, the Nürburgring opened in 1927, other racing venues opened all over Europe, and now Austria wanted a piece of the cake as well. And what better road for a race than the new Großglockner-Hochalpenstraße? So one day after the official opening a race was held on the twisty mountain road. The race was in fact a 15-km long hillclimb ‒ starting at an height of 1100 meters, followed by 92 curves and 14 hairpins before the finish at almost 2500 meters ‒ in which cars and motorcycles race up the mountain as fast as they can against the clock.
In total 75 cars and motorcycles were entered in the race, including eleven Alfa Romeos, five Maseratis and an impressive amount of fourteen Bugattis. One of these French cars was driven by the English Grand Prix driver Eileen Ellison. In those days it wasn’t uncommon to see a women behind the wheel of a race car ‒ arguably more common than nowadays. Also the motorcycles-class fielded a woman, Maria Wachter, but she failed to finish. In the end the Italian driver Mario Tadini was the fastest of them all. The winner of the first edition of the Grossglockner Grand Prix drove his Alfa Romeo P3 from the stable of Scuderia Ferrari (indeed, run by Enzo Ferrari), up the mountain in 14 minutes and 42 seconds with an average speed of 79,58 km/h. This may not seem very impressive, but keep in mind that safety measures were almost non-existent on the very twisty and unpaved road.
It wouldn’t be until 1938 before the Grossglocker saw a new race, but this time the race was branded the Große Bergpreis von Deutschland (Great Mountain Prize of Germany). Adolf Hitler’s homeland Austria had just been annexed by Nazi-Germany, paving the way for more German claims in Europe which eventually would trigger World War II. But the rise of German power wasn’t limited to politics and military, Hitler understood the symbolism behind racing cars as they could serve a prime example of German technological superiority. This resulted in a fleet of Silberpfeile (Silver Arrows) – as the Mercedes and Auto Union teams were known ‒ which became the dominant Grand Prix cars of their time.
Unlike the previous edition, the winner of the 1938 Grossglockner Grand Prix would be determined by the lowest cumulative time of two runs. The race also saw Silver Arrows climbing up the mountain. The two Mercedes-Benz W125s were driven by Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hermann Lang, but at the end of the day it was Hans Stuck who was the fastest in his Auto-Union C-Type. This car, designed by Ferdinand Porsche and powered by a 6.0-liter V16 that produced up to 520 horsepower, was the forerunner of future racing cars in it that it featured a mid-engined layout. Despite having a revolutionary racing car, with an average speed of 74,67 km/h Stuck was slightly slower than Pintacuda in 1935, but this was due to bad weather. Nevertheless the Silver Arrows showed their supremacy, Lang came in second and von Brauchitsch third in their Mercedes-Benz.
But the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz weren’t the only state-sponsored cars ready to take on the great mountain, also a small car that would become one of the great automotive icons was driving up the twisty road. The Grossglockner was used as proving ground for the new Volkswagen (People’s Car): the Kraft durch Freude-Wagen (Strength Through Joy Car), which later became known as the Beetle. Ferdinand Porsche drove the car he designed up the mountain with an average speed of 34 km/h.
The Grossglockner Grand Prix in 1939 was raced in changing conditions. Fog with a visibility of sometimes less than 20 meters, and a good deal of heavy rains with a little sunshine proved to be quite a challenge. This was reflected in the differences in times. During the first run Hermann Paul Müller blasted his Auto-Union C/D-Type ‒ a modified C-Type with the chassis of the newer D-Type and smaller wheelbase ‒ up the mountain with an average speed of 84.86 km/h, while the fastest time in the second run was set by Hermann Lang in the Mercedes-Benz W125. His average speed in the second run was 67,45 km/h, resulting in a combined time that was good enough to become fastest overall. Winner of the previous edition, Hans Stuck finished second while Müller ended third. Once again the Silver Arrows dominated. Interestingly, Mercedes-Benz arrived at the race with a special hillclimb version of the W125 with double rear wheels to provide the traction, but this setup was only used during practice.
Meanwhile a storm was brewing in Europe. One month after the third edition of the Grossglockner Grand Prix, Nazi-Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out. Austria’s highest mountain never saw a Grand Prix again. Nowadays the high alpine road is mainly used by tourists and cyclists. But in 2012 the Grossglockner Grand Prix has been revived, this time as an annual classic car event. This year’s edition will take place from 24 until 26 September and will see a great variaty of classic cars climbing into the clouds, exactly 80 years after the first time cars stormed up the mountain.