There are few places in Berlin that I both equally hate and love driving along – one of them being the route of the legendary AVUS in West Berlin. The Autobahn along this section is always plagued with congestions and roadworks which makes it a tortuous drive to leave the city, but on the other hand you pass along so many iconic architectural sights such as the ICC, the Funkturm, and legendary AVUS Tribüne. Most disinterested drivers and passengers who drive along this route might not even realise that they are (at least partially) following the route of one of the most legendary german racing circuits – the AVUS.
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The AVUS – from Automobil Club to Racetrack
While germany might have a solid reputation for producing formidable cars and drivers, this wasn’t always the case. The country that “invented” the car actually struggled tó provide any notable wins in the early days of the emerging motorsport. A bunch of rich gentlemen (under the leadership of Prinz Heinrich von Preußen) from the Kaiserlichen Automobil-Club were annoyed by this and thought that Germany should at least be on same level as all these other successful countries. And thus, on the 23rd of January 1909 they founded the Automobil-Verkehrs-und-Übungsstraße GmbH (Automobile Traffic and Practice Road Ltd.) – in short AVUS with the goal to build a dedicated racetrack just for race cars.
As luck would have it, Berlin hadnt expanded to the size that it is today, and land was plentiful to be had. The club purchased a tract of land between Charlottenburg and the Nikolassee, and they sought to build an Autobahn which could be used as a racetrack. Construction of the AVUS began in 1913, but due to the outbreak of the first world war had be to stopped shortly before the track was completed in 1914.
With the chaos of the postwar years, the AVUS languished in obscurity until one of the wealthiest industrialists of the weimar era and influential politician (dubbed as the “new German Kaiser” by Time Magazine in 1923) Hugo Stinnes decided to invest his own cash in the project in 1920, with the track officially opening on the 19th of September 1921.
The completed AVUS racetrack had a relatively simple design. It was 19,6km long, with 2 hairpin curves at each end – the Südschleife and Nordkurve, with a large ornate entrance “gate” being located on the northern end. While the concept of a Autobahn was revolutionary, the construction of the AVUS was less so. The racetrack was constructed using a tar bound macadam technique (this is where we get the word tarmac from), which wasnt durable enough for high speed cars.
The opening races were held on the 24th and 25th of September 1921, with Christian Riecken (from Berlin) winning the main event in his NAG car (Neue Automobil-Gesellschaft, which fused with Büssing AG in 1930, which then became part of MAN Trucks in 1971). After the initial race weekend, the AVUS was opened up to other car owners who could purchase a single entry ticket for 10 Marks, a prohibitively high entrance fee.
Hyperinflation and very few motorsport events over the next few years didn’t really help the AVUS become the popular racetrack its founders had envisioned for it – but the tarmac was replaced with asphalt, making it one of the first streets with such a coating. But the previously mentioned hyperinflation and general poverty meant that the asphalt was removed and sold for heating fuel over the years.
It wasn’t until the 11th of July ,1926 when the first German Grand Prix was held on the AVUS. The winner of the first German Grand Prix was the german Rudolf Caracciola ( who would go on to win the European Drivers Championship three times), though the race was overshadowed by the death of four people after a car crash. The poor road conditions prompted the officials to use the AVUS as a test track for new road materials and construction methods, many of which are still in use today.
Ironically the German Grand Prix was moved to the newly opened Nürburgring in 1927 – which was seen as more modern and safer (though over 200 people have since died driving on the Nürburgring). From 1927 onwards, the AVUS was used as a test track for rocket cars, with Fritz von Opel setting a world speed record of 238km/h in his Opel RAK2.
With the AVUS having been robbed of its only international race, the track was primarily used for motorcycle races from 1926 up until 1931, but again the track saw a massive decline of use after 1929 with the onset of the great depression.
The Wall of Death, Nazis and the Reichsautobahn
The 1930s marked the peak of the AVUS’s popularity, with the first international (car) race since the late 1920’s being held in 1931, with more races following in 1932, 1933, and 1934. The year 1933 was particularly formative for the German Motorsport, as the Nazis had just come to power and were trying to consolidate all clubs and organisations under their wing.
The Nazis already had the NSKK – Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps (National Socialist Motor Corps) which alongside being the fascist version of Triple A, also trained its members in high speed vehicle operation and maintenance. Needless to say that the majority of German race drivers united under its banner, and their efforts and success were put to show in the following years.
The Avus Race of 1935 was to be the last in its original form, as the track in its current state was no longer suitable for “modern” race cars which could easily top speeds of over 200km/h (the track record being 259km/h that year). While the track was being revamped, it was closed for the 1936 race season, but instead hosted the 1936 Olympics Cycling, Marathon and Walking events.
The most notorious change that was undertaken on the AVUS was the conversion of Nordkurve (northern curve) from a flat hairpin curve into a steep bank turn. The brick construction had a tilt of 43° and no retaining barriers, making it a truly death defying curve. If you missed the turn or lost control, you would simply fly off the track and crash – earning it the nickname “the wall of death”.
With the construction of the new AVUS Nordkurve, a new grandstand – the AVUS Tribübe – was built, along with a administration building that held spectator platforms and a “judges tower” (now the AVUS Motel). The buildings were designed and constructed by Fritz Wilms and Walter Bettenstaedt – the former being a famous Cinema Architect who redesigned the legendary Kino Colosseum in Berlin.
While the “Wall of Death” succeeded in its original purpose – enhancing the racing speed – it was also deemed far too dangerous for the increasingly fast race cars. After the 1937 race, the head of the German Kraftfahrsport decided that serial racing cars could no longer race on the track, but it would still be open for “normal” racing cars and motorcycles. The descision didnt really have much of an impact on the AVUS itself as other, bigger plans were already being formed in the background.
The Nazis had already been debating how to connect Berlin to the Reichsautobahn in 1935 with the construction of the Berliner Ring. Plans had been drawn up to connect the AVUS to the Autobahn, but weren’t seriously discussed yet, until Hitler and Speer presented their plans for Germania, as well the Nord-Ost and Süd-West Achse (including the Siedlung Grazer Damm), essentially sealing the fate of the AVUS.
The Lost AVUS Südkurve
The AVUS was expanded, modernized, its southern hairpin was demolished, and it was officially connected to the Berlin Ring in 1940. This didn’t mean those responsible did not intend to continue to use the AVUS as a racetrack – they actually wanted to extend it. While the original Südschleife was removed, they sought to replace it with the the Südkürve – the southern counterpart to the northern “Wall of Death”. A small scale model was built in the forest next to the AVUS, though its origins remain a mystery.
Literally no information has turned up so far as to when the Südkürve model was built or by who. While in terrible shape and completely neglected, one can still clearly see the outline of the racetrack as well as the steep embankments, even some of the original color has survived to this day. The Südkurve Model, unlike the AVUS Tribune and the AVUS Motel, is not a protected monument. While there is great interest to preserve it – the bezirk of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf has so far shown no interest in its upkeep or preservation.
Construction of the Südkurve actually began , but never progressed further than the creation of a massive earth embankment (with about 300,000 cubicmeters of earth) due to the progression of the second world war.
The AVUS after the war
The AVUS saw some damage during the Battle of Berlin, with the Northern Entrance Gate being severely damaged, while the road itself suffered some damage from the tank tracks of the Soviet Red Army. The gate was torn down with only a granite pillar being left in place later on as a memorial. The never completed Südkurve was repurposed by the Americans as a shooting range called “Keerans Range”, named after Brig Gen Charles L. Keerans, who died as deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division on July 11, 1943 during the Allied landing in Sicily (Operation Husky).
While occupied Germany had other problems to deal with immediatley after the war, the AVUS was fixed up (including the AVUS Tribüne and AVUS Motel) and the first post war race was held in 1951 attracting over 350,000 people. Despite its dangers, the steep Nordkurve was kept – which resulted in numerous (and often fatal) accidents. The FIA (International Automobile Federation) was not too amused with the dangers of the AVUS – and so the Nordkurve was torn down in 1967 and replaced with a flattened curve again.
Over the years the AVUS hosted numerous races, but its international glory days were over. Most races at this point were either low class Formula 3 or German Touring Races. Saying that, Over time, the track was modified multiple times, with it being shortened twice and shikanes were added to slow down the overall speed on the track. West Berlin was getting annoyed with the road closures and the traffic chaos, and things were only going to get worse after German reunification. The last race on the AVUS was held on the 26th of April 1998.
The AVUS Today
The AVUS Tribüne
If you drive along the AVUS, you can still spot the architectural remnants of the former race track. The AVUS Tribüne was left to rot next to the Autobahn for over 20 years. It was rudimentarily secured with some barbed wire, but languished abandoned and mostly forgotten for years. We first visited the AVUS Tribüne all the way back in 2014, and sadly it seemed like it was used as a homeless camp / public toilet. The stench was unbearable so we cut our visit rather short.
On a positive note, the AVUS Tribüne was purchased by a Hamburg-based Investor in 2015, who bought the property from another investor who had unsuccessfully tried to convert the Tribüne into a car museum. Unlike the previous attempt, the conversion of the AVUS Tribüne has progressed successfully over the past few years and is set to be completed by the end of October 2021.
The newly renovated AVUS Tribüne will be a “mixed-use” concept, meaning that the ground floor will host a mix of office and retail spaces, while the upper floor will host an event space and bar. The entire front (meaning the part facing the Autobahn) will be closed off and specially glazed windows will block off the light as to not distract the drivers on the Autobahn.
The Motel AVUS
The Avus Motel still stands today as well, with its curves and iconic mercedes star greeting drivers into the Berlin. While you could previously rent a room (apparently it was quite popular with truck drivers) or eat in its restaurant and enjoy the majestic view (sarcasm) of the Autobahn, it seems like it’s closed down for the time being due to corona.
The Motorradfahrer Denkmal
A stone’s throw away from the Motel AVUS you’ll also spot the “Motorradfahrer Denkmal” – which was created in 1939 by the sculptor Max Esser. The sculpture depicts the famous motorcyclists Ewald Kluge and Ernst Henne, and originally included a third rider – Heiner Fleischmann – though his statue was melted down during the war. Ironically the sculpture was never erected during Essners lifetime, and was only placed along the AVUS in 1989.
Esser worked for the famed Meißen porcelain factory, as well as producing works for KMP and Rosenthal. Max Esser was also one of the many artists whose name appeared on the infamous “Gottbegnadeten-Liste” (god gifted list) – a list curated in 1944 by Goebbels and Hitler containing over 1000 artists, writers, and musicians deemed essential to Nazi culture.
The Deutsches Historisches Museum currently (25.8.2021 – 5.12.2021) has an exhibition titled “DIVINELY GIFTED”. NATIONAL SOCIALISM’S FAVOURED ARTISTS IN THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC – which deals with the artists on the list and their works after the war in the newly created German Federal Republic.
Right next to the Motorradfahrer Denkmal stands an unassuming Pillar – but if you look closely, you’ll spot a little plaque on the ground with the explanation that this granite pillar used to be part of the demolished Avus Flügelbau (the entrance gate) which once located close by.
The Südkurve and Südkurve Model
As mentioned above, the Südkurve Model in the Grunewald Forest has been completely forgotten and neglected. A group of interested caretakers seems to stop by every so often to clear the model from any debris, but the local council hasn’t shown any interest to preserve it.
The large earth embankment that was supposed to become the the Südkurve is still where it always stood. After the American troops pulled out in 1994, the grounds were cleared of any left over munitions (no word on thorough they were), the buildings were torn down and the area renatured.
If your fit enough, you can climb. the giant earth mound and essentially walk all the way around the südkurve – just make sure to watch your step as there are still remnants of the metal fence sticking out of the ground that one can easily trip over and it’s a very steep tumble down the hill.
Despite the renovations and bad condition of the AVUS Südkurve Modell, taking the trip down to the outer west end of Berlin is still a worthwhile undertaking. If you’re a fan of Brutalism and Berlin history – you’ll definitely get your fill with the wonderful brutal ICC and the historic Funkturm and AVUS Motel / Tribüne. There’s a very scenic and (majestically paved) cycle path which leads you along the A155 Autobahn down to the Südkurve and even further down to the Wannsee. While not the quietest route, it’s a very nice ride.
A historic anniversary
As fate would have it, the AVUS celebrates its 100th Anniversary in 2021, but the city of Berlin won’t be celebrating it in any way. At least not officially. The Berlin Senate stated that they “did not see the necessity to organize any festivities regarding the anniversary”. While it’s understandable that there might be some apprehension to hold an event during the corona pandemic (hasn’t stopped the city or other organisers from doing so previously though) – it seems like the AVUS and its legacy is just meant to be forgotten.
While there is a rightful and appropriate debate happening about the place of the car in the city, it seems like the memory of the AVUS is just to “unbequem”. It’s either that or the Berlin government doesn’t want to draw even more attention to controversial Autobahn projects. Either way, at least the Deutsche Post was kind enough to release an anniversary stamp to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the AVUS.
The AVUS Tribüne Address
Messedamm 23, 14055 Berlin-Charlottenburg
The AVUS Südkurve Modell Address
The AVUS Sudkürve Address