PETROLICIOUS / The Grossglockner Grand Prix: Historic Hillclimbing In The Austrian Alps

I marked my calendar with the date of the Grossglockner Grand Prix over a year ago. It is one of Europe’s best vintage hillclimb events, and one of my favorite weekends of the year. This edition would mark the 9th time the cars made their ascent on Austria’s tallest mountain in the Grand Prix’s modern format. I first witnessed it in person during the 80th anniversary of the original race a few years ago, and I’ve made every effort to attend since.

Simply put, the Grossglockner Grand Prix never fails to amaze me. It’s an assortment of cars that would make even the bleakest parking lot a thing of beauty, and gathered together here? To race up a mountain road flanked with snow banks? That’s something else. Seeing these machines fighting gravity against the high-alpine backdrop makes circuit racing seem so tame by comparison. This year was even more enticing though, as the supercharged 6.0-liter V16-powered Auto Union Type-C Bergrennwagen (hill racer) would return to the course. In 1938, it clocked the fastest time up the mountain pass, and I now had a chance to look at it up close and in action on this historically significant ribbon of asphalt.

The car is a mixture of sorts between two phases of the model’s evolution; it shares the advanced suspension of the later Type-D race cars, though it is driven by the 512-horsepower V16 from the Type-C (this motor would be replaced with a supercharged 3.0-liter V12 in the Type-D to comply with regulations). The unique twin rear tire configuration was specifically designed to increase mechanical grip while exiting the tight hairpins and kinks common to hillclimbs, as the torque of the V16 was a lot to manage on the skinny sets of wheels that the cars of the era were equipped with. But not even this “dually” setup could keep the Silver Arrow in a straight line, as evidenced by plenty of period photographs of the car mid-countersteer. 

And speaking of its heyday, the record it set in 1938 was a mere 9 minutes and 32 seconds. That’s all it took for Hans Stuck to conquer the ‘Glockner. This was back when the time would be determined by two runs up the hill, and Hermann Lang and his Mercedes W125 (another Silver Arrow) finished just 4.2 seconds behind Stuck that year. In 1939 the outcome was flipped, and Lang would take victory in the Mercedes by being 3.6 seconds faster than Stuck and the Auto Union.

To recall this car’s racing pedigree and its rivalries therein while looking at it in the metal was so much better than seeing it in a museum, stationary and behind fake velvet ropes. Glittering in the sun atop the road between Ferleiten and the Fuscher Törl, between the icy rocks and blinding patches of snow, it’s still difficult to imagine what people must have thought upon first seeing these dominant cars show up to the starting grid. To connect a bit with that history, Hans-Joachim Stuck was at the Grand Prix this year to pilot his father’s steed up the hill once again.

After the timed runs in the morning light, the participants gathered at the Fuscher Törl intersection in the mountains – this brief rest is always a good occasion to take a closer look on the cars. Beside the superstars, I was happy to see again the “Hungarian” Maserati 8CM, which was extensively raced by a Hungarian Count from 1937. I believe that the Messerschmitt Tiger was a contender for the audience’s favorite of the day, as the sight of the rare microcar attacking the climb made everyone smile.

Another special moment from this year’s Grand Prix was the drive up to the Edelweisspitze in the afternoon, which is not only the highest point of the range accessible by car, but still wears some of the original cobblestones from 1935!

According to the new tradition, the participants did two timed runs, with the winner determined by who comes closest in his or her second run to the time set in the first. The Swiss Pitt Jung repeated his success of last year, winning this regularity race with his 1928 Marmon T68, a car that is actually older than the Grossglockner High Alpine Road itself. It was a fitting end to this event’s long legacy being celebrated in such a modern time.

Photography by Máté Boér

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