AVUS (The Automobil-Verkehrs- und Übungsstraße or “automobile traffic and practice road”) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. The world’s first motorway, also serving as a racetrack, went under construction in 1913, was completed in 1921 and held its first race that same year.
Photo by: Stamp of Deutsche Post - AVUS 50. anniversarie, Deutsche Bundespost
AVUS was the first ever freeway between Berlin and Potsdam, open for traffic during the week, and a place for car racing on the weekends. Wilhelm II initiated the private road’s construction but, interrupted by WWI, it was completed only 7 years later. The circuit, including a gate building and several stands, was inaugurated during the first post-war International Automobile Exhibition (IAA) with a motor race held on September 24th, 1921. The road then was open to public at a charge of 10 Marks. Because it was also intended to be used by private transport, the racing events ran counterclockwise (nowadays, most of the major European tracks are clockwise). Looped at each end, the total circuit measured 19.5 km for cars and had a shorter version of 8.3 km for motorcycles. On race days, up to 4,000 people came to watch daring drivers.
In 1927, the German Grand Prix was relocated to the new and more secure Nürburgring circuit in the Western German Eifel region, while the AVUS received a new asphalt surface and served as an experimental track for rocket cars.
Photo by: Max Valier at the wheel of his Valier RAK 6 rocket vehicle on the Avus, 1929, Georg Pahl
Photo by: Berlin, Avus, Raketenauto, 1929, Georg Pahl
Photo by: Auto-Reichsfahrt, Avus, Berlin, 1922
AVUS’ history continued into the 1930s. In 1936, the northern curve of the track was reconstructed, making the circuit the fastest racetrack in the world. If you drive on this stretch of the A115 highway today, you will also see the remains of then built grandstand and the office building (now the AVUS motel). The very first race on the newly reconstructed road took place in May with Hermann Lang in his Mercedes winning at an average speed of 276 km/h and top speed of 380 km/h, holding the record for many decades forward. The racetrack was, however, dubbed “the wall of death,” as it had no retaining barriers with cars missing the turn easily flying off. By the end of 1937, the high-speed AVUS was considered too dangerous for the fast Grand Prix race cars. To make it more useful by general transport, a new junction at Nikolassee was added and the highway extended south towards Berliner Ring.
Photo by: Berlin, Autorennen auf der Avus, 1955, Brodde
Photo by: Memorial stone, AVUS, Spanische Allee 180, Berlin-Nikolassee, Germany
During the post-WWII racing, the track was shortened even more, to 8.3 km, and hosted Formula 2 and Formula 3 races, with the Grand Prix of Berlin taking place in 1954 (sadly unsuccessful, as many racers declined to attend and sticked to the safe Nürburgring track). The misfortunes continued, when, during the last (for AVUS) Formula 1 race in 1959, a French driver Jean Behra flew over the top of the north turn in his Porsche RSK. The AVUS banking was dismantled in 1967 to give way to expanded public usage of this highway’s section. Racing continued but only allowed for smaller national touring competitions and Formula 3 events. Several other drivers had subsequent (many, fatal) accidents, and the last professional race took place in 1998. On May 1st, 1999, the AVUS circuit said goodbye with many former racing cars of all times coming on the track one last time.
When driving on highway A115 today, which goes through parts of the old AVUS racetrack, take a few seconds to commemorate world’s first motorway, turn your head to see the old grandstands, odd, fenced off, crumbling and covered in graffiti, and reflect back on the history that surrounds you, literally, everywhere you step or drive in and around our beloved city.