The Image of the “Tourist Trophy” and British Motorcycling in the Weimar Republic
After WWI, throughout the industrialized world, sporting events became important symbols for judging a nation’s strength, prosperity and virility. Motorcycle and automobile races held a particular mass appeal, since they were seen as a modern measure of might for both industry and sport. Although the Germans first invented the motorcycle at the end of the nineteenth century, by the beginning of WWI, England was viewed by the rest of the world as the leading motorcycling nation. However, during the 1920s, due to a variety of historical contingencies, the German motorcycle industry began to take off. (Braun and Panzer 25-59). By the time of the Weimar Republic (1919-33), the Germans viewed British motorcycling and the “Tourist Trophy” race in particular as an instantiation of British power, with respect to Germany’s motorcycle and motor sport industry.
Motherland of Motor Sports, the Fatherland of Motorcycles: Motorcycling in England and Germany before World War I
By the end of the late nineteenth century, technology, industry and nationalism were central to most conceptions of modernity. In the context of competing imperial nation-states, England and Germany were sometimes friendly antagonists. Intrinsic to both nation’s self-understanding as modern and civilized was the symbolic equation of technology and industry with material and moral progress. Newly unified Germany prided itself not only on its philosophical tradition, but on its technological inventions and successes such as Otto’s 1876 four-cylinder combustion engine, as well as Daimler and Maybach’s 1885 one-cylinder proto-automobile. In addition, Germany could claim to be the Fatherland of the motorcycle, with Hildebrand and Wolfmüller’s production of a four-cylinder two-wheeler in 1894 (Flik 2; Christenn 11). However, despite Germany’s initial automotive pioneering, England, as well as France and the United States, succeeded in surpassing Germany in terms of the production of motor vehicles in the pre-WWI era (Laux 8, 34; Holfelder 48-51).
England’s industrial power was viewed by Germans with envious admiration, but also challenged with increasing confidence. Although England’s comparative economic strength was declining and Germany’s rapidly increasing, England was presented in the German press as representing strength, virility and health. The Germans admired what they saw as England’s healthy, aristocratic imperial body, incorporated in the ideal of the sportsman. During this same period, however, public debates began in England on the health of the nation, in terms of the economy, but also in terms of physical health, as can be seen in the debate following the 1901 Boer War (Davin 89-90). During the late nineteenth century, the concept of “sport” was introduced to Germany from England. Throughout his reign from 1888-1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was related to the British Ruling House through the House of Hanover, supported the introduction of “sports” based on the English model of “sportsmanship” (Quellenwerk 4). In both imperial nation-states, the practice of sports was viewed as a way of training strong, virile, masculine, national bodies that would be able to defend and expand the Empire.
Within the context of national and imperial competition, in both England and Germany, motor sports soon became a prominent stage for capturing the public’s imagination (Borscheid 77). The first motor sporting events were rather haphazard affairs with motorcycles (both two- and three-wheeled) competing side-by-side against automobiles. Industrial and political leaders in both countries began to view the motor vehicle as an important instrument for advancing the national economy, and motor sports were increasingly seen as a vital means of promoting the nascent industry amongst a skeptical public as well as a field on which to test out new design innovations (Braun 184-185). Nonetheless, motor sports did not grow out of a social vacuum. The forerunners of motor sports—the bicycle race and the horse track—provided the institutional as well as discursive frameworks for the new sport. The combination of motors and sports drew upon a palette of modern and archaic preoccupations, such as heroism, technology, speed, and the ability of man to conquer over nature (Merki 247-286).
Soon after the first Tourist Trophy race was held one hundred years ago on the Isle of Man, it gained its long-standing reputation as the most important motorcycle race in the world. The Tourist Trophy race provided an arena for manufacturers and riders to test engines designed both for maximum speed as well as maximum reliability on a road course. In the pre-World War I years, Germans and other nationalities competed alongside the English. Although English riders and manufacturers dominated the winning circle, the German motorcycle company NSU was able to place in the top ten during 1907-1914 (Braun 185; Herz and Reese 15, 19-21).
In the prewar era, the TT race provided motorcycling manufacturers from across Europe and the US an opportunity to assess design modifications under conditions that mirrored real life circumstances. In addition, as the only speed trial road race held in England, the nation considered the birthplace of sports and a leader of the motorcycling industry, the TT-race became the most important sporting event on the calendar of the international motorcycling community and served as a showcase for the growing British motorcycling industry (Braun and Panzer 49).
Victory and Defeat: Reflections on the TT Race and British Motorcycling in Germany from 1920-1933
The November Revolution of 1918 brought the definitive end to Wilhelmine Germany with the capitulation of the Imperial German Army, the dethroning of the emperor (and regional monarchies) and the birth of the German Republic. It also ushered in a new era and a positive turn of fortunes for the ailing motorcycle industry. In 1920, the first year that the TT race was held after WWI, Germany was in the throes of enormous political, social and economic upheaval. Due to the chaotic situation following military defeat— revolution and rebellion, strikes and putsch attempts, as well as rapidly increasing inflation on the daily order—German industry faced severe impediments to growth. However, the motorcycle industry was put at a comparative advantage precisely as a result of Germany’s postwar economic instability and weak consumer purchasing power. A 1924 editorial in the leading independent German motorcycling magazine, Das Motorrad, highlighted the motorcycle industry’s ambivalent position vis-à-vis the depreciated economic situation in Germany:
The scarcity of money and the difficult burden of our treaty will, for a long time, prevent the automobile, as in the victor countries, from becoming widespread among the entire population. The motorcycle, however, with its small units [of production] is the future motorized means of transport for the entire population, because its low price will also make it affordable to the less well-off. (Friedmann)
Germany’s economic situation, however, favored the construction of the more economical lower-powered two-cylinder engines, motorcycles that were at a definite disadvantage in the world of competitive motorcycling (Braun and Panzer 42).
Motorcycle races were hugely popular in Weimar Germany. Huge crowds thronged to the races held on the AVUS, a racetrack on the outskirts of Berlin, to the Eilenriede Race in Hanover, to the Solitude Race in the mountains of Southwest Germany and to the Kolberg-Bath-Races held on the North Sea, as well as to countless other events. Newspapers provided extensive coverage of motor sporting events in Germany as well as the rest of the world. Like aviators, national and international motorcycle racers were revered as modern heroes (Rieger 116-157). As the TT race was unanimously viewed as the most important race, the champion racers and manufacturers were upheld in Germany as being the best in the world. The race also “drew the attention of the international guild of motorcycle designers” (“Englische Tourist Trophy 1930”). Even when the TT race was a “purely English event,” as in 1928, the German public nonetheless would have been familiar with the brands and the racers due to their previous participation in German racing events (“Von der Englischen T.-T.”).
Motorcycling magazine articles from 1920s Germany demonstrate the importance of the TT race in the cosmology of the German motorcyclist. One 1929 article described the Isle of Man TT races as the “greatest motorcycle sporting event of the world”:
As it is known that road races are not allowed to be held in England, the entire interest of all motor sport practitioners as well as the motorcycle industry concentrates itself on this race on the Isle of Man, which is independent of English legal authority, and which offers motorcyclist an ideal race course that traverses valley and mountain. (Borchert 6)
Another German reporter portrayed The Isle of Man and the TT race in the following terms:
If a nature and sport-enthusiastic motorcyclist rides the chosen racecourse of the world’s most important race, he wouldn’t know what to admire more, the natural beauties of the Isle of Man, or the ideal course, which would have to evoke pure enthusiasm in every motorcyclist. (“TT-Rennen”)
In order to provide the German readership “that follows the TT-race with great interest,” with a mental picture of the race course, the author gave a meticulous first hand account of the 60-kilometer course, focusing on points of interest in terms of its challenges for the racers as well as historic and scenic highlights. At the end of his description of the difficult TT course, the author exclaimed amazedly: “Is it possible that on such a course average speeds of over 100 km/h can be achieved? And indeed, in training, Handley on an AJS rode the fastest ever round with an almost unbelievable average speed of 117 km/h!” (“TT-Rennen”).
Since the TT race was viewed in Weimar Germany as a fierce competition of the best riders and the best machines in the world, the fact that British riders and manufacturers dominated this event provided evidence for the superiority of British motorcyclists and motorcycles.
Although Germans did not participate in the Isle of Man TT races until 1931, German and British riders and manufacturers competed against each other in a number of other races, both within Germany and the rest of Europe (Braun 196). Successes in internationally renowned races were valued by industrial leaders as significant advertising tools. One of the most fiercely disputed races was the Grand Prix of Germany that was held on the newly constructed Nürburgring in Saxony. An article describing the 1930 race began, “Naturally, the English, again!” The author summarized the “lessons of the race” as follows:
Hats off to the English! But a compliment for NSU that performed better than the winners list indicates, and a doubly hearty congratulations for Wiese, the “up and coming German man”—or is he perhaps already there? (“Grosser Preis”)
This author’s opinion reflects the ambivalent position of the German motorcycling community vis-à-vis British motorcycling, a stance that included awe and recognition, envy and anxiety.
As previously mentioned, the production of two-cylinder motorcycles dominated production in the German motorcycle industry during the 1920s. However four-cylinder models dominated most international races, including the TT. One article on the TT race remarked on the consequences the choice of manufacturing two-stroke engines had for the German industry:
It is notable that since 1924, no two-cylinder model is to be found among TT champions, even though these models are also still being built in England by several prominent manufacturers. It is this very much regrettable, that our leading German manufacturers, that build two-cylinder models, did not register for the TT-race.
This most difficult race in the world would be a good opportunity in order to determine how advanced our domestic industry is. Only a tensile endurance test of such a nature, in which factory against factory and factory racer against factory racer start and their strength is approximately equal, can provide an adequate picture. (Borchert 7)
The attitude expressed by this author shows the growing confidence of the German motorcycle industry that was rapidly gaining ground on the English motorcycle industry.
Indeed, by 1930, voices within the German motorcycling community felt so certain of German progress vis-à-vis the British that they declared:
Germany is capable of building good and fast motorcycles, as the wins of BMW and DKW at many races demonstrate, as well as the world record of Henne on the BMW-compressor shows. […] The Isle of Man has an active interest in German participation, they know to respect the great significance of the German production—and also to fear it! (Voigt)
In the period of relative economic stability from 1924-1929, the German motorcycle industry was able to make great strides in terms of rationalization of production, and the progress of the industry was touted by leaders as a legitimate justification for Germany’s return to the arena of world class competition.
The London Olympia Trade Show and The Berlin Deutsche Automobil- und Motorrad- Ausstellung
The Olympia motorcycle trade show, held in London, was another British event that received wide press coverage in Germany, especially in the growing motor vehicle trade press. German reporters remarked on British motorcycle constructions with a mixture of envy and awe. British motorcycle brands, especially those that were crowned with international success at the TT race, were considered status symbols in Weimar Germany. In 1921, an editorial in Das Motorrad commented on the Olympia motorcycle trade show:
At the last Olympia Show in London over 150 different motorcycles of English origin were represented, while in Germany there are at most 15 different manufacturers. What an extraordinary motorcycle industry reveals itself in this surprising number of English motorcycle types. In England and her colonies the motorcycle is the most widespread motor vehicle. (“Geleitwort”)
England, with the highest per capita ownership of motorcycles during this period, functioned partly as a model for Germany’s path to motorization (Steinbeck 15-18). However, the fact that the economic consequences of WWI had a far more drastic impact on Germany than in England led their respective industries to focus production on different types of motorcycles.
English motorcycle designers and manufacturers, such as the Stevens brothers (A.J.S.), were acknowledged in the German specialty press as the world leaders of motorcycling and Germans had “become accustomed to looking to the English situation in questions of design and sports” ("Die Gebrüder Stevens"). The Germans, however, strove to become competitive with the British. According to one report in a German motorcycling magazine, The Motor Cycle, the leading British motorcycling magazine, published an extensive and thorough article on the 1925 German motor trade show. The author of the report felt that this indicated “the English follow the progress of the German industry with considerable attention. The author [in The Motor Cycle] calls out a warning that the English industry and English designers should not rest on their laurels” (“Die Gebrüder Stevens”). Indeed, although the annual German motor trade show in Berlin, the Deutsche Automobil- und Motorrad- Ausstellung, remained a national affair for most of the 1920s, by 1928, the German motorcycle industry had grown confident enough that the trade show in Berlin resumed its international status and British motorcycles were exhibited alongside those of German manufacture (Merki 301-302).
During the 1920s, motorcycle races were interpreted as a test of both industrial and physical strength and national hopes and aspirations were projected onto the protagonists. Motorcycle racers, especially the British elite who took part in the Tourist Trophy races, were understood, both in Germany and England, as embodying twentieth-century masculinity, simultaneously virile and technical. Marieluise Fleisser, a popular Weimar Germany novelist, listed the British TT star Cecil Ashby, as one of the men she would “like to marry”:
I saw his 20-second fueling time at the Bäderrennen from very close proximity, his cold-blooded calm and control over the material, as though a current flowed throughout his whole body that would have made others fly for years. Ashby also laughs very naturally. (Fleisser 73)
Racers, such as Ashby, represented ideal manhood. British masculinity appeared solid and robust in comparison to German masculinity, wounded by defeat in WWI, the loss of its colonies, and subsequent political, cultural and economic upheavals.
The discourse around motorcycles illuminates the intersections between industry and sports in the context of national and imperial competition. As Bernhard Rieger has shown recently in his very important comparative history of the reception and significance of technology, Technology and the Culture of Modernity in Britain 1890-1945, the Germans and the British shared a common understanding of the importance of technology as a means of increasing international standing: “Technological innovations came to be viewed as manifestations of national power around which Britons and Germans gathered” (Rieger 230). Victories in the sport of motorcycling racing, through combining technological strength and endurance with physical prowess, was interpreted in both nations as representing a highly modern means of proving national strength. During the Weimar Republic, German motorcyclists often directed an envious eye towards England. However, with the growth of the motorcycle industry in the second half of the 1920s, Germans began to assert a growing sense of confidence vis-à-vis the British industry. The TT race was seen as an instantiation of British dominance in motorcycling. However, Germans were increasingly eager to challenge British power, both in terms of sport and industry.
1 While it is beyond the scope of this article to investigate the relationship of British motorcycling to Germany during this period, my preliminary research indicates that, by the beginning of the 1930s, the British motorcycle community became increasingly aware of the competition they faced from Continental manufacturers, in particular Germany and Italy, despite their continued dominance in the TT races. See, for example, the editorial in Motor-Cycling lamenting the British defeat in the 1931 International Six-Days Trial, “We Suffer Defeat,” Motor-Cycling, September 9, 1931: 607; or an opinion letter to the editor reacting to the magazine’s portrayal of the loss: ”The fact is that Germany and Italy produce a better article than we know how to. And just so long as that is so we may as well ‘have another think’ about capturing Continental markets. So let us cut out the ‘bad luck’ stuff and remember that even though we have lost the Trophy we can still maintain our reputation as the right kind of sportsmen” (Addison). A cursory analysis of issues from Motor-Cycling from 1928-1929 and 1930-1932, indicates that comments on the reliability and design of German motorcycles became increasingly prevalent in the British motor trade press.
2 See Bernhard Rieger’s excellent comparative analysis of the relationship between technology and modernity in Germany and Britain from the end of the nineteenth century through the end of WWII.
3 The language of automobiles reflects the early influence of the French, for example: limousine, chauffeur, chassis, cabriolet. In terms of motorcycles, the US manufacturers, Indian and Harley-Davidson, were considered the best motorcycles alongside the British brands, Norton, Triumph, Douglas, Royal Enfield, AJS and Rudge.
4 Year-long problems regarding the resolution of treaty disputes led to the Germans exclusion from international automobile exhibitions and vice-versa. While these had been resolved by 1927, due to an inability to determine a date for the exhibition in 1927, the first postwar international motor vehicle show was first held in November 1928.
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