Vale: Hans von Brockhusen (1919-2015)

In early 1971, when I joined Wheels as editor, the NSW distributor Yorkstar Motors only lent Mercedes-Benz models for road testing to a privileged few among the motoring writers.

Mostly, only the Sydney Morning Herald’s Stuart Griffith (test cars were delivered to his home in the Blue Mountains) and The Daily Telegraph’s racing-driver cum-journalist David McKay. Wheels and Modern Motor (now Motor) were politely ignored. 

All that changed when Hans von Brockhusen took over as managing director in 1972. The tall, aristocratic ex-salesman, who’d previously spent well over a decade working for Mercedes in Canada and the United States, set out to establish closer links with not only the dealers, but also the motoring press.

Decades later von Brockhusen still feigned shock about the three-day Thredbo launch, Mercedes’ first national press event, for the new 280 and 280E with their brilliant new twin cam M110 six cylinder engines. His favourite among many photographs from that event was a now infamous shot of a 280E sedan hammering over a wooden bridge on two wheels. Brocky loved it so much it quickly became a poster for the dealers. A copy was a highlight of many old career photographs still in his collection when Hans Hartmut Hindenburg von Brockhusen died in Melbourne in March at the age of 96.

An utterly charming man, it was Hans, using all his influence and contacts in Stuttgart, who organised for Juan Fangio, five times world champion driver, to race a W196 Mercedes-Benz against Jack Brabham’s Repco-Brabham at Sandown Park in 1978.

For lap after lap Fangio, drifting the W196 through the corner at the end of the Sandown’s main straight, thrilled the capacity 60,000 crowd, while Hans hosted Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in the grandstand.

When Wheels road tests in 1978 and 1979 proved that the brake fluid in Mercedes-Benz cars was contaminated by water (from osmosis on the long voyage from Germany), thus causing brake failure in certain circumstances, it was von Brockhusen, taking over the investigation, who insisted that all Benz coming into Australia should have their brake fluid changed upon arrival. Water resistant fluid arrived a couple of years later rendering the issue solved.

I really got to know Hans during a five-day press induction trip to Mercedes in Germany in May 1979. I discovered that he was the grandson of Paul von Hindenburg, who effectively raised the boy when his father died when he was only nine. Paul von Hindenburg was the great WW1 German field marshal and, later, the last German President before Adolf Hitler, whom he despised and liked to call “that Bohemian corporal”. According to his daughter Alexandra, Hans didn’t go to school, rather school came to him on the family estates in Prussia, though his dreams of a career as a diplomatic came to nothing under the Nazis.

Conscripted into the Wehrmacht, he commanded 20 tanks on the Eastern front during WW2 and fought at the 1943 Battle of Kursk, the biggest tank conflict in history. Captured by the Russians he returned to Germany in 1946 weighing just 50kg. With the family estates now part of Poland and confiscated by the communists, he started again and eventually joined Mercedes-Benz with whom he worked until he retired in 1984.

I considered us friends and little wonder. Upon learning that I was moving to Italy to work as a motoring writer he insisted on writing a letter of introduction to his colleague and mate Rudi Uhlenhaut, the engineer responsible for (among others) the Mercedes W196 and 300 SLR racing cars. Sadly, Uhlenhaut died just weeks before we arrived in in Europe in late 1988, so I never did get to meet the great engineer.

Hans loved to reminisce, but he never looked back with regret. He always drove the latest Mercedes-Benz and was deeply involved in Melbourne’s German Lutheran church. By any measure, von Brocky was a lovely bloke.

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