Ernst J. Henne

February 22, 1904 - May 23, 2005


BMW’s star rider Ernst Henne shattered British speed records during the late 20s and 30s and traded records with British riders over the course of eight years. His record-setting journey culminated in a run just over 173 mph on Frankfurt-Darmstadt Autobahn, a record that remained untouched until 1951.

Henne was born in the village of Weiler, near Wangen im Allgäu. His father was a saddlemaker. In 1919 Henne was apprenticed to a become a motor vehicle mechanic. He started racing in 1923 in Mühldorf, and in 1925 he competed in the Monza Grand Prix, his first major international event. He placed sixth in the 350cc class.

He first broke the world motorcycle speed record on September 19, 1929, at 216km/h (134mph) on a bike which he built with a specially designed 750cc BMW engine. Eight years later he set his final record with a BMW engine at 279.5km/h on November 28, l937. That stood for nearly l4 years.

Henne’s ascent to world champion was one of the toughest obstacle races in the history of motor sport. His father, a Bavarian saddler, died when he was 3, his mother two years later. He was brought up by peasant foster parents who already had six sons. By the age of 8 he was selling eggs, meat and vegetables around Bavarian villages to earn pocket money to pay for an apprenticeship. That he achieved by the age of l4, and at l5 he passed his motorcycle driving test, with this advice from his examiner: “The art of good motor cycle driving lies in keeping your speed down.” He proceeded to ignore it with a vengeance.

At 20 he was running his motor mechanics business and began driving for BMW in his spare time. Just before his 22nd birthday, when riding his bike on ice, he skidded and suffered a double skull fracture. He was in a coma for nine days, and some papers were already publishing his obituary. But as soon as he regained consciousness he discharged himself from hospital. He was being driven home on a horsedrawn sleigh through heavy snow, when it capsized and he sustained fresh head injuries.

Less than four months later he was back on the track for BMW and won his first race. He also won the German championship that summer for the first time. By the late l920s he was master of every track, every surface and every distance And he had won not only the devotion of his German fans, but also the respect of his British opponents, especially Graham Walker, Herbert Le Vack and Eric Fernihough. He won almost every race in defiance of rain, fog, falls and burst tyres. Safety in the l920s and l930s was minimal, he recalled. “Many of my mates lost their lives on the track.”

In the early l930s he also began to race cars for Mercedes. And after the war he became one of Germany’s biggest Mercedes dealers, with a staff of more than 600.

When he was 87 he used part of his fortune to set up a foundation to help individuals fallen on hard times. He spent his last years, mostly as a pedestrian, in Grand Canary. He is survived by his second wife Martha and a son and daughter from his first marriage to Magdalena, who predeceased him.

Date Location Driver Driver Country Vehicle Power Speed over
1 Km
Speed over
1 Mile
19 Sep 1929 Schleifheim, Germany Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC   134.68  
21 Sep 1930 Ingolstadt, Germany Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC   137.66  
2 Nov 1932 Tat, Hungary Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC   151.87  
28 Oct 1934 Tat, Hungary Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC   152.904  
27 Sep 1935 Frankfurt, Germany Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC   159.104  
12 Oct 1936 Frankfurt, Germany Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC 153.26 169.021  
28 Nov 1937 Frankfurt, Germany Ernst J. Henne Germany BMW IC 171.67 173.68