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Otto Mathé and the Fetzenflieger

by | Jan 11, 2019 | Classic Porsche Blog, Porsche People

The star attraction of the GP Ice Race for air-cooled Porsche enthusiasts will almost certainly be Otto Mathé’s Fetzenflieger single-seat race car with its spiked tyres and succession of Porsche racing engines.

If there was a top ten list of people who embodied the “cult of Porsche” concept, Mathé would be close to the top. His name has popped up on this blog more than once and I never get tired of dipping into Mathé’s history and imagining what life must have been like for this true-blue Porsche enthusiast.

Period photos of Mathé (and his story as a whole) calls the late John Surtees CBE to mind. Surtees was the only man to ever win world championships on both two and four wheels and Mathé’s early life involved racing motorcycles. An accident in 1934 caused the loss of his right arm and motorbikes were out from then on. Rather than being chased away from motorsport, Mathe turned his considerable engineering ability to other forms of racing.

Mathé owned a filling station and was fascinated by lubricant development. As World War 2 drew to a close, Mathé developed an additive that improved the performance of racing engine oils. At a time when Porsche recommended oil changes every 3,000 kms, Mathé is said to have ran his engines for 100,000 kms without changes. Mathé passed his lubricant business on before his death in 1995 and Mathé Universal Lubricant products are still available to buy today.

1952: Fetzenfleiger is born

Switching from two wheels to four after his accident, Mathé’s car racing career went from strength to strength until, in 1952, he unveiled the car which would cement his place in history. Built to Formula Two regulations of the time, the car raced on asphalt circuits, sand and ice, and it was the latter where Mathé truly established his legend. In 1952, Mathé’s special won twenty out of twenty races and he claimed the Austrian championship.

Otto Mathé’s special features handmade bodywork on a tubular frame chassis. Constructed from Porsche, VW and Kubelwagen parts with a super-low centre of gravity, the car weighed less than 400 kilograms. Sources differ on the original power unit: some say 1100cc, others 1500cc, but they agree the engine was Porsche. Mathé mounted the engine in front of the rear axle, fitting a left hand gearshift to overcome his disability, changing gears in corners by moving his body and holding the wheel with his torso.

Fans soon christened the car “Fetzenflieger”. This is hard to translate into English directly, with various attempts relating to Scrap Flyer or Spark Flyer. The nickname comes from the spectacle of the car’s textile side engine covers, which would burn from the flames spitting out of the exhausts, sending sparks and embers flying. It must have been an incredible sight.

Quickly coming to terms with his creation and taking it to win after win, Mathé later upped the ante by fitting a 550 engine with Spyder wheels and brakes in 1955. Some historians believe that this car was subsequently run at Silverstone in 1956 fitted with a JAP engine. Whether or not this is true, it certainly got about, running as an “intertyp” in both Formula and Sport Car events with various parts added or deleted as appropriate.

The Otto Mathé collection at Hamburg Automuseum PROTOTYP

That Mathé managed to race after losing an arm is one thing. That he managed to race and win is another, but to outperform everyone – literally single-handedly – is something truly inspirational. The “Ice King” and his racer went on to win four of the “Prof. H. c. Ferdinand Porsche Memorial Race” events, in 1955, 1956, 1957 and 1959. The car was towed by a spectacular collection of Porsches, many of which were also raced. Mathé’s collection can now be seen in permanent exhibition at the Automuseum PROTOTYP in Hamburg.

The collection includes the MA-01 “Fetzenflieger”, the Cisitalia D46 race car, with which Hans Stuck won the first official German circuit race at the Hockenheimring in 1947, the Delfosse DVD electric racing car, Mathé’s VW T1 “Bulli” as well as the Porsche Type 64 (No. 2) “Berlin-Rome-Wagen”, rebuilt by the Automuseum PROTOTYP on original parts, his DKW Monoposto and his JAP F3 car. Anyone looking for a road trip destination this year would do well to add Hamburg to their list!

photos courtesy of Automuseum PROTOTYP and Porsche AG via GP Ice Race


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