In the midst of the worst motorcycle market in German history, the NSU factory opted to go big with a remarkable multi-bike assault on the World Speed Record on the Bonneville Salt Flats, taking on six capacity classes: 50cc, 100cc, 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc. In 1956 the factory shipped over a quiver of streamliners to Utah, arriving on July 25th, and nothing was left to chance; NSU’s Chairman Dr. G.S. von Heydenkampf and Technical Director Viktor Frankenberger were on hand to oversee the mechanics, technicians, and officials (including Piet Nortier, from the F.I.M., in charge of timing). A traveling machine shop had also been shipped from Germany, with enough spares and equipment to deal with any mechanical emergency.

Wilhelm Herz with the Delphin III streamliner before the record attempts, with a clean machine. The black line on the salt is painted by a truck afresh every year: the distance to those mountains in the background is 25 miles [Cycle magazine]
NSU had developed a devastatingly successful range of 250cc and 125cc racers in the mid-1950s, winning 5 World Championships in a 3-year span from 1953-55, the last after the factory had officially withdrawn from Grand Prix racing.  That year, H.P. ‘Happy’ Mueller won the 1955 title on a production-racing Sportmax, the first privateer to win a World Championship (at age 46).  Two years after they bowed out of racing, NSU spent a considerable sum developing six streamliners of truly innovative configuration, using a ‘hammock’ riding position for the rider, which kept their height, and thus their frontal area, extremely low.  As well, these long, triangular-bodied missiles handled surprisingly well, as proven to the press during the run-up to the record attempts.  Their engines were all from NSU’s Grand Prix racers, sophisticated Rennfoxes and Rennmaxes (the blueprints of which Soichiro Honda photographed the year prior on a factory tour of Europe), and their almighty supercharged vertical twins. But there was still Nature to contend with at Bonneville, in the form of the wind.

HP ‘Happy’ Müller pilots the 100cc Baumm II streamliner to 150.3mph – the two small bumps ahead of the windscreen are for his knees!  He is prone in his ‘hammock’ seat, and steers the handlebars beneath his knees.  Note the solid disc wheels, and the motor behind (not beneath) the rider, which set the pattern for all future streamliners [Cycle magazine]
Road-racer H.P. Mueller piloted the 3 smaller-capacity streamliners, finding his runs on the salt relatively easy going, and taking 121.7mph in the 50cc machine, 138.0mph in the 100cc bike, and 150.3mph with the 125cc, which also overtook the records for 175cc and 250cc categories. Wilhelm Herz, heir apparent to Ernst Henne as Germany’s (and the world’s) fastest man on two wheels, was in the saddle for the 350cc category, and made 189.5mph on a 1-mile flying start run on the smaller of the blown parallel twins.

Gustav Adolph Baum shows off the construction of the 50cc NSU streamliner, with its ‘hammock’ seating, in a publicity shot from 1956.  For more info, read the Comments section below! [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
But Herz didn’t have an easy time with his record-breaking, as a few days previously he’d been pushed off-course by a gust of wind, hammered a timing light, and tore a gash in the nose of the Delphin III (named for the sleek shape of the streamlined body).  Earlier, while testing the 250cc ‘hammock’ streamliner, the motorcycle went out of control at 195mph (note that it was faster than the 350cc streamliner) and flipped over, which ended the 250cc record attempts for this session. This was truly unfortunate, as NSU had their greatest technical and racing successes in the 250cc class, with Werner Haas winning 5 of the 7 races counting towards the World Championship in 1954, and his team-mate Rupert Hollaus winning another with the gorgeous Rennmax racers.

The 500cc Kompressor showing its unique chassis for record-breaking, with hydraulic damping front and rear, and brakes! The engine’s architecture is clear, with shaft-and-bevel drive for each camshaft, and the supercharger above the gearbox [Cycle magazine]
The Rennmax is a machine for the ages, a perfected design matching the technical brilliance of NSU’s motor and chassis, with achingly beautiful hand-beaten alloy bodywork.  NSU quit Grand Prix racing because of the expense of development and fielding a team: the general turndown in the European motorcycle market in the mid-1950s saw NSU, Gilera, DKW, Moto Guzzi, etc, all drop out of the GP scene, leaving MV Agusta an open field for several years, until Mr Honda got involved and won every capacity class, and Yamaha finished the Japanese takeover with inexpensive two-strokes overwhelming sophisticated multi-cylinder four-strokes.

Pushing the Delphin III to the start line on one of its record runs – note the holes for Hertz’ legs – no outrigger wheels [Cycle magazine]
On August 4th 1956, ten days into NSU’s record-setting spree, the wind conditions had calmed down, and at 6am, Herz leaped from the starting line under full throttle ‘with salt spewing from a wildly spinning rear wheel’, according to Cycle magazine. He made 211.4mph on his first run, and broke the previous record by 26mph! The record had been held only a year, as on July 2nd 1955, Russell Wright on a Vincent Black Lightning reached 185mph on the Tram Road at Swannanoa, Christchurch, New Zealand.  Strangely, Vincent and NSU were financially connected, as from 1954, Vincents sold lightweight NSUs under license in an attempt to stay afloat.  Vincent was already out of business by 1956, and NSU, despite its glorious achievements, was absorbed into Auto Union in 1962.

The primary drive side of the NSU 500cc twin, showing the full chassis [Cycle magazine]
NSU’s 500cc (and 350cc) engine used at Bonneville is a work of art, and had already taken the World Speed Record in 1951 on the Munich-Ingolstadt autobahn. For the 1956 Bonneville attempt, a new, longer and lower frame was built, as seen in these photos, as well as the ‘dolphin’ enclosed fairing, making the total length 3.7 meters. Girder forks with hydraulic dampers were used up front, and hydraulic plungers at the rear. The unit-construction motor is an inclined vertical twin with shaft-and-bevel driven double overhead cams, with peak revs of 8000rpm. Ignition is by forward-mounted magneto, the supercharger sits atop the gearbox, and is fed by a single (very large) Amal-Fischer TT carb. The crankcases and covers are all magnesium.

A shot of the Grand Prix blown 500cc racer in road-race form [Paul d’Orléans]
NSU’s 500cc DOHC twin-cylinder engine had a disadvantage in GP racing as it’s a heavy lump, and while the power was excellent, the much lighter Moto Guzzi singles and Gilera Fours meant tough competition on the track. Weight isn’t an issue during a speed record though, as it only slows acceleration, and doesn’t affect top speed. Thus the Delphin III was fully equipped with both front and rear brakes, and lead blocks were even hung on the frame to combat high-speed lift, and keep the front wheel on the salt at 200mph.

Herz in the Delphin III after his crash – note the gash in the nose [Cycle magazine]
The smaller NSU streamliners (250cc and below) all used the ingenious ‘flying hammock’ seating position, in which the rider sits with legs outstretched, to make an especially low motorcycle with minimal frontal area for the best wind-cheating layout.  A Cycle magazine correspondent (Ron Britzke) made note of the superior handling and aerodynamics of these smaller machines, and reckoned that the ‘dolphin’ fairing had seen its limit, while the potential of the ‘deck chair’ design ‘has apparently just been tapped’. How right he proved to be, as future streamliners abandoned the biomorphic tadpole shape popular from the 1930s, and moved toward needle-like missiles with minimal frontal area, and riders feet-first in the cockpit.

The cockpit of the Delphin III with a traditional rider-on-top position, with the fuel tank shown, and the rev-counter [Cycle magazine]
NSU had proved their point: they built the fastest motorcycles in the world in 5 categories. But the German motorcycle market was in dire straits in 1956, as the economy as a whole ramped up, and riders could afford the comfort of four wheels. By the early 1960s, most German bike manufacturers were out of business, regardless the country was once home to the largest motorcycle factories in the world (DKW and NSU).  But Germany was late in making the transition from motorcycle-as-transport to motorcycle-as-leisure object (which happened in the US in the 1920s), and the 1950s was one of the many great die-off periods in the history of motorcycling, much like 1914-18 in the USA (when hundreds of manufacturers disappeared), and 1930 everywhere else.  Two wheels has always been a tough business, and continues to be one today, but we honor the magnificent deeds of those who gave their all to keep worthy manufacturers alive.

A frontal shot of NSU’s 500cc machine that took the absolute World Speed Record for motorcycles in 1956 [Cycle magazine]
NSU’s American importers Butler&Smith (east coast) and Flanders (west coast) boast of breaking the 200mph barrier.  Note that the 250cc class record is the same as the 125-175cc record, as it was taken with the same 125cc machine!  [Hockenheim Museum Archive]


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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