Ernst Henne and BMW WR500 Supercharged World Landspeed Record

Motorcyclists and competitive sport go hand in hand. From a spectator’s point of view, man and motorcycle against like-for-like competition makes for compelling viewing. Not just on the rigours of a circuit, but anywhere a motorcycle can be ridden. One such arena is the straight and long length of surface dedicated to achieving motorcycle land speed records – a subject that BMW Motorrad knows more about than most.

The history of outright motorcycle speed records is long and continuous, and has led to men and women becoming famous for their attempts as well as actually setting speed records. One such star that shone brighter than most is legendary German rider, racer, car driver and dedicated champion of motorcycling, Ernst Jakob Henne. Of the many motorcycle race wins and championship titles to his name, his fame reached its greatest height when he captured a staggering 76 land speed records between 1929-1937.

Henne’s first step to greatness started at just 15 when he secured his motorcycle licence. At the age of 19, with a self-funded mechanic’s apprenticeship gained, Henne was already a master technician and tactician, and such skills were rewarded with a working contract with BMW. And then, at 23 years of age, Henne seized upon a chance to enter a motorcycle race aboard a friend’s machine and finished in third place. Henne’s successful motorcycle racing career had started.

Finally, after protracted negotiations, Henne reached agreement with his BMW employers to enable him to chase land speed records on BMW Motorrad machinery. Some of his records were set while riding a supercharged 750cc (735cc) machine based on the BMW R 63. In 1929, and in the space of just seven hours on 19 September, Henne smashed eight world records. Unfortunately, only half were officially recognised, but Henne was not deterred...

Henne and his BMW Motorrad machinery went from strength to strength. He pioneered aerodynamics with tight-fitting clothing and a helmet shape that is still favoured by today’s fanatical downhill speed-skiers. With assistance from a growing army of friends and technical experts in a bid to combat the growing global competition, Henne encompassed his machines in wind-cheating bodywork. The famous enclosed and very streamlined aircraft cockpit-style was painted white and gave rise to the tag “Henne and his egg“, which sat nicely with his nickname of “The White Ghost“ from competing in all-white garments.

Henne’s relentless determination came to fruition on 28 November 1937, when he set a new World Landspeed Record on a closed German autobahn. Sat within the confines of his fully enclosed fairing, Henne completed the necessary two-way run on his 500cc supercharged BMW. The average speed was recorded as 173.6mph (279.5km/h). Such was the phenomenal speed for the time; it took another fourteen years before it was officially beaten.

After the ‘fast one’, Ernst Jakob Henne retired from chasing land speed records but never moved away from the thrill of speed and continued riding bikes. Before he passed away on 24th May 2005, Henne recorded one more milestone by reaching his 101st birthday. Ernst Jakob Henne: a gentleman, a legend and one of the fastest men to have lived.