Two cell phones, three cameras, one handbag and an x-ray … a list of items a typical 79-year-old who’s circumventing the world to celebrate her retirement might need en route. But not if you’re Heidi Hetzer who has also needed a spare straight-eight engine, a set of custom cylinder heads, a dozen head gaskets and two conrods – along with the collective goodwill of umpteen vintage car enthusiasts around the globe. But then Heidi’s not seeing the world from the deck of a cruise liner … she’s behind the wheel of her 1930 Hudson Great Eight. In our October 2016 issue Graeme Hurst caught up with this inimitable grandmother on her arrival in Cape Town, two years and 70 000km into her journey – a journey that started, and will end, in her native Berlin.
In today’s celebrity-obsessed society most young petrolheads dream of meeting their hero … whether it be Lewis Hamilton or Valentino Rossi. And it’s safe to say most of those youngsters would give anything to emulate their success on the track. But those desires aren’t just unique to our social media-savvy teenage generation, as Heidi Hetzer’s achievements prove. This 79-year-old Berliner grew up so in awe of Clärenore Stinnes – an accomplished 1920s racing driver who was the first woman to drive around the world back in 1929 – that she decided to emulate her epic circumnavigation some 87 years later. The idea of the trip wasn’t entirely surprising to Heidi’s friends and family as she’s obsessed with cars, having trained as a mechanic under her car dealer father, before taking over his business 46 years ago. She’s also a celebrity in German racing circles, having spent the last six decades rallying on two and four wheels.
“I knew about her all my life mainly thanks to my father who was a motorcycle driver. He drove to Egypt in the late 1920s and he told me a lot about that and also about a woman who drove around the world. There were two books and three movies about her trip.” That trip, which began in May 1927, was all of 47 000km and Clärenore was behind the wheel of a new Adler Standard 6. It was a hugely exciting adventure, the tales of which impressed Heidi as a young girl. “So I had a trip in my mind my whole life but it was not possible as I had a big Opel dealership with more than 150 employees and you know you cannot go away for two years. So I drove rallies and so on in the meantime.”
And those rallies were far from being just local club stuff. “I did La Carrera Panamericana four times and the Mille Miglia four times,” adds Heidi whose profile was so high, she was frequently hired as a driver so that owners of eligible cars could get an entry into Blue Riband events. Heidi reckons she’s unique in that she spent 20 years racing motorcycles, 20 years racing modern cars and then 20 driving old timers (as the German’s like to call vintage and classic fare). “Many times I am driving classic cars in rallies and they are the same cars I rallied when they were new.”
That was until just over two years ago when she retired at the age of 77 and opted to sell the car dealership as neither of her two children was keen on taking it over. But the decision worried her offspring. “They said: ‘Mama, you die if you don’t go to work. What are you going to do?’ ” Well I thought I would drive a little more rallies and then I thought: Oh, maybe I go around the world like Clärenore. ”
But what vehicle to take? Heidi’s has no shortage of cars in her 13-strong personal collection – which spans everything from a 1909 Opel and an Hispano-Suiza H6 to a late-’50s Corvette. She’s also got a few Opel Mantas and an Opel Calibra. One of the latter would’ve made sense from a reliability and comfort point of view but Heidi wasn’t going to cop out. “I cannot drive her roads as they are all gone but at least I like to have that feeling. What she had in an old car. That’s the only thing I can do again.”
As a 1921 model, Heidi’s Hispano certainly ticked the box, but its construction made it far from ideal. “My friends said: ‘Heidi, the engine is all aluminium. You will not be able to fix it on the other side of the world.’ ” She was also worried about the image it would portray. “With the Hudson, everyone’s happy and waving but the Hispano is in a different group. It’s like a Rolls-Royce – they would say, ‘Look, the lady is driving a Rolls-Royce.’ ” In the end an online advertisement for a more humble and wonderfully original 1930 Hudson Eight caught her eye.
“It was built in Detroit and sent to Norway when new. It ended up in a museum. Later it was brought to Germany and someone drove it for 30 years and then the owner died and his daughter put it up for sale on the internet and nobody wanted it for six years,” says Heidi, who bought the eight-cylinder two-door sedan a few months before the trip.
Heidi’s Great Eight – which she christened Hudo – was given some upgrades to cope with the journey, including a switch to an electric fuel pump with a second tank to boost the car’s range, and a 12-volt alternator conversion to provide power for satellite navigation and a phone charger. Hudo’s cooling was also upgraded with an electric fan while the interior was stripped out to make way for spares and camping equipment. But mechanically the car was otherwise stock with its 60hp side-valve 3.5-litre straight-eight retaining its single updraft carburettor, white metal crankshaft bearings and splash-fed oil lubrication. The car’s wooden wheels remained too. “I didn’t know what I really got into and maybe that’s good,” she laughs.
And the route? Clärenore’s 762-day journey took her across the Balkans and Siberia before heading through China and Japan and then by ship to Hawaii and on to Lima. From there she crossed the Andes to Argentina and then back again before going up through Central America and on to New York. Her Adler was then shipped to Europe for the last run back to Berlin but Heidi was not keen on emulating her journey exactly. “Clärenore’s intention was to drive AROUND the world but I wanted to SEE the world so I did her route but much more. She was 26 but I was 77 when I left so for me it’s the last time,” explains Heidi.
Clärenore’s adventure was funded by the German motor industry at the time and she had support in the form of two mechanics in a backup vehicle with spares – much needed given the state of the near-non-existent roads in remote areas back in the late 1920s. She also had company in the form of Swedish cinematographer Carl-Axel Söderström, whom she later married.
Thanks to her early career as a mechanic, Heidi knows her way around a car so opted to take her own tools but her husband Robert, who isn’t into old cars and prefers to play golf in his retirement, wasn’t keen to take the passenger seat. A friend who planned to do so had to pull out at the eleventh hour due to health issues and so Heidi made a public appeal for a companion.
“I said on TV I’m looking for a co-pilot and lots of people got in touch but I noticed they all said they are good drivers and I thought, but what am I going to do with a good driver? I want to drive myself!” recalls Heidi, who only wanted someone for company and to navigate. She made that known in another appeal on German TV just four weeks before the trip and the response was more promising. “I took the youngest guy. Just 24 years old. He had no driver’s licence so he could not take my wheel. He was travelling with a backpack and wasn’t expecting hotels.” But he also wasn’t expecting how tough a trip in an old car can be. “He was scared. Every time a car came towards us he was shouting and every time we had to make a decision where to turn he had to have a cigarette and think about things.”
It wasn’t a good start. “After three hours I turned around and took him back to Berlin. I was also unhappy with the engine which made an, ‘etch, etch, etch’ noise.” Fortunately Heidi had another Hudson Great Eight – bought as a car to plunder for parts – and she was able to have the engine swapped over. Four days later she again headed east out of Berlin but this time alone. Her route would take her south through Eastern Europe to Bulgaria and then below the Black Sea as she crossed Turkey and headed for Iran and then Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
From there, Heidi set course for Kazakhstan and then China, which was quite hair-raising thanks to poor roads and unpredictable traffic. With little satellite coverage and a language impossible to understand, Heidi took to writing the names of the villages and cities she passed through on strips of masking tape stuck on Hudo’s dash so that she would know where she was at all times. After China the Hudson trundled south through Laos and Thailand and on to Malaysia before it was shipped from Singapore to Perth in Australia.
To date she’s only had three minor accidents: one in China when she got distracted by a passenger and didn’t see a car stop ahead and two in Laos when Hudo’s brakes were past their best and she couldn’t stop in time when other motorists did something stupid in the traffic. Each time Hudo was unscathed but the other cars needed repairs, which Heidi settled despite not being at fault in Laos. “I could not say that my brakes were not good!”
Unsurprisingly, the sight of a vintage car on German plates being steered by a lone woman caused quite a stir along the way and Heidi has been engulfed with requests for photographs and offers of assistance en route. Word of her endeavours quickly spread among the various local car clubs and enthusiasts associated with the Hudson Essex Terraplane Car Club. And it was those communities that influenced the cities she visited, following offers to stay and take part in local events. It was also those club contacts that helped keep Hudo ticking over, most notably in Melbourne after the car’s engine took strain with the hot climate on the Nullabor Straight – part of the 1 000-mile highway linking Western and South Australia.
A stripdown to sort a blown head gasket revealed that the twin cylinder heads were in a bad state and Heidi had a local engineering shop make up a new set out of billet alloy. But before they were finished the straight-eight called time and Heidi had Hudo’s original engine – which had since been checked over in Berlin – air-freighted out and installed. But when she started it up, the noise was back. “It still made ‘etch, etch, etch’. They never could find it when they worked on it,” says Heidi.
From Melbourne Heidi shipped the car to Auckland and spent two months travelling around New Zealand, meeting up with two Hispano-Suiza owners along the way before shipping Hudo to Los Angeles. Although Heidi usually travels with her car she didn’t fancy four weeks at sea with a cargo crew and opted to fly ahead and tour California with a friend. Reunited with her Hudson, she motored around the Grand Canyon and drove across the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
After that, she headed north as far as Seattle and on to Canada, touring British Columbia and heading back into the US to Detroit – where she showed Hudo off at the Henry Ford Museum – and then up into Canada’s Ontario. It was there where that x-ray comes into the story after her hand was injured while checking for oil leaks under the car. “I was holding a rag and the radiator fan came on and blew it up in the air and it got caught in the shaft that drives the alternator.” With two fingers badly mangled, Heidi was rushed to a local hospital where doctors sewed her hand back to together although Heidi did lose part of the pinkie on her right hand. The injury didn’t deter her in the slightest. “I said, ‘Just do what you must do but make sure I can shift gear with the hand.’ They operated and next morning I left.”
Bandaged up, Heidi headed down the US East coast for the famous Hershey autojumble in Pennsylvania last October. From there it was all the way down the east coast to Miami where Heidi elected to skip Central America in the interests of security and ship the Hudson straight to Lima in Peru.
South America was the only time that Heidi had brushes with crime when her handbag and two cell phones were stolen at various points, just after a camera went overboard off the container ship she was on. But it was also was one of the darker moments of the trip when she was diagnosed with cancer. Although she sought treatment in Lima, doctors couldn’t agree on what to do and she elected to put Hudo on display in Lima’s Museo de Autos Antiguos Colección Nicolini and return to Germany for treatment.
Unsurprisingly she took the news about her health in her stride stating on her blog that: “Heidi needs some repair work done in Germany. She feels fine, but has been attacked by ‘rust’ and requires restoration.” And she was also determined her visit home wasn’t going to spoil the way the trip ultimately ended. “I said when I started I’m going east and I only come back to Berlin from the west so I know I have been around the world.” That meant arranging treatment in Essen, where she has family.
A month on, Heidi thankfully had the all-clear and was back in Peru and on her way south in Hudo to Chile. But sadly that part of the journey saw Hudo plagued with mechanical drama. Awkwardly it was just after a German TV crew had flown out to film her (the fifth such filming, with a sixth session planned while she’s here in SA) so they had to complete the TV work with Hudo going at a snail’s pace and making odd noises.
Mechanical salvation came in the form of Carlos Romero from the Club de Automóviles Antiguos en Vina del Mar. Carlos, having seen her and Hudo at Hershey, had been following her blog and offered to help. “He emailed me and said, ‘I know only one man who can fix it and that’s my father – he is the master of the master’ ”. A full rebuild ensued and Heidi, determined to get to the bottom of ongoing overheating drama, had the new alloy cylinder heads couriered over from Australia.
With Hudo’s powertrain overhauled, Heidi then tackled the most difficult part of her trip – crossing over the Andes to Argentina but although the car handled the altitude, all was not well with the refreshed engine and near Mendoza it ran two big end bearings, breaking a bearing cap. When Carlos Romero’s father heard the news he was so mortified that this could happen to ‘his engine’ he insisted that the car be brought back to Chile and so Hudo was trucked back over the Andes. “He said it was important for his honour.” But the decision to truck Hudo hit serious red tape when the Chilean authorities demanded import duties as the car was on a trailer and not under its own power. Undeterred, Heidi dropped Hudo’s sump and disconnected the offending conrods so that she could drive the car over the border on six cylinders!
A month on and Hudo was purring over the Andes again en route for Buenos Aires, from where he was shipped over to Cape Town. As Classic Car Africa went to print, Heidi was enjoying meeting local enthusiasts (who arranged a track outing to Killarney circuit!) and planning a three-month trip through Namibia and then across Botswana and up to Victoria Falls. From there she plans to head south and tour the rest of South Africa before getting back to Cape Town to ship the car to Spain for the last leg of her epic journey up to Germany.
Barring any further mechanical drama, that should see Hudo approach Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate from the west in late March/early April next year. Heidi’s hoping to time it so that she completes her round-the-world journey in exactly 1 000 days … and so that she has time to prepare for her 80th birthday in June. That’s when over 300 friends – many of whom she’s met on her travels – will gather to celebrate Heidi’s epic achievement. One that will undoubtedly make her a celebrity for the next generation.