The east wind made it feel colder than the actual 8 degrees at the Brandenburger Tor – Berlin’s Marble Arch. I arrived before noon and expected the area to the west of the quadriga, to be packed. In fact, there were around a hundred spectators surrounding a 1930 Hudson 8, upon which, a diminutive woman’s figure was perched. It was Heidi Hetzer. She isn’t a small woman, but in that vast space, she seemed lost. As I approached, I realised my mistake. She was fighting the background noise of tourist buses and holding a question and answer session with her fans. She had no public-address system, not even a megaphone, no police to control the crowds, just Heidi and her most intimate well-wishers, turned out to welcome her back to Berlin, after travelling round the world in her ancient American jalopy. There was a good contingent of Harley fans, their gleaming models parked confidentially close to the Hudson.
Why the fuss? Heidi is 79 and only seven years younger than her car. She has travelled around the world in the Hudson and taken 960 days, visiting parts of Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and South Africa. She thinks she drove around 60 000 miles. Helpers did some of the long gruelling stretches. There is no official number yet on the miles covered. Perhaps it was 100 000 or more? That may not sound many, but Hudo, as she has nicknamed her car, was built to travel about 10 000 miles in its lifetime. The well-wishers made it difficult, but I managed to get a glimpse of the wheels – the spokes are made of wood. When she left Berlin in July 2014, she carried four spare tyres. I think she brought two back. Not bad. Her inspiration was Clärinore Stinnes, who undertook a similar trip in 1927 in an Adler Standard 6. Clärinore’s car was new, but she needed her spares tyres. Few roads had an asphalt covering.
Why did Heidi bother? There are easier ways to travel.
Heidi has spent a lifetime with cars. Her father opened an Opel sales and service garage in the 50s. She set up her own car firm in her late teens, but it was hardly competition. The story goes, her main income was hiring a VW Beetle out to courting couples, for a few marks per hour, so that they had somewhere to snog. Takes me back! So, was this trip a final gesture to her life with motor cars?
Someone in the crowd shouted to her, ‘Heidi, you look 20 years younger than the photos.’ She smiled. No false modesty! She agreed. I suspected that meant she was not finished with motor sport, although her days as a rally driver are forgotten. Later, she announced that she was thinking about Cairo to Cape Town, but in a modern 4×4.
Heidi’s father died when she was 32. She returned from America to take over the firm, but found it insolvent. She is proud to say, there were no redundancies and the firm survived. Then came the 2008 bank crash. Opel/Vauxhall owner, General Motors, tried to save itself by sacrificing its European operations. That can’t have been easy for the Hetzer company and I speculate that Heidi dug deep into her personal fortune a second time.
Why low-key? The local TV station (RBB) had to struggle to get near Heidi. I asked the RBB journalist if there was an official press release. Not that she knew of! Had it all been said, or had she signed an exclusive? As I watched Heidi chatting with fans and friends I noticed how uninterested in accolades she was. She was among those special people, who have been following her blogs from around the world. They wrote back to her and watched video clips of some adventurous driving. These are still available. She might have thought she had said it all, and just wanted to be among friends, greet the fans, then have a rest with the family. Just the main welcome to do. That took place half an hour later the other side of the quadriga, on the Pariser Platz. There was high life with jubilation and cheering from thousands. At the Olympia Stadium in the afternoon, it was back to friends only. Mrs. Merkel wouldn’t have had far to walk, although her absence would be excused. She is another amazing woman with rather a lot on her plate just now. The Mayor of Berlin I had expected to attend, but that would have required security assessments and dozens of police. Heidi was right to keep it simple.
Do I sound surprised at Heidi’s exploits? Yes! She returned at the end of the week, which celebrated international women’s day. I’m ashamed to say, I knew nothing of her adventures, until Friday. I sat in a café in Herford, and noticed a copy of the Herforder Kreisblatt, carelessly thrown on a chair near mine, with a title-page picture of Heidi, sitting on her car, admiring an unnamed lake. Climbing on Hudo for the photoshoot, would test most septuagenarians, never mind driving the monster, with no power-steering or assisted brakes. Who changed her tyres, carried the fuel canisters?
Many of the unanswered questions have been dealt with in the documentary series that NDR produced during her journey, including losing a finger while repairing Hudo in Canada. Tuesday is the final episode of this journey, but not of this amazing woman.