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Auto Union: Audi's ancestor

With a rare Auto Union GP car about to be auctioned, Andrew Noakes looks back at the 75 year-old company’s history.

By Andrew Noakes / Friday, February 2, 2007

C Type at Goodwood

C Type at Goodwood

Audi’s ancestor, Auto Union, was formed 75 years ago this year and, with a rare Auto Union Grand Prix car going under the hammer on 17 February, we look back at the company’s history.

Ever wondered why Audi’s logo consists of four rings? Something to do with quattro four-wheel drive, maybe, or four-cylinder engines? Not even close. Audi’s interlinked four rings actually stand for the four German car manufacturers which merged together to form Auto Union in 1932, 75 years ago.

August Horch with his 853 in 1936
August Horch with his 853 in 1936
Hans Stuck hillclimbing in a 1934 A Type
Hans Stuck hillclimbing in a 1934 A Type
Jørgen Rasmussen
Jørgen Rasmussen
Rosemeyer and Muller's 1937 C Type at Donington
Rosemeyer and Muller's 1937 C Type at Donington
Bernd Rosemeyer in a C Type at Donington in 1937
Bernd Rosemeyer in a C Type at Donington in 1937
Nuvolari in a 1938 D Type
Nuvolari in a 1938 D Type
DKW Junior and Auto Union 1000 in the 1960s at the Brandenburg Gate
DKW Junior and Auto Union 1000 in the 1960s at the Brandenburg Gate
1960 Audi F103 S - ding dong
1960 Audi F103 S - ding dong
D Type, C Type and A Type
D Type, C Type and A Type

August Horch founded two of those companies. The first, simply called Horch, began trading in 1899. Though the cars Horch built were widely admired, the company’s finances were always shaky and in 1909 Horch fell out with the firm’s board of directors. Forced out of the company he had created, Horch began again with a new car company which he called Audi, based on the Latin translation of his name. While the Horch company introduced a new line of lower-priced cars powered by 66-degree V8 engines, Audi built four- and six-cylinder cars which proved successful in the long-distance sporting trials of the day.

United in the 1930s

The other two car makers involved in Auto Union were Wanderer and DKW. Wanderer began in 1911 with small four-cylinder cars and later a more luxurious six, while the DKW steam equipment company founded by Dutch engineer Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen in 1916 branched out into motorcycles, and then front-drive two-stroke cars.

In 1928 Rasmussen bought Audi, and in 1932 Audi, DKW and Wanderer were brought together with Horch under the umbrella of Auto Union – though all four brands continued to build cars under their own names. It wasn’t until 1934 that Auto Union really hit the headlines.

That year a new Grand Prix racing formula came into effect, with no specific limit on engine size but stipulating a maximum car weight of 750kg.

A radical mid-engined design by Ferdinand Porsche was adopted by Auto Union and developed with funding from the new Nazi government, and it made its public debut at the Berlin Motor Show early in 1934. Its cigar-like shape, low build and supercharged 4.4-litre V16 engine (developing 295bhp) made it the talk of the show.

But the Auto Unions, proudly carrying the new four-ring logo, flattered to deceive: at their race debut that May two of the three cars retired with mechanical problems, and the third was beaten by a pair of Alfa Romeos. The cars came good, fittingly, in the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, where Hans Stuck won comfortably.

More race wins and a series of victories in prestigious European hill-climbs cemented a triumphant debut season.

Auto Union wins on-track

For 1935 the V16 Auto Union was refined into a ‘B-type’, with new exhaust systems, modified suspension and larger 4.95-litre engines producing 375bhp. The rival Mercedes-Benz W25s – front-engined straight-eights, also built with a share of German government funding – had even more power and dominated the season, winning five of the seven major races that year. Daimler-Benz then developed a short-chassis car to reduce weight, but in the process ruined their cars’ handling; Auto Union surged back to the fore with a C-type car with a big-bore 6.0-litre engine developing 520bhp. Bernd Rosemeyer dominated the season in his C-type, and continued the good form into 1937 and the final year of the 750kg formula.

The new Grand Prix rules for 1938 stipulated a minimum weight of 800kg, and a maximum engine size of three litres supercharged or 4.5-litres ‘unblown’. Ferdinand Porsche was now busy designing what would become the Volkswagen, so a new Auto Union D-type was drawn up by Austrian engineer Robert Eberan von Eberhorst.

Eberan moved the driver and engine closer to the centre of the car, removing the central fuel tank of the C-type and instead mounting horizontal fuel panniers either side of the cockpit.

A new 3.0-litre V12 engine was designed, with a camshaft on each bank of cylinders to operate the exhaust valves and a shared intake cam in the centre of the ‘V’, and a new magnesium supercharger. The new V12 generated 460bhp, despite its much-reduced capacity. With de Dion suspension replacing the previous rear swing-axles and a more helpful driving position, the D-type was considerably easier to drive on the limit than the earlier Auto Unions.

But the team was rocked by the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in a record attempt, and it was late in the season before the great Tazio Nuvolari recorded the first D-type wins. Nuvolari and Hans Stuck added more victories in 1939, before Europe descended into war.

Post-war blues

Auto Union’s Zwickau home was part of the post-war East Germany, and the company re-established itself in Dusseldorf (while the Zwickau works later built motorcycles and then the Trabant). Two-stroke front-wheel drive cars based on pre-war designs were sold under the DKW name, with some success.

In 1959 the company came under the control of Daimler-Benz, which revived the Auto Union name for a new two-stroke road car and then set about developing a modern four-cylinder, four-stroke engine for a new family of cars while at the same time moving production to a new factory at Ingolstadt. The new engine saw service in heavily revised version of the last of the DKWs – but it carried the Audi name, which had not been seen since before the war. By then Daimler-Benz had started to worry about Auto Union’s viability, and had sold the company in stages to Volkswagen.

The new owner ‘retired’ the DKW name, and concentrated on a more modern and more upmarket Audi brand – with front-wheel drive, water cooling and more luxurious accommodation than any VW could offer.

Today’s Audis, technically advanced and meticulously manufactured as they are, can’t claim more than the vaguest of links with the Auto Unions of the past.

But Audi is, at least, proud of its heritage.

It owns an impressive collection of real and recreated Auto Union racers, including a 1938 D-type – similar to the 1939 car which Christie’s will auction at Retromobile in Paris on 17 February. That car is valued at 8.8-12million euro (up to £8million) and is expected to break the current record for a car sold at auction, £5.5million by a Bugatti Royale sold by Christie’s in 1987.

Worth remembering the next time you see a four-ringed badge…

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Copyright © Andrew Noakes 2007

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