Auto Union Racing Cars
Created | Updated Oct 29, 2002
During the late 1930s, in the years immediately prior to WWII, German cars known as the 'Silver Arrows' dominated international motor racing. Foremost among these were the teams run by Mercedes and by Auto Union. This entry will attempt to explore the genesis, history and success of the Auto Union team, the reasons for its disappearance, and its links to the modern Audi motor company.
The Genesis of Auto Union
August Horch (1868 - 1951) founded A Horch & Cie in Germany on 14 November, 1899. They started in Cologne, before moving to Saxony and then Zwickau. Their first car (with an engine that gave less than 5hp1) was produced in 1901, and shares in the company were issued in 1902. However by 1909, Horch was at odds with the shareholders, and by 1910 he left and (after losing the legal rights to his company name) set up Audiwerk as a separate company. Horch is German for 'hark', so he chose the Latin word Audi, which has a similar meaning.
Horch (the company) meanwhile was taken over by Dr Moritz Strauss, who signed Paul Daimler (son of Gottleib2) as a designer, and set about making their eight-cylinder engines synonymous with reliability and luxury.
In 1911, Herr Horch won the International Alpine Run in an Audi. This was a highly prestigious racing event. A full Audi team was entered in 1912, 1913 and 1914 and won on every occasion. In 1921, Audi produced the first German left-hand drive production car, and in 1923 they introduced four-wheel hydraulic braking. Horst himself designed their torpedo-like bodywork, which increased top speeds markedly.
JS Rasmussen - who also owned DKW cars3 - acquired a majority holding of the Audi company in August 1928, and began producing DKW cars in their plant. Effectively, DKW had taken over Audi. Rasmussen decreed that Audi's design ethos should change to concentrate on small, light cars and that their first design should be ready in six weeks; remarkably, it was. This design introduced front-wheel drive in 1931 - it would be the 1970s before this became standard in other marques - and was one of the most successful German cars of the period, selling 250,000 units.
This left DKW free to concentrate on motorbikes, becoming the leading global brand by 1928.
Elsewhere in the German automobile world, Wanderer sold its motorbikes arm to NSU4 in 1929 (in order to concentrate on its faltering car business) and signed Ferdinand Porsche's design consultancy. NSU only re-enter this story much later, but Porsche and Wanderer would soon become very important to Audi.
The Depression hit Germany particularly hard, and many firms found themselves struggling. In 1932, Audi, Horch, Wanderer and DKW combined to form the Auto Union (AU). They adopted four rings as their logo, one for each of the founder companies. All four companies were based in Saxony, and together they could cover the whole motor-vehicle market from motorbikes to luxury cars. Audi concentrated on the sports side, Horch on producing luxury vehicles, Wanderer (whose auto division had been bought in a hostile take over) on small to medium cars, and DKW on small cars. DKW was the main brand, producing around 80% of the conglomerate's cars, and only narrowly being beaten by VW (Volkswagen) to producing Hitler's 'people's car'.
The Racing Programme
In 1933, Grand Prix racing was essentially an all-Italian affair, with races being struggles between Bugatti, Alfa-Romeo and Maserati. For 1934, a new formula was introduced by the AIACR5, with a maximum weight of 750kg, in order to restrict the size of engine that could be used (they estimated that this weight limit would allow around 2.5 litre engines - keep this figure in mind).
Hitler had determined to make the German automobile industry a world leader, in order to promote German industry in general. He regarded racing as an integral part of this, and consequently 500,000 Reichmarks had been pledged to make Mercedes the leading race team in the world - Hitler was something of a Mercedes fan, although he hated driving himself. AU sent a senior delegation to Hitler and persuaded him that having two competing racing programmes would be better than one. He agreed to split the fund between Mercedes and AU. Although AU earned themselves the enmity of Mercedes, an enemy they could never hope to match in terms of size, they also won themselves an opportunity to make their name in the racing world.
Ferdinand Porsche had already done some work for Wanderer, before setting up his own consultancy in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He now had a car design, but no customers for it. AU quickly signed him up.
In 1934, AU produced their first Grand Prix car. Remember that 2.5 litre target set by the AIACR? By using lightweight materials, the Auto Union was able to have a 4.4 litre V16 engine developing 295hp. It was mounted at the rear of the cockpit for aerodynamic reasons (27 years before Cooper made this layout standard in Grand Prix cars and even longer before Lotus introduced the idea to the USA), with the fuel tank centrally positioned behind the driver. This design meant that the handling of the race-car altered very little as the amount of fuel changed. Wind-tunnel testing gave the cars an aerodynamic edge, again long before this became standard practice (the idea was still a novelty when Lotus discovered ground effect in 1978). The chassis itself of course was a ladder-frame (crude by today's standards, but all that was available then). Porsche tried to incorporate the hydraulics into these tubes, but problems with leaks forced him to abandon this idea.
AU pioneered the use of in-car monitoring systems during testing. Largely, this was forced upon them because their arch-rivals Mercedes had a chief designer who could himself drive the cars at race speeds. AU used clockwork mechanism and a paper disc to record data such as engine revs while the car was being tested. The engineers could then study this at leisure afterwards.
Why 'Silver Arrows'?
Germany's motor-sport colour was white. At this time, as mentioned above, there was a maximum weight limit on the cars. Mercedes' car was weighed and found to be one kilo too heavy. Alfred Neubauer, the Mercedes team manager, hit upon the idea of stripping the paint from the cars. When combined with the filler (which smoothed the hand-beaten metal panels), this made up the necessary weight reduction. The cars were an instant success, and silver was quickly adopted as the German racing colour. Thus the dominant German cars of this period, the Mercedes and Auto Unions, were referred to as 'silver arrows', a name still occasionally applied to Mercedes DTM cars6 and McLaren-Mercedes F1 machines.
Along with Mercedes, Auto Union entered motorsport at the top, thoroughly outperforming the Italian machinery. Despite poor handling, their car's acceleration and top speed were excellent. Hans Stuck used it to win the German Road and Hillclimb Championship. It also claimed three Grands Prix wins that year, and was third in its debut race.
1935 saw the arrival of the B-type, which was even better. Stuck had three Grands Prix wins (the car had four) and again dominated hill climbing. He was unceremoniously fired at the end of the year in favour of Berndt Rosemeyer, a former bike racer. He became European Grand Prix Champion in 1936 in a Type C. The team won five races that year, eclipsing even Mercedes, despite remaining comparatively under-funded.
In 1937, an Auto Union car with a streamlined fairing and an output of 545 horsepower from a six-litre engine was the first to exceed a speed of 400km/hour on a public road (autobahns, you gotta love 'em). The next year, AU pioneered crash testing, using a surprisingly modern combination of front and side impacts and lateral rolls. AU had won 37 of the 54 Grands Prix between 1934 and 1937 inclusive.
Porsche left the company in 1938, and they ditched the V16 for a 500hp supercharged V12 to comply with the new 3-litre, 850kg formula. They had five Grands Prix wins, plus a win in the USA that year, but withdrew from most of the next year's racing following Rosenmeyer's death during a record attempt. His ratio of 10 wins from 33 starts was the best of that era. Demoralised, the team was forced to re-hire Stuck and abandon record attempts. Nevertheless, they won 2 Grands Prix in 1939, including Yugoslavia, the last pre-war Grand Prix.
Demise and Rebirth
From 1940 onwards, the company switched exclusively to the production of military vehicles. The remaining race-cars were hidden in a cave. Auto Union, along with many other German industrial companies, took advantage of the German government's policy of using prisoners as slave labour. These slave labourers were worked to death. On 17 August, 1948, with its assets (including the hidden cars and its factories) seized without compensation and dismantled by the Soviet occupying authorities as war reparations, Auto Union AG was deleted from the commercial register. AKW and Audi later had their works managers executed by the Russians.
Barely a year later, on 3 September, 1949, Auto Union GmbH was established by former directors of the old company, using aid from the Bavarian government and the Marshall Plan. The Audi and DKW brands were retained, but Horch and Wanderer fell by the wayside. The new company was based in Ingolstadt (in West Germany). Going back to the DKW designs, production of vans and motorbikes recommenced. By 1950, and for the next 11 years, AU was outsourcing road-car production to Rhein-metall-Borsig AG in Dusseldorf. The DKW Meisterklasse F89P was their first post-war passenger car.
At the instigation of leading entrepreneur Friedrich Karl Flick, Daimler-Benz AG acquired the majority of shares in Auto Union GmbH on 24 April, 1958. They subsequently purchased the remaining shares. From this date until the end of 1965, Auto Union was a subsidiary of the Stuttgart-based Daimler Group.
Once again at the instigation of leading industrialist Friedrich Karl Flick, Volkswagenwerk AG acquired the majority of shares (50.3%) in Auto Union GmbH in December 1964. The DKW F9 had been one of VWs biggest post-war competitors. The Ingolstadt-based company became a fully owned VW subsidiary from the end of 1966. It was only at this point that their dogged insistence on clunky old 2-stroke engine technology (a hangover from the DKW motorbike days) was abandoned, on the insistence of VW, in favour of a more efficient design.
In 1965, a car was released under the Audi name, using an engine developed under Daimler. In 1968, the Audi 100 was launched. This car, and subsequent developments of it, became a major success and was largely responsible for the survival of the Audi name. Up until this point, spare capacity at the Audi plant had been taken up by the production of VW Beetles; now, Audi were working flat out just to keep up with demand for their own-brand product. The DKW name was slowly dropped.
In March 1969, NSU Motorenwerke AG (remember them?), which had just been taken over by VW, and the Ingolstadt-based Auto Union GmbH merged to form Audi NSU Auto Union AG, which had its head office in Neckarsulm. This remained a subsidiary of VW, but the Audi name was being used as part of the company title for the first time since 1932, 37 years previously. NSU had built the lowest-ever-drag motorbike (capable of 400km/hour on a 100cc engine) and was once the world's largest motorbike manufacturer. They had also developed the rotary piston engine in 1959.
In 1971, the first advert to feature the slogan 'Vorsprung durch Technik' - 'The Technological Edge' - appeared. This was to advertise the 1972 Audi 80, which became Audi's biggest hit to date. Its engine was adopted wholesale by the VW group. By now, five-cylinder engines had been developed for use across the Audi range, offering a compromise between efficiency and power.
1974 saw the release of the Audi 50, a return to the small-car market and progenitor of the lower-spec VW Polo.
In 1980 the Audi Quattro was launched. This was the first four-wheel drive (4-WD) system for use in a high-performance car; previously, 4-WD had been used in commercial vehicles and off-roaders only. In 1981, the Quattro won three times. In 1982 it took the Constructors title and second place in the Drivers. Hannu Mikkola reversed that in 1983 by taking the Drivers title in a Quattro but being runner-up in the Constructors championship.
In 1984, the Audi Quattro and Stig Blomqvist won World Rally Constructors and Drivers Championships.
With effect from 1 January, 1985, Audi NSU Auto Union AG was renamed AUDI AG. At the same time the company moved its head office from Neckarsulm to Ingolstadt. It remained part of the VW-Audi Group, but the Auto Union name disappeared forever.