Auto Union (1899-1948): History of The Four Rings, Part 1

Auto Union AG (1932)


In August 1928, Rasmussen, the owner of DKW, acquired a majority ownership of Audiwerke AG. In the same year, Rasmussen bought the remains of the US automobile manufacturer Rickenbacker, including the manufacturing equipment for eight- and six-cylinder engines. These engines were used in Audi ZwickauAudi Imperator and Audi Dresden models. At the same time, six-cylinder and four-cylinder (licensed from Peugeot) models were manufactured.

In 1930 the Saxony Regional Bank, which had financed Rasmussen’s business expansion in the 1920s, installed Richard Bruhn on the board of Audiwerke AG, and there followed a brutal pruning and rationalisation of the various auto-businesses that Rasmussen had accumulated. The outcome was the founding in Summer 1932 of Auto Union AG with just four component businesses, being Zschopauer Motorenwerke with its brand DKW, Audiwerke AG, Horch Motorwagenwerke AG and Wanderer Automobile, brought together under the umbrella of single shareholder company Auto Union AG. Although all four brands continued to sell cars under their own names and brands, the technological development became more centralised, with some Audi models employing engines by Horch or Wanderer.

The world economic crisis triggered a flood of concentration in the German car industry which reduced the number of manufacturers to eleven major industrial companies, including Adler, BMW, Ford, Mercedes, Maybach, Opel and Volkswagen. The brands Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer found themselves in difficulties and, at the instigation of the main creditor, the State Bank of Saxony, merged together under the roof of Auto Union AG. With 4,100 employees it was soon the second-largest car group in the German Reich after Opel. The merger strategy still sounds familiar and modern today: the individual brands were to retain their identity while achieving synergies in development, manufacturing sales.

In the history of the motor car the 1930s goes down as the decade in which – with Ferdinand Porsche’s torsion-bar suspension – all fundamental technical developments were completed. It was only after 1932 that a luggage compartment became a standard feature on every model. A strengthened middle class following the world economic crisis provided new buyers who ere offered small, technically advanced but, above all, attractively priced cars.

The Second World War, which Adolf Hitler started and fought to the bitter end also affected Auto Union. The last civilian vehicles were produced at Horch, Wanderer and Audi in 1941. Only military equipment was manufactured from 1942. Auto Union produced – under license in some cases – crawler tractors, trucks, tank parts and engines, torpedoes, aircraft engines, gun carriages, cartridges and fuses. The traditional production of motorcycles and stationary engines only continued at the DKW plant in Zschopau, but now for military purposes. As the war progressed, prisoners of war forced labourers and also concentration camp prisoners replaced absent workers at Auto Union.

As armaments factories, the Auto Union production facilities were targets for attacks by Allies in the final years of war and were heavily damaged in some cases. Following Germany’s capitulation, all Auto Union facilities were closed and pulled down by the Soviet occupying power in the same year, 1945. The company’s former managers fled to the West. In 1948 the Auto Union AG in Chemnitz was liquidated.

Auto Union’s Silver Arrows

After new motor racing regulations were introduced in 1934 – from then on the maximum weight for Grand Prix cars was 750 kilograms – Auto Union entered the sport of Grand Prix Racing.

Ferdinand Porsche, who had established his own engineering office in Stuttgart at the end of 1930, had a concept for a new kind of racing car. Porsche’s revolutionary idea: the engine was positioned behind the driver – the mid-engine arrangement familiar to us today. This engine was an engineering masterpiece: the first version was a V16 with a capacity of 4.3 litres and an output of 290 PS; these figures went up to 5 litre capacity and 375 PS in the 1935 Type B.

Hans Stuck was the pioneer. He won half of the fourteen Grand Prix, circuit and hill-climb races in 1934. In 1935, Auto Union entered its new Type B and a new driver trio: Hans Stuck, Achille Varzi and Bernd Rosemeyer. Rosemeyer was the regular winner in 1936, the most successful year for Auto Union racing cars. The engines were of 6 litre capacity and developed between 520 and 550 PS. In 1938, Rosemeyer died in an accident on the Frankfurt autobahn during a world record attempt. His estimated speed was approximately 440 km/h (273 mph). With the Type D, which has a V12 engine Muller, Stuck and Nuvolari scored the final victories for Auto Union before was broke out.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 in this week-long feature series!

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