The History of the Four Rings--Part 2



Auto Union AG

In common with the automotive industry as a whole, the 1920s were a period of rationalization at Audi, Horch, DKW and Wanderer. Line assembly and modern machine tools had resulted in a sharp rise in production capacity, yet mass production could only work if there was corresponding market demand. Promoting sales to the necessary degree was a costly affair, and the price war triggered off by stronger competition from abroad also devoured large amounts of money. The German car industry found itself frequently unable to finance all this from its own profits, and sources of credit were needed.

In Saxony, the State Bank of Saxony had more or less satisfied Horch-Werke's needs for capital loans, and had also paved the way for the expansion of the Rasmussen Group. The State Bank of Saxony eventually resolved to consolidate its interests in the automotive trade, and the idea of Auto Union was born. The absorbing company was Zschopauer Motorenwerke J. S. Rasmussen AG, which already owned Audi-Werke AG. Horch-Werke AG was also placed under its control, as was Wanderer-Werke's car division through a purchase and leasing agreement. Its share capital totalled 14.5 million Reichsmarks, with the State Bank of Saxony controlling an 80 % interest.

The Creation of a Competitive Structure

The image of Auto Union AG on the motor vehicle market was shaped by the four founder marques Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer, together with their products. It took years to develop a consistent corporate concept and apply it to this chance constellation of highly traditional companies.

Type Development

At the 1933 German Automobile Exhibition, in which Auto Union participated for the first time in its new corporate form, the Audi marque caused a stir with its front-wheel drive for midsize cars. However, the innovative nature of this development was not reflected in higher registration figures, with avant-garde technology evidently proving to have only marginal market appeal. The concept was modified and in 1938 the Audi 920, a car which was externally very modern in design, with a high-performance engine, was launched on the market. Its newly developed OHC engine developed 75 hp, propelling the car to a top speed of 140 km/h. This Audi was aimed at customers who wanted a powerful car, but not necessarily a large one; an Audi for dynamic, sports-minded drivers. Front-wheel drive subsequently yielded to rear-wheel drive again, and the conventional profile-type chassis was adopted instead of a central box-type chassis. The car was available as a 6-window saloon and as a two-door convertible with four windows. Demand for the Audi 920 was so high that more than a year's production output was sold out only shortly after its launch.

At that time, the fame of the DKW marque was based primarily on its motorcycles. In 1933, the model range comprised eight different types with engines ranging from 175 to 600 cc. One year later, the RT 100 appeared on the market. With its simple, straightforward body and its combination of economy and power, it set standards that remained valid for several decades. The RT was available for an unbeatable 345 Reichsmarks, and became one of the most-produced motorcycles of all time.
The 200 Class nevertheless continued to underpin the success of the motorcycle operations in Zschopau. DKW enjoyed a clear market lead here, a fact unchanged by the appearance of the NZ series in 1938. These attractive models in the middle and upper displacement class, with four-speed gearbox, foot gearshift mechanism and rear suspension, were a fitting reflection of the advanced development status of DKW two-stroke motorcycles.

DKW's small cars were produced both in Berlin-Spandau (rear-wheel drive and charge-pump V4 two-stroke engine) and in Zwickau (front-wheel drive, two-cylinder, two-stroke inline engine). All engines were built in Zschopau, whereas the DKW wooden chassis for the front-wheel-drive DKWs assembled in Zwickau were manufactured in Spandau. The German rail operator, the Reichsbahn, transported daily shipments of vehicle bodies to Zwickau for eight marks per body.

The DKW front-wheel-drive cars (bearing the type designations F2, 4, 5, 7 and 8) were available in two classes: the "Reichsklasse" (600 cc engine, 18 hp) and the "Meisterklasse" (700 cc engine, 20 hp). "Front Luxus" was the name of the beautiful convertible with a sheet steel body. The DKW Front models remained the most popular and best-selling small cars in Germany: in the 1930s, a quarter of a million of these cars were sold. Their front-wheel drive gave them something of a pioneering character. The F9 was the designated successor to the models built both in Spandau and Zwickau, with its new three-cylinder engine developing 28 hp and sheet steel body. It was scheduled to enter production in 1940, but then the war intervened.

Horch's reputation for exclusive cars built in Zwickau stretched back several decades. The engines in particular served as a benchmark and were considered exemplary for both their performance characteristics and their refinement. Economy was not an issue in the deluxe class, and the "Horch 8" came to be regarded as the zenith of quality. The V8 engine developed by Fritz Fiedler was launched in 1933, initially as a 3.0 litre version; 3.5 litre and then 3.8 litre versions followed, and its power output edged up from 70 to 92 hp. Compared with the eight-cylinder inline engine developing a hefty 120 hp, it was nevertheless still the "small" Horch. Both automobile types were initially rigid-axle models whose driving properties became something of a problem at higher speeds.

In 1935, Horch's cars were given independent front suspension and a De Dion axle at the rear (double universal joints with a rigid axle and frame-mounted differential). The Type 853 sports convertible with eight-cylinder inline engine, considered by many to be the most beautiful Horch ever built, made its début in the same year. The Horch marque was easily able to assert its leading position in the deluxe class; in 1937, it held a market share in excess of 50 percent in the 4 litre and upwards class.

Wanderer's cars were already being propelled by the new overhead camshaft engine designed by Professor Porsche before the Auto Union era. New, modern suspension layouts and body versions were therefore developed on this basis. A rear swing axle in conjunction with a rigid front axle appeared in 1933 on the Type W 21 and 22, with independent front suspension finally being adopted for the W 40, 45 and 50 in 1935. Models with three-figure code numbers (W 240, 250, etc.) represented the transitional phase between the two.

The dependable but very expensive OHV engine was replaced by a side-valve engine of identical power output from 1937 on. The W 24 (four-cylinder) and W 23 (six-cylinder) models first appeared on the market with these engines in 1937. The engines were standardized and the chassis largely coordinated (rigid rear axle and raised transverse springs). Auto Union's new line of body versions first appeared on the 1936 Wanderer model W 51. From then on this line, which was inspired by American models, was echoed by all new Auto Union vehicles to a greater or lesser degree.


In the same way that Auto Union was originally simply a new name for long-established products, the management too initially adhered to existing structures. At first, the group was managed from Zschopau (DKW's home). In 1936 the group's new office building in Chemnitz was completed, following conversion work. This signalled the end of separate vehicle development activities at each location: the Central Design Office and Central Testing Department were opened in Chemnitz. New group vehicles were now developed and tested here, and the prototype and a set of drawings were then handed over to the production plant.

Particular emphasis was placed on the development of two-stroke engines. Auto Union had acquired an exclusive licence from Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz for the utilization of the Schnürle patents (the reverse scavenging principle in the two-stroke engine) for its small engines. The crucial advantage of this principle was that it significantly cut fuel consumption, while boosting power output.

Optimized Production

Wanderer's engines were standardized, and the Horch V8 was destined to be replaced by a six-cylinder inline engine (offering higher output and greater refinement). Auto Union had made considerable progress in the development of automatic transmissions, and Auto Union's engineers were now seeking new methods of styling and materials selection for their body development work.

The Central Body, Development and Design Office pursued the idea of streamlining from the very outset, using the patents of the Swiss aerodynamics expert Paul Jaray as its basis. The optimum aerodynamic properties were first calculated by theoretical methods, then tested out in the wind tunnel. Production-ready body versions of the DKW F9 achieved an astonishing frontal drag coefficient of cD = 0.42 (the figure for the predecessor model, the F8, was 0.58)! Even decades later, this was still par for the course for German production vehicles.

Prompted by the shortage of iron and rubber due to the arms race, coupled with the fact that wooden chassis with leather upholstery were now too costly to build (in view of the intensive manual labour required), Auto Union began development work on a plastic body in conjunction with Dynamit AG in Troisdorf. An empirical crash testing programme was developed to assess the strength of wood, sheet metal and plastic – the first in the history of the German automobile industry.

Sideswipes and lateral and offset frontal rollovers were simulated in the Central Test Laboratory in Chemnitz. Its technical division investigated all matters relating to the materials, developed alloys and special production methods, and investigated the technological suitability of all new designs. The scientific division concentrated on future engine versions, the development of transmissions, the investigation of vibration and noise, and preparations for complex tests such as the positioning of the catapults used in crash tests. The road testing division handled the practical testing programme, series testing and monitoring, and comparative testing of competitors' products.

Auto Union enjoyed rapid expansion between 1933 and 1939: its consolidated sales rose from 65 to 276 million Reichsmarks, and the workforce grew from 8,000 to over 23,000. Annual production output of motorcycles soared from 12,000 to 59,000, and car production climbed from over 17,000 units to more than 67,000 per year. Compared with the year of Auto Union's founding, output of Horch cars had doubled by 1938, production of Wanderer cars was more than five times as high, and the total for DKW cars had actually risen to ten times the level at the time of the merger.

Next Page:  History of the Four Rings--Part 3

(Article Contents Copyright Audi AG)