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
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.
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
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
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.
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.