Recently we’ve almost become used to seeing auto unions in action again. What we’ve never seen is Ferdinanand Porsche’s prototype, the P-Wagen because there aren’t any. Or so we thought… Gordon Cruickshank headed north
Terry Wright, all flowing white hair and enthusiasm, stands beside his Lotus 7 in a quiet Aberdeenshire fishing village. His Norfolk burr makes the whole deal seem even more unlikely. Have I really driven 550 miles north to see one of the great pre-war racing cars?
In February 2000, Classic &Sports Car published a photo of a mystery engine, clearly a V16 with a vertical supercharger, being unloaded from a ship in a small Scottish port. It looked like an Auto Union power plant, but surely that was too bizarre?
Nothing more was heard until a couple of months ago, when some photos landed on my desk, with a cheerful note saying, “I’ve just finished rebuilding a P-Wagen.” A P-Wagen — the prototype Auto Union, of which there aren’t any left anywhere, let alone in private hands… That’s why I’m in this small village on a precipitous, rocky coastline, waiting for the garage doors to swing open and reveal one of the legendary Silver Arrows.
It makes a bit more sense as Wright explains his background. He’s Lotus, spending spending 1968-78 in the race team. He built 49s and 72s with Chapman and Rudd, looked after Rindt, Fittipaldi, Peterson, ran his own F3 team, hillclimbed bikes along with Jenks. He’s consumed by cars, has the engineering skills, and knows the Lotus ‘Norfolk engineering mafia’. But if the ‘how’ sounds possible, what about the ‘how come’?
Wright tells me he’s known of the car since 1960, when he was stationed with the RAF in Germany. “We had a kart club and went all over Germany and into Eastern Europe, which is when I was told about it.” Where was it? “Well, a military base somewhere in Russia.” Keeping in touch with what he refers to only as “the people involved”, he eventually closed a deal, and some two years ago the mysterious items began to arrive in Scotland.
Wright says the parts included the twin-tube chassis, block, engine internals, gearbox, blower, carburettor, wheels and steering box, though the latter was pinched in transit and he had to make a new one. Ditto the gearbox casing due to shipping damage, though the internals were retained. Terry’s list of replacement parts also includes front suspension arms and hubs. The mag-alloy block apparently showed damage from small-arms fire, but was repaired.
What about manufacturer’s numbers? All removed before he got it, says the car’s resuscitator. All of which makes proving an identity even harder.
A team from Audi Tradition came over to see the car. It doesn’t conform entirely to any of the known P-Wagen or A-Type specifications; even the wheelbase is different. Illustrations of P cars show outboard rear dampers; this one has them inboard like the A. Wright’s twin Bosch magnetos are inline, not vertical like the A-Type. And it came, he tells me, with the remains of side-panels clad in doped linen, like an aircraft — a feature clearly seen in prototype pictures. So is this an early prototype, used for finalising the design before Auto Union took over?
Porsche began what became the Auto Union ‘on spec’, when cash and orders within his infant company both ran dry in 1932. Rather than stare at an empty drawing board, he outlined a car with a supercharged V16 engine set behind the driver. With no client in view, he labelled it with his own name — P-Wagen, or Porschecar. But someone was interested. Baron von Oertzen, engaged in combining four small struggling car makers into the new Auto Union, had earmarked Porsche as a designer, and also wanted a high-profile project for his new outfit. Von Oertzen bought the design — allegedly for 75,000Rm, around £100,000 today — and Porsche set about assembling a race team.
With no capacity limit to the new 750kg formula due in 1934, he went for a large engine with lots of torque. From the outset the engine was meant to rise to six litres, but began at 4.4 litres with 295bhp, and 2901b ft of torque as low as 2500rpm.
The new design clearly followed on from Porsche’s 1926 mid-engined Benz Tropfenwagen, and its teardrop shape shows in the P-Wagen’s blunt nose and long, long tail. According to development engineer Prof EberanEberhorst, the long tail was initially wind tunnel-tested on models, but when they tested a full-size car it showed little gain. Which meant it was dead weight, and though Stuck set his records with it, it was soon chopped. Just when the car changed from P-Wagen to Auto Union is not clear. Chris Nixon, in Racing the Silver Arrows, quotes Ferry Porsche as saying that the contract stipulated the can would be called P-Wagen but that Auto Union management wanted it changed after the first victories. Nor is it clear if the five 1934 team A-Types differed from the P-Wagen.
Against this vagueness of spec, and rarity of P-Wagen photos, Wright has steered a pragmatic course. Photos of cars with linen panels also show slatted engine covers, but he has formed the long scoops of the A-Type. He’s also quite frank about build standards. “Oh, it’s not as nicely made as one of Crosthwaite & Gardiner’s. But it’s sound.” And if it looks unsophisticated in places, just glance at period pictures: early Auto Unions can look positively ratty.
As for the cockpit, it must feel weird here, huge four-spoke wheel in your lap, back ramrod straight against a fuel tank, and so very far from those tall wheels which would famously spin at 150mph. What does Wright plan to do with it? “Well, I was going to do a few local hillclirnbs, but my wife’s not keen. Also I really enjoy the build-up best, and I have a new project, so I’ve treated the engine with inhibiting oil for the moment.”
Shame.! really wanted to hear that shriek echo over the sea, even for one village-scaring moment. But it does run? “Oh yes. I’ve only fired it up and let it idle, but it goes.” But what on? “I borrowed a little alcohol fuel from a friend’s sprint bike.”
These early cars are a curious combination of complexity and simplicity. One central bevel-driven camshaft serves both cylinder banks but there are two parallel oil systems for the drysump engine and the blower bearings. The huge vertical supercharger inhales through a twin-choke Solex carb, but if it backfires, the crude blow-off valve spits out right under the fuel tank. There’s independent front suspension of Porsche’s trademark twin trailingarm design, but friction-damped, while the swing-axle rear relies on a transverse leaf, with side-effects minimised by very restricted travel (around 1.5in). If the A-U shared its suspension with the Volkswagen, they also had a common backer — Adolf Hitler. In May 1933, Porsche was contacted by Hans Stuck, by then very successful in his Porsche-designed MercedesBenz S SKL.
Stuck had an amazing proposal. Having complained of the lack of a German grand prix contender to Hitler when he was merely the Socialist Party leader, he had been surprised to hear him promise to help. In January 1933, Hitler had become Chancellor, and had rung Stuck to fulfil his promise. Would Porsche go with him to meet the Fiihrer?
With Auto Union’s chairman, they met Hitler in Berlin. The Chancellor had offered 450,000 ReichsMarks to whichever firm would build a grand prix car and, as expected, it was Mercedes-Benz who had stepped forward. But Ferdinand Porsche himself persuaded the German leader to split the funds between M-B — who already had an impressive racing record — and the year-old Auto Union combine, with no track experience. Only seven months later, Porsche’s prototype car ran for the first time.
The popular image is that the German state threw limitless money into building winning grand prix cars. In fact Hitler’s initial subsidy was relatively small; Nixon suggests that it only covered a tenth or even a twentieth of a single year’s expenditure. What it did do was grease the slipway which led to German domination right up to the War.
Helped by Porsche’s head-start, Stuck tested the P-Wagen in Italy in January 1934, touching 157mph on the autostrada, and then in March set three new world speed records (100 miles, 200km and one hour) at Avus. Mercedes had yet to unveil the W25.
Neither team entered the first two races of ’34, and an unready Mercedes-Benz withdrew from the Avus race in May, so Stuck’s brief domination until his clutch broke, and August Momberger’s third place behind the Alfa Romeos, were inconclusive.
The long-awaited clash came with dramatic appropriateness at the Nurburgring in June. A result of almost theatrical perfection saw Manfred von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes-Benz win the Eifelrennen ahead of Stuck — a double German triumph which pointed clearly to a future where the winners would be silver.
It seems unlikely that we will ever know of any history behind Terry Wright’s car. Audi are dubious about its authenticity, pictures are scarce, and no paperwork will ever emerge from the former USSR. But it must be the nearest thing to a P-Wagen most of us will see. And! relish the thought of Teny trickling into the paddock at Fintray hillclimb among the Imps and Mallocks.