Auto Union

A NEW Grand Prix Formula was introduced in 1934 restricting maximum weight to 750 kg. (1,650 lb.) and bodywork to a minimum width of 85 cm. The weight was measured without tyres, oil, fuel and water. At the same time Germany was rising from the doldrums thanks to the efforts of the Third Reich and encouragement was given, in the form of military contracts, to firms who supported motor racing, and in particular the new Grand Prix Formula. The object was to demonstrate to the world at large that Germany was technically far in advance of everyone else. Daimler-Benz needed little encouragement to re-establish their Mercedes-Benz racing team down in southern Germany, in Stuttgart. In the north-east, not far from Berlin, a new motor manufacturing combine had been formed by Horch, a large heavy engineering concern who made big Iuxury cars as well. Audi who were in the middle car market. Wanderer who made sporting cars and DKW who were in the small car world and the motorcycle world; of the four Horch had the greatest resources of engineering and manufacturing plant. The combine was called Auto Union (for many years spelt erroneously with a hyphen), and their badge was four interlinked rings, to represent the four companies Horch, Audi, Wanderer and DKW. This new combine saw motor racing as a way of publicising their products, apart from encouraging military contracts to Horch in the way of tanks, lorries and similar equipment. They decided to have a go at Grand Prix racing with the new Formula and bought the design of a racing car from Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, who had his own design studios in Stuttgart. Always interested in the sport, Dr. Porsche had designed a revolutionary (for 1933) car for the new Formula, and wasted no time in selling the idea to Auto Union.

The P-Wagen as it was called, had independent suspension to all four wheels, at a time when the rest of the racing world were just beginning to dabble with independent front suspension. The front suspension was by trailing arms and transverse torsion bars, and the rear by swing axles and a transverse leaf spring. The engine was a formidable supercharged V16, the two banks of eight cylinders at an included angle of 45 degrees, with a single camshaft above the vee operating the inlet valves by followers and the exhaust valves by transverse pushrods and small rockers. A single Roots-type supercharger was mounted vertically at the rear of the engine. The revolutionary feature was that this V16 engine was mounted just ahead of the rear axle, with a 5-speed gearbox projecting out behind the rear axle. Immediately in front of the engine was a single large fuel tank and in front of that sat the driver, with his feet in between the front wheels. If this layout sounds like the description of a Williams or a Ligier it is perfectly true, but even Dr. Porsche’s P-Wagen was not the first to use this layout. In 1922 Ferdinand Porsche had been design assistant to Dr. Rumpler and they had designed a similar layout of racing car for the Benz firm. The 1933 P-Wagen had a chassis constructed from two large diameter tubes parallel to each other, with tubular cross-members, the water radiator was right at the front of the bodywork fitted tightly all round the mechanism.

The first P-Wagen created quite a stir in Grand Prix circles, not only for its appearance, but for its speed and accekration and the fact that it had come from an entirely new concern. It was entered as the Auto Union and Dr. Porsche was retained as consultant chief engineer for the racing department, working with engineers from Horch, Audi and DKW. The Auto Union team fought homeric battles against the Mercedes-Benz team, both in Grand Prix racing and in record-breaking, and in 1936 Auto Union were undisputed Grand Prix champions with their C-type. The engine had started as a 4.3-litre, being enlarged in 1935 to 4.9-litres and eventually to 6.1-litres for 1936, all the time the car remained within the 750 kg. weight limit, much use being made of electron and magnesium. After the first season the rear springing medium was changed from transverse leaf-spring to longitudinal torsion bars, but otherwise the basic conception of the car remained unchanged. While the Auto Union engine did not match the rival Mercedes-Benz engine for sheer power, it had far better torque characteristics and the car’s rearward weight distribution gave it much better traction and acceleration. In fully streamlined form for record-breaking an Auto Union first set records at 199 m.p.h. over short distances, and later was capable of 270 m.p.h. with fully enveloping bodywork. In Grand Prix road-racing form the cars were undoubtedly capable of 175 m.p.h. An Auto Union set standing-start acceleration records for the kilometre and mile in 1937 that stood until the late 1950s when a sling-shot American dragster finally beat the figures. The 750 kg. Formula ended in 1937 and the last event was at Donington Park and was won by a C-type Auto Union. In 1938 a new Formula started, restricting supercharged engine capacity to 3-litres. for which Auto Union built entirely new cars.

The German Motor Show was held in Berlin in those years and it was the normal thing to do to close the roads leading to the exhibition halls and have a parade of German racing cars running through the streets of the capital. Auto Union built up one of their C-type chassis as a show exhibit, prior to the 1936 season, and later it was sent to the Deutsches Museum in Munich. This museum is the equivalent of the British Science Museum in London and the Auto Union chassis was on display in the motoring and transport section. As the Auto Union racing factories were at Chemnitz and Zwickau they were in the thick of aerial bombardment during the war and everything was apparently destroyed. After the war these towns were in the Russian-occupied zone and all trace of Auto Union racing cars disappeared, except for the chassis in the Munich museum.

In 1952 at the 25th anniversary of the Nurburgring there was a small exhibition of German racing cars outside the paddock and this sole remaining chassis was on show. Daimler-Benz had scattered their racing cars throughout Germany, Czechoslovakia and Rumania, at their various agents and most of them survived the war, but Auto Union did not seem to have had the same forethought. The Auto Union chassis on show at the Nurburgring was complete apart from bodywork, scuttle, instrument panel, fuel tank and all the minor controls, pipework and similar details.

When Germany was split into East and West, with a pretty firm barrier between the twin sides, Auto Union was split up. There was no question of Horch moving from Zwickau in the east-zone and Wanderer were a small concern that did not get restarted. DKW and Audi opted out into the west and took with them the Auto Union trade-mark of the four interlinked rings and the name Auto Union. DKW reformed in Ingolstadt and became the post-war Auto Union, concentrating on small cars and motorcycles and ran a very active motorcycle racing department in the immediate post-war years. Audi flirted with other big manufacturers like Daimler-Benz and Volkswagen and today are an integral part of the Volkswagen/Porsche combine and have taken over the Auto Union mantle from DKW.

In recent years two Auto Unions have come to light in Russian occupied countries, the first a 1938 V12 3-litre in Czechoslovakia and the second a short-chassis V16 hill-climb car in Latvia. The V12 was spirited out into the west and changed hands a couple of times before Antique Automobiles in Lincolnshire got the job of restoring it. It had been a show car that had been on display in dealers showrooms and was missing some vital parts, such as crankshaft and connecting rods and gearbox internals. Antique Automobiles acquired a 1939 engine through contacts in East Germany and this was installed in the 1938 chassis, while the empty gearbox was replaced by a modem Formula One Hewland gearbox and final drive. The car was made to run. The V16 short-chassis hill-climb car had come from Moscow for a rally and as far as we know it went back to Moscow, though rumour has it that an American has acquired it.

Conscious of their background as one of the circles in the Auto Union badge, Audi took the decision to remove the C-type chassis from the Munich museum to rebuild and complete it. This was done at the Audi factory at Neckarsulm, the old NSU factory, and it was finished last spring. At the recent historic car meeting at the Nurburgring on August 17th Paul Pietsch, the only surviving driver of the V16 Auto Union, gave a demonstration run with the car and the low bellow from the 16-stub exhausts of the remarkable V16 engine was heard in the Eifel mountains for the first time for 43 years.

The rebuild and completion by the Audi factory was a true Works project, everything being stripped and checked and rebuilt, and surprisingly most of the internals of the engine and gearbox were in good condition. Much work was needed to fabricate all the missing parts and small details, but everything was done meticulously. The bodywork was made and re-made until it was absolutely correct and the end result is difficult to fault, the only criticism could be that it is too exact and too perfect, but presumably Auto Unions were perfect when they left the racing department before going on test. By the time they were seen in public and photographed they had collected some warts and blemishes.

In this age of fake historic cars, or bodged-up rebuilds, it is heartening that the Audi firm have done such a superb job, an example to all. This project can only be described as a rebuild and completion, not a restoration or resurrection, for the chassis was never complete when it was built for show purposes.

To celebrate the bringing to life of this fascinating car the German publisher Halwart Schrader has brought out a very interesting book on the history of Auto Unfon. Written and compiled by Stefan Knittel it contains a wealth of interesting material never seen before, gathered from all quarters, from old employees of Auto Union and there is a collection of pre-war photographs previously unpublished. At the moment there is only a German version of the book, but for anyone interested in Auto Union racing cars it is a “must” and can be bought from Schrader & Partner GMBH, Tal 33, 8000 Munchen 2, Germany for the equivalent of about £13. — D. S. J.