As you probably know, last weekend was the centenary of the end of the beastly, badly-organised, and senseless conflict that was WWI.
But it was also 80 years since Kristallnacht. On the 10th November 1938, hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were plundered and vandalised and their occupants dragged out into the streets. Hence the name, Night of the Broken Glass. It’s portrayed pretty poignantly in The Book Thief - the movie.
So 1938 marked a sharp spike in the persecution of Jews that would soon lead to holocaust with a capital h, and it was into this Germany that a very magnificent car was born.
1) WHAT IS IT?
It’s worth knowing, as it’s bound to come up on The Chase one day, that Audi’s four rings logo wasn’t actually their logo. It was the Auto Union logo, a group which included Audi, DKW, Horch, and one which I’ve forgotten. So Audi really only has right to one of the rings, or they would have, if the other brands weren’t dead.
Horch was founded on the eve of the 20th century by August Horch, who uttered the words that are still great for rebuking non-car people today, “Any car that merely takes you from A-B does not go far enough.” As often happens, he quarrelled with his company and left to form another car company, which he also called Horch. The first Horch wasn't happy about this, and so August changed the name to Horch, except in Latin. Which is 'Audi'.
So all those triggered Germans on YouTube telling us how to properly say 'Audi' can shut up. We’ll ask the Romans.
But bad times after WWI meant that many companies had to merge, or die. Mercedes and Benz became Mercedes-Benz, and in 1932, the Auto Union group was formed, with DKW at the bottom, Audi sort of in the middle, and Horch right at the top. This meant that Audi competed mainly with BMW, while Horch competed with Mercedes-Benz. Some people think that since Mercedes is the more famous one, they must have been more prestigious, but they’re only more famous because they survived the Yalta Conference.
And when Mercedes-Benz came out with their exclusive 500K/540K Spezialroadsters in the mid-1930s, Horch responded in kind with the 853-series Spezialroadsters, which didn’t sell anywhere near as well. Partly because of that, and partly because they were interrupted by a war, Horch only made 7 Spezialroadsters to Mercedes’ 28 or so.
This makes them far more spezial.
2) IS IT FAST?
For its time, definitely. Horch had a very polished inline-8, that for the 853 was upgraded to 5-litre capacity. So the Spezialroadsters were the most powerful cars Horch ever got a chance to make.
The top speed of 140km/h was quite a bit behind Mercedes, though. The 540K could do 170km/h.
3) IS IT PRETTY?
Magnificent. Nearly all of the Spezialroadsters were individually bodied by coachbuilders, though there wasn't much variation. Erdmann and Rossi built most of the 853 Spezialroadsters, but not the 855 Spezialroadsters, which were bodied by Glaser in Dresden. When there was still a Dresden.
4) IS IT RELIABLE?
Before Germany started getting concentration camp inmates and 16-year-old boys to build their things, everything was reliable.
5) IS IT COMFY?
They look pretty rakish, but the Spezialroadsters weren't stripped-out racers with belts over the bonnet, like the BMW 328 or the Mercedes SSK. They were grand-tourers, so the interiors are opulent.
Mercedes went for a tasteful leather and white metal combination, while the Horch used quite a bit of that timeless medium, wood.
Interior of the Horch 853 Spezialroadster that sold at RM's (Photo credit: RM Sotheby's (c) Darin Schnabel 2012)
6) HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Children were no longer playing with wheelbarrows of German currency in 1938, so when I say the 855 Spezialroadster cost 22,000 Reichsmarks, that means an incredible lot of income. In fact it’s possible it was the most expensive thing in Germany.
And in 2012, a pretty unique 853A Spezialroadster sold at RM Sotheby's for $US 5.2 million, so nothing's changed.
7) DID HITLER HAVE ONE?
No, but if anyone in the Third Reich was going to have a super-exclusive car, it would be Herman Goering. He was a celebrity WWI fighter ace, founder of the Gestapo, head of the Luftwaffe, the highest-ranking Nazi to make it to the Nuremberg Trials, and the most important man in the Reich after the Fuhrer. In fact, even as Soviets were blasting away the last bits of Berlin, he asked Hitler if he could be boss now.
He was addicted to glory, and morphine, and had at least one Horch 853 cabriolet. Horch made him a Spezialroadster with a bulletproof windscreen, but at the same time, Mercedes offered him a 540K Spezialroadster that had bulletproof doors as well. He chose the Mercedes, and had the Horch scrapped.
However, Veit Harlan, the filmmaker responsible for a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda films, chose a Horch Spezialroadster.
8) SHOULD I HAVE ONE?
The thing with art, and the Spezialroadsters are art, is that it reflects its era. And I’m afraid you really can’t separate these cars from the Third Reich. Hitler encouraged the 1930s car industry in Germany, so a strong case could be made that everything is a product of Nazi policy, but these cars were specifically made with high-ranking Nazis in mind.
Hence the glory and magnificence, and if I’m honest, it all leaves a bit of a bad taste. Buying one is like buying an SS uniform. You can guarantee it wasn't used by a nice person.
But it does mean that the Horch Spezialroadsters are not only extremely rare and beautiful, they're also pretty fascinating.