Auto Union In About A Thousand Words

A short history of the four companies behind the four link chain.

3d ago

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VW is well known for all the brands that they own. They own almost all of the best car brands out there. But before VW, there was the Auto Union, who did the same, way before it was cool.

The Auto Union, as you already know, is the amalgamation of four automobile manufacturers, namely, Audi, Horch, DKW and Wanderer. They are the four companies that are represented on the four interlinked thin donuts on the Audi logo.

Two of the four companies that make up the Auto Union was founded by the same man, August Horch, the chap behind the Horch & Cie, founded in 1899. Horch was a production manager for Karl Benz before going about making his own motor cars. The company started out with 5 and 10hp twin-cylinder cars. The first car from Horch could barely do a top speed of 20mph with a 4.5hp engine. But, within no time Horch became a competition for his former boss at Benz. The 1902 20hp four-cylinder Horch was much more advanced than the competition from Benz and Daimler, who were separate companies back then. The next year he came up with a four-cylinder engine and the year after that he strapped two more cans onto that engine. But, in 1909, he was forced out of the company by the board of directors, after a feud with the companies CFO. The accountant kicked out the founder. Let that sink in.

1935 Horch 853

1935 Horch 853

But, unlike the pesky number cruncher, Horch was an engineer who had a fiery passion for cars. So, he went out, bought a new board with his name on it, and put it over his new workshop. But, this time around, there was a slight problem with the name. You see, the name was already registered with his old company, and they owned the copyright to his name. Horch, therefore, was barred from using his own name for his new company. But he found a brilliant solution. His name means "listen" in German. He translated it to Latin, well his son did, and "listen" in Latin is Audi. After building cars rather successfully, like the first left-hand drive car, the 1921 type K, Horch left the company, in 1920, for a position in the Ministry of Transport.

1931 Audi Typ P

1931 Audi Typ P

The next ring in the badge is DKW. DKW was founded by Jorgen Rasmussen, who was instrumental in the creation of the Auto Union. He started out attempting to build a steam engine, the Dampf-Kraft-Wagen(Steam-powered car) but failed. Then he tried his luck with a two-stroke engine, the Des Knaben Wunsch(the boys wish). He slightly modified that engine to slap it onto a motorcycle and called it the Das Kleine Wunder(the little wonder) and that became the brand. By 1920, DKW was the world's largest motorcycle brand. DKW also had several successful cars on their CV.

DKW Auto Union Badge

DKW Auto Union Badge

Wanderer is the final circle in the logo. Established in 1896, Wander too wasn't just a car company. It manufactured anything from motorcycles to vans. The Wanderer badge, which was first used in 1911, was found on civilian as well as military vehicles. The company had a bad patch during the great depression and was sold off to Frantisek Janecek, the founder of Jawa Motorcycles.

Those are the brands that make up the Auto Union. But, these pieces were set in the right place by Jorgen Rasmussen of DKW. He was the one who picked up the pieces of the puzzle, that was scattered about, and formed the four rings that we are so familiar with today. He acquired majority shares in Audiwerke in 1928. In 1932, Audi merged with the rest of the horsemen, Wanderer and Horch, forming the Auto Union. Horch being the luxury brand, DKW the small, two-stroke engined car manufacturer, Audi and Wanderer the mid-priced, technologically advanced small car manufacturer. Of the four, DKW was comparatively more successful because of the high demand for small cars.

The four interlinked rings were used even before WWII, but the use was restricted to the Auto Union race cars. Auto Union was necessarily an umbrella brand. The four companies under it used there own branding and logos on their vehicles. But, when it came to racing they all pooled in the resources. The Grand Prix racers, Type A through to D, for example, was built by the racing department of Horch. The racers that the new joint venture brought about was so successful that they won 25 races between 1935 and 37. The type C, for instance, won German, Swiss, and Italian GP, among others, with a 5L 370 hp under the hood. Their success made the radiator grilled Chancellor of Germany select, to the annoyance of Mercedes, Auto Union along with Mercedes for the state-sponsored motor racing programme.

During the war, Auto Union developed and manufactured military vehicles for the Nazi party. The Wanderer plant even used slave labour from the Flossenburg concentration camp. Horch was the supplier of the chassis for the 90PS Horch V8 powered Leichter Panzerspahwagen.

Leichter Panzerspähwagen Sd.Kfz 222

Leichter Panzerspähwagen Sd.Kfz 222

After the war, the company found itself in a pickle, when they realized that part of their company was now in Communist East Germany. But, the Communist Party was appreciative of this. They completely dismantled the factory as war reparations. The sports cars they found in the ruins were not torn apart, as you might have thought. They were not savages. They shipped the cars back to Moscow to reverse engineer them, and they came up with something even better. The car they came up with was so good that it was in production for almost three decades, only in West Germany though. The car in question is the Trabant. Now that I think about it, the success of the Trabant maybe because it was the only car available then, but I'm not going to judge the quality of communist engineering based on that.

Trabant 601 limousine

Trabant 601 limousine

On the other side of the wall, the new Auto Union was formed in 1949. Since the economy was not that great after the slight rub-off with the allies, there was a higher demand for cheap cars and this favoured DKW. The rest of the companies under the Union were dormant during these times. Besides, Audi went on a silent streak after 1939, which lasted for about twenty years. In '59 Daimler Benz took over the company and was later sold to VW in 1964, except for Horch, which Daimler retained. In 1969, Audi merged with NSU and the official name of the company became Audi NSU Auto Union, which was a mouthful. So, they shortened it to Audi.

And that is about a thousand words.

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Comments (5)

  • Nice post. By the way, East-Germany was the communist state, not West-Germany.

      3 days ago
    • Whoops, my bad. Thanks for letting me know.

        3 days ago
  • SS

      2 days ago
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