(first posted 5/30/2017) The Neckarsulm Chronicles will be making a pit stop (via Saxony) in Ingolstadt, Bavaria. After all, whatever is left of NSU is now called Audi, and what is Audi if not DKW? Fifty years ago, that storied acronym disappeared in a puff of blue smoke from the German automotive scene, only to be reincarnated as Audi. Let’s explore the reasons behind this conjuring trick.
DKW stands for Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (Steam-Driven Car), though steam did not stay in the engine bay very long. The company was founded in 1907 by Danish engineer Jørgen Rasmussen in Chemnitz (though the factory was in nearby Zschopau) in Saxony, but only made cars around 1916-1919. The main focus soon turned to two-stroke motorcycles: DKW became one of the biggest motorcycle makers in the world in the ‘20s. By 1928, the firm re-entered the car market with a small 2-cyl. two-stroke car, the P15. Soon, a larger 4-cyl. two-stroke, the 4=8, accompanied the P15 – both were essentially plywood and fabric bodied affairs, built in a new factory in Spandau, near Berlin. The engines were still made in Saxony. Concurrently, Rasmussen crated Framo, which focused on very small (200-300cc) three-wheelers and light trucks, not unlike Borgward’s Goliath.
In early 1931, DKW launched the F1, arguably the first series-produced FWD car in the world. The parallel two-stroke twin was transverse-mounted behind the gearbox. The F1’s completely new motor was a revolutionary design in its own right, owing little to previous engines, be they DKW or otherwise. The design and layout were successfully adapted to the Framo range as well. But in 1932, the firm found it necessary to join forced with three other automakers to ensure its survival.
The “German GM” that was Auto Union combined DKW with fellow Saxon carmakers Audi, Horch and Wanderer. The four-ring logo stems from this creation. DKW would focus on small cars, Audi and Wanderer on the mid-range and Horch was the luxury brand. In 1934, Rasmussen and Auto Union parted ways; he took Framo with him, as he had set it up separately from Auto Union.
DKW did not limit itself to FWD cars in the ‘30s, though: the 4=8 Schwebeklasse (top left) and Sonderklasse, with their distinctive two-stroke 1-litre V4, continued alongside the “F” range, which had 500-600cc twins (F7, top right). The V4-powered cars never ran all that well, but the FWD range was extremely successful, allowing Auto Union to become Germany’s second-largest automaker (after Opel) in the ‘30s. DKW tried to dabble in the other technical fashion of the day, rear-engined cars, but their dramatic-looking prototype never worked properly, though it did influence Auto Union’s racing cars. DKW also made some fantastic-looking FWD racers, taking advantage of the two-stroke’s good power-to-weight ratio.
By the time 1939 came around, Auto Union was starting to be truly integrated. The cars of 1940 were slated to share their streamlined styling cues across the four marques, starting with the duroplast-bodied DKW F9, which had an all-new 900cc 3-cyl. motor placed longitudinally ahead of the front wheels (top, about ten prototypes made) and was meant to replace the slow-selling RWD cars. The Horch 930 S was presented at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show, but only a handful were made (middle). A new 6-cyl. Wanderer was also in the works (bottom) – the family resemblance was striking. But the 1940 range never got off the ground for blitzkriegly obvious reasons…
Auto Union found itself, along with the rest of Saxony, under Soviet occupation in 1945. The main factories, in Chemnitz, Zwickau and Zschopau, were eventually rebuilt and resumed truck and motorcycle production. In a scenario akin to BMW, Auto Union found itself on either side of the Iron Curtain. In the East, the name Auto Union was abandoned in favour of IFA (Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau), a conglomerate that regrouped all nationalized automotive industry in the Soviet Zone, including Auto Union, BMW and Simson (motorcycles and cars), Phänomen and Framo (trucks), Orenstein & Koppel (locomotives) and coachbuilder Gläser of Dresden. IFA restarted the pre-war DKW F8 range and began exporting to various countries, both in the East and the West.
A few restyled Horch 920S and 930S limos were put together for Soviet generals, but the meat of the production was to be the IFA F9, closely derived from the stillborn 1939 DKW F9. The DKW name was not used on the car itself, but the little FWD two-stroke streamliner was evidently carrying DKW genes. As we can see above, IFA themselves acknowledged this quite openly.
Getting production going in the West took longer, as most of the factories, blueprints and machine-tools were in Saxony. Around 1947, two Auto Union executives, managing director Dr Richard Bruhn and deputy director Dr Carl Hahn, registered the names “Auto Union” and “DKW” in West Germany, initially to run a parts store for pre-war DKWs, which were still abundant on German roads. By 1949, they launched their first new vehicle, the Schnellaster van, in a new factory in Düsseldorf; in 1950, the first post-war car was launched, the DKW F10.
The F10 was a stopgap model, essentially a restyled F8 with a body made by coachbuilder Baur. It was soon replaced when DKW unearthed a pre-war F9 body in Spandau and reverse-engineered it as the F89. But the new DKW still had to make do with the old 700cc twin, as the F9’s three-pot engine was in IFA’s possession. Even as it restarted automobile production, DKW investigated the possibility of making a more modern car, but the company’s finances did not allow for tooling for a completely new body.
For a few years, one could buy either the IFA or the DKW – some markets, such as Belgium, Scandinavia or Switzerland, imported both cars. In the mid-‘50s, the East German authorities completely reorganized automobile production and IFA stopped making cars altogether, focusing on trucks instead.
The F8’s underpinnings survived in the 1955 AWZ (Automobilwerk Zwickau) P70, which retained the F8’s prallel twin and plywood/leatherette construction. Some markets knew this car as the “Audi P70”, though the name did not appear on the car as such. The P70 begat the steel monocoque / duroplast P50 Trabant, arguably the first fully transverse-mounted FWD car (gearbox included) in the world, two years ahead of the BMC Mini. The F9’s 3-cyl. ended up in the new Wartburg 311 (bottom left), which was built at the ex-BMW factory in Eisenach, as well as in Framo light trucks, later renamed IFA Barkas. Although technically unrelated to DKW per se, the old Auto Union played one final act in East Germany as the 1955 Horch P240, though that model was soon re-badged as “Sachsenring”, the Zwickau factory’s new corporate identity.
The protracted underinvestment and ossification of East German industry in general allowed these descendants of the DKW F9 to carry on belching blue smoke right up to 1990. But it is interesting that, for a while in the ‘50s, East Germany’s DKWs were looking far more modern than the ones coming out of Ingolstadt and Düsseldorf.
West German DKWs kept the F9’s basic shape well into the ‘60s, albeit with modifications and new variants. Ingolstadt struggled in the cut-throat world of Europe’s post-war small car scene: the Lloyds and Goliaths in Germany and the Saab 92 in Sweden, were unabashedly copying DKW’s spiel. The Panhard Dyna and the Citroën 2CV in France, as well as the Czechoslovak Aero Minor, were also competing in the same category, though with their own technical solutions. The motorcycle range was initially a precious source of additional income, but NSU was now the market’s darling. DKW two-wheeler production was abandoned by 1956.
Chronic under-capitalization meant that DKW had to make do with its 1939-style body, but a bigger engine was in the works: the 1953 DKW Sonderklasse 3=6 meant DKW had finally caught up with IFA and developed their own 900cc 3-cyl. – a true Beetle-beater. The DKW range eventually included a deluxe coupé, a four-door saloon, a station wagon and a convertible, which trumped the VW’s very limited amount of Typ 1 variants.
The 3=6 was more powerful, versatile and arguably more luxurious than the old Beetle, but the two-stroke was also pretty thirsty. And by the mid-‘50s, it was becoming clear that European export markets were becoming less hungry for petroil. British, French and Italian cars eschewed two-stroke engines because their domestic clientele was clearly not in favour of having to mix oil with their gasoline. Indeed, the one exception to that rule, the French-built Vespa 400, failed miserably largely because of its Piaggio two-stroke. (The other notable exception was Saab, whose main markets were still beholden to the two-stroke). Two-wheeled two-strokes were fine, but four wheels required four-strokes. Somehow, that memo was never translated into German.
Following in the footsteps of VW-Porsche and Borgward, a sporty DKW came on the scene in 1956. The fiberglass-bodied Monza was designed by racing drivers Günther Ahrens and Albrecht Mantzel, who also supervised production and sales. The Monza, whose body was made by at least three consecutive coachbuilders, was never part of the official DKW range, though, and Ingolstadt stopped collaborating with Ahrens and Mantzel pretty soon. Production continued regardless for a while, but not many were made (between 80 and 230 units) – a shame, as this could have been to DKW what Alpine was to Renault.
In 1957, DKW introduced the Junior, which sported a completely new and up-to-date body. The old two-stroke 3-cyl. was still there (albeit in a new 750cc form), but at least the car was ready to face the ‘60s. The 1961 Junior De Luxe ushered a 796cc triple and more brightwork. In 1963, the Junior became the F11 (800cc) and F12 (900cc), and a full convertible was added to the lineup.
Strangely, DKW unearthed the Auto Union moniker for its 3=6 range, as well as another new car in 1958. The Auto Union 1000 SP was a pretty cool-looking coupé and roadster with all the contemporary trimmings – panoramic windshield and rear fins inclusive, often said to resemble a shrunken Ford Thunderbird.
The two-stroke triple was bored to a full litre for 1958. The Sonderklasse was now called Auto Union 1000, and a fancier 50 PS (DIN) 1000S was available for an extra DM1000. The coupé lost its suicide doors, followed a year later by the grafting of a bubble windshield that looked incredibly odd on a car designed in the late ‘30s. It was clear that the F9’s styling cues were ageing less gracefully than the competition (such as the Beetle or the 2CV), but DKW were now under the spell of another automaker.
That automaker was Daimler-Benz. Stuttgart had noticed DKW’s ailing health and taken it under its wing, so to speak. When they assumed full control of Auto Union in 1959, Mercedes-Benz figured that DKW’s small FWD models could be a great complement to their own car range. Alas, the engineering staff at Ingolstadt were so ensconced in their two-stroke ways that it proved impossible to get them to design a four-stroke, which Stuttgart knew was the solution to dwindling sales. By the early ‘60s, even the West German clientele was starting to view the two-stroke as passé.
The engineers at Auto Union did not seem to agree: their planned successor to the 1000S still had a two-stroke triple and no amount of cajoling or criticism from Stuttgart could make them budge. Mercedes-Benz engineers took the bull by the horns in 1960 and designed a new FWD compact. The W118 and its completely new high-compression four-stroke 1.7 litre 4-cyl. was sent to Bavaria, along with its head engineer, Ludwig Kraus. Kraus’ mission was to mate this prototype with DKW’s, so that eventually the four-ringed marque could step into the ‘60s and become a BMW-fighter.
The first priority was to get rid of the ancient F9-derived range, so the new car’s unibody and suspension were put into production, with necessary changes, as soon as possible. The DKW F102 was launched in August 1963 with the largest two-stroke triple DKW could muster (a whopping 1175cc producing 60 hp (DIN)). The F102 featured brand-new torsion bar suspension and disc brakes, as well as a clean three-box shape that should have augured well.
But the big triple was not a great success. Production only got started in March 1964, as DKW engineers worked out the new engine’s bugs – of course, this precipitous launch guaranteed a host of teething troubles. A major one was DKW’s patented automatic petroil mixer, which dispensed F102 owners from putting oil in their gas tank, did not work very well in freezing conditions, leading to catastrophic engine seizures. About a third of F102 owners reported major engine problems, which led to a costly parts exchange policy that hurt DKW’s already fragile financial health. Daimler now wanted to get rid of the money pit that was Ingolstadt and use whatever income that operation might bring to build a new truck factory, though they had already taken over DKW’s Düsseldorf plant. A deal was struck with Volkswagen, who found themselves in control of DKW by early 1965.
By now, the F102 was clearly a complete bomb. Production was halted so that the 20,000-odd units that were languishing in and around the DKW factory could be sold off as quickly as possible. VW took on DKW knowing full well that the two-stroke cars were well beyond their sell-by date, but Mercedes had shown them Kraus’ production-ready four-stroke engine, which was part of the deal.
This was a terrific opportunity for VW to escape their own air-cooled rear-engined dead end. In the meantime, the DKW F11/F12 and Auto Union 1000SP range were wound down, even as the F102 went to Italy for a facelift. It was plain to see that the DKW name was so associated with the two-stroke motor that the new four-stroke car would need a new identity.
In late 1965, the F103 was put on display at the Frankfurt Motor Show on a stand that bore two names: DKW and Audi. The resurrection of the Audi marque was masterfully done: the F102’s competent suspension and modern shape were kept (as was the four-ringed logo), but the name change and updated styling were just enough to communicate the F103’s novelty. The DKW marque was now on borrowed time, even though VW claimed there was still a market for two-stroke cars. F102 production stopped in March 1966 after around 55,000 units made in two years – but it took DKW-Audi another couple of years to sell all the cars they had in stock. It’s probably no coincidence that the other Western two-stroke automaker, Saab, also started to convert to four-strokes after 1966.
The DKW marque did not die in 1966, though: South American DKW factories continued making the old-style 1000S for a bit. In Brazil, the car was known as the DKW-Vemag Belcar and had been produced in significant quantities since 1957, when DKW bought a 52% share in Vemag (Veiculos e Maquinas Agricolas). This is another example of South American “alternate reality cars”, like the VW 1600, the IKA-Renault Torino or the Simca Emi-Sul. The boys from Brazil decided to modify the car around 1962 by abandoning the front suicide doors – but that was just for starters. Soon, DKW-Vemag’s range was to be quite different from their German cousin’s.
Vemag called upon Italian coachbuilder Fissore in 1963 for a completely re-bodied two-door saloon, penned by Michelotti, to be sold alongside the Belcar. But the Fissore’s high retail price meant it would be more of a halo car, and fewer than 2500 units were made in four model years. In a last-ditch effort to refresh the ageing range, DKW-Vemag even put quad headlamps of the Belcar, making the 1967 DKW-Vemag Belcar and Vemaguetes the weirdest derivatives of the original F9 ever produced. Vemag were bought by Volkswagen in September 1967, which spelled the end of the Brazilian DKWs: production stopped two months later.
The Brazilian DKWs also spawned a bone fide sports car range, thanks to gifted amateur designer and entrepreneur Rino Malzoni, who modified a DKW-Vemag 1000S chassis and bodied it with fiberglass. The original “Malzoni special” was widely admired in Brazil, so Malzoni quickly designed a second car and produced a few dozen DKW Malzoni GTs in 1964-65. By 1966, the name had become “DKW Puma GT”, and the new marque was spun off, trading the DKW two-stroke for the VW flat-4 in 1968, which meant completely redesigning the car. Puma carried on making a variety of cars, usually with VW or GM engines, until the mid-‘90s.
But another DKW branch was still in business: IASFe (Industrias Automotriz de Santa Fe), based in Argentina. There, the DKW 1000 carried on regardless of the German marque’s domestic demise until late 1969. They were distributed by none other than Juan-Manuel Fangio! Surely the man’s automotive aura helped the two-stroke putter along for such a long time.
Like their Brazilian counterpart, DKW-Argentina went to Fissore in the early ‘60s for a unique design. The Auto Union Fissore 1000 SE coupé and cabriolet was like a revised and improved version of the German T-Bird-esque 1000 SP and was built in small numbers from 1963 to about 1967.
It is worth noting that the DKW name reappeared briefly in some markets on the Hercules W2000, a rotary-powered motorbike, in the mid-‘70s. But of course, the two-stroke’s smoky legacy was carried furthest in East Germany, the birthplace of Auto Union. The Trabant 601, the Wartburg 353 and the Barkas remained there, frozen in place by bureaucratic lunacy and economic stagnation, for over 20 years, until VW (of course) came to the rescue. Folks even had to use the Wartburg’s 3-cyl. for their race cars: viz. the Melkus RS 1000, though the two-stroke sat at the rear, not the front.
The DKW marque died of a surfeit of oil in its gasoline tank. The resurrection of Audi was probably one of Volkswagen’s wisest moves, though by some accounts the F103’s handling was ruined by the four-stroke engine. That did not matter much: at least one of the Auto Union rings was able to carry the torch into the 21st Century. The 1969 shotgun wedding with NSU added more technical refinements to Audi’s products, but the basic template was laid down way back in 1931, even before Auto Union, and revised in 1939 by the revolutionary (yet stillborn) F9. Even Volkswagen ended up converting to Audi’s Weltanschauung when they made the Big Switch to FWD with the 1973 Passat. DKW’s Deadly Sin was the Volkswagen Group’s cardinal virtue.
And tomorrow, we will examine in excruciating detail the aforementioned “shotgun wedding” in the grande finale of these so-called Chronicles: the Wankelicious story of NSU is up next.
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