Curbside Classic: 1958 DKW Sonderklasse 3=6 (F94) – The Proto-Audi

(first posted 11/1/2011)   Seeing that it’s a DKW and not a Chevrolet, some of you might be tempted to skip this CC. If you must, but know that this is a very significant historical car, and one I’d pretty much given up on finding in Eugene. It’s both the forerunner of all modern Audis as well as the successor to the very first mass-produced front wheel drive cars. The fact that it has a two-stroke engine lends it even that much more interest. But the DKW story is big, so I’ll try to condense it: 3000 words=6000 words, in DKW speak.

Before DKW popularized front wheel drive, it also did much the same thing with two-stroke engines, having given up on a very brief attempt at a steam-driven automobile which was the origin of its name (Dampf Kraft Wagen). In 1919, DKW created this little 18cc two-stroke motor to be an alternative for the toy steam engines popular at the time. It produced .25 hp, and was called the Das Knaben Wunsch (The Boy’s Wish). I’m sure it was every mother’s wish to have a two-stroke engine running in the living room with its oily exhaust.

Enlarged to 118cc with 1hp output, the now called Das Kleine Wunder (The Little Wonder) was sent outside where it belonged to be used as an auxiliary engine to power bicycles.  That led to genuine motorcycles, and within a few short years, DKW quickly grew to be the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Its brilliant RT125 of 1939 was the most advanced light bike in the world, and soon became the most copied one ever, including the Harley Hummer.

DKW was broadminded; in addition to steam and two strokes, they also developed and sold a light EV truck and delivery vehicle called the DEW (Der Elektrishe Wagen). No DAW (Der Atomische Wagen), as far as I know.

But DKW did jump into the automobile market, initially with two-stroke rear-wheel drive cars. But in 1931 it launched what would become the first mass-produced front-wheel drive car, the F1, with a transverse 584 cc two-stroke twin, producing 15 hp. Its unitized body (no frame) was built of plywood.

So the next time someone tells you that the Mini was the first car with a transverse engine driving the front wheels, tell them DKW was doing back in ’31.

The DKW line was quickly and steadily developed through the thirties, culminating in the F7 of 1937. DKWs of this time rode on a central frame and the lower-end versions had bodies that were in part made of artificial leather fabric stretched over wooden frames. Light weight, for small engines: the F7 had all of 20 hp.

Here we can see the little 600 or 700cc twin, as well as the fuel barrel, in which the 40-1 gas-oil mixture was stored. No fuel pump needed here.

The engine sat well behind the front wheel centerline, and the transmission sat in front of it, and then the differential.

Rather a lot like a motorcycle engine, except in reverse. Which is of course not surprising, as the DKW engine had its roots in motorcycle engines, and shared a lot of similarities.

In 1934, DKW was sort-of forced to create the Auto Union by its bankers, bringing in the more upscale brands Horch, Audi and Wanderer by its bankers, because those luxury cars were failing. A tactic to survive the Depression, undoubtedly. But DKW was the volume leader, by far, and occupied a comfortable niche in the German industry. And it was the only one of the four that survived the war, barely.

The big breakthrough into the modern streamlined era was planned for 1940, with the very advanced and slippery (Cd: 0.42) DKW F9. It re-arranged the drive-train, with the new 896cc triple set low in front of the drive wheels. If you want to know where the Saab 92 got all of its ideas, look no further.

The F9 was created by DKW in response to the VW/KdF Wagen, which was due out in 1939, and was going to have mammoth repercussions on all of the lower-priced makers, including DKW. The F9 was designed to push DKW a class or two higher above the VW, with its more powerful engine and somewhat nicer interior trim. And thanks to its very space-efficient fwd configuration, the F9 was roomier inside than the VW Beetle, and its descendants were known for fine dynamic qualities. This really is the Ur-Audi.

Needless to say, WW2 put the kibosh on the F9, and when that little inconvenience was finally over, DKW found itself in the Russian sector. Now renamed IFA, the F9 was put into production in 1949, and eventually spawned the Wartburg, East Germany’s primary upper-mid-class car.

Re-establishing DKW/Auto Union in Western Germany after the war a huge challenge. But eventually, motorcycles, light vans (Schnellaster), and by 1950, the F9-based F89 sedan finally saw the light of day. Now both sides of the Iron curtain were building practically identical cars.

The F89 evolved into the F91, and that into the F93/F94, the subject of our find that has found its unlikely last resting spot here in a field in Eugene. How did that happen? Thanks to the Great Import Boom of the mid-late fifties, when everything from Abarth to Zundapp was scooped up by eager Americans looking for something decidedly non-vanilla. The DKW was one of the more popular ones in the 1955 -1960 period, and even its doppelganger the Wartburg found some takers. Now that would be a find.

Well, finding this fine F94 was quite a thrill; it’s been decades since the last one I’ve seen. When I first moved to LA in 1977, there were still some DKWs around; mostly sitting in driveways though. I may have seen one or two with its tell-tale plume of blue smoke trailing it still running. Anyway, it seems that this particular car made it all the way from Nebraska to Oregon; probably someone coming out to the U of O. University towns tended to be a hot bed for two-stroke Saabs and DKWs; intellectuals love to be able to wrap themselves with an argument of superiority about things like the two stroke engine: “Only seven moving parts!” Never mind the blue smoky exhaust.

Well, the DKW three cylinder did have some merit. Its biggest was proudly displayed on its flanks and in advertisement; actually, it was its very name: 3=6. Thanks to twice as many power impulses as a four stroke, the little 896cc triple did feel as smooth as an inline six. Well, during acceleration or steady running, that is. It sounded more like a popcorn popper under de-acceleration, which is also why DKWs (and Saabs) had free-wheeling. Two strokes are none too happy under engine-braking conditions, and tended to foul their plugs (or worse) if forced to do so. Freewheeling disengaged the engine as soon as the throttle was lifted (over-running).

Handy for making clutchless shifts, but it demanded much of the brakes, one of the major downsides in the pre-disc brake era. DKWs did have bigger than average drums to help compensate. But for that reason alone, DKWs were not popular in the Alpine regions; drivers (rightfully) didn’t trust the brakes heading down long alpine passes. DKWs were seen as flat-lander cars. And this one has Nebraska plates.

Speaking of engines, let’s lift the hood of this one and check it out. The paint is long gone, but all the trim pieces are aging quite well.

Ooops; it’s gone AWOL. Given how tiny it is, it could have been lifted out by one person. The DKW motor had no water pump, relying on the thermo-siphon principle to circulate the coolant to its high-mounted radiator.

Let’s check out the other end, never know what one might find there. Love those chrome strips against the rust.

Sure enough, here it is, although I don’t see the seven moving parts. The little brief-case sized buzz-bomb was rated at 42 (DIN) hp @4200 rpm. That’s considerably more than the VW’s then 30 (DIN) hp, and gave this DKW a top speed of 80-85 mph.

The likely cause of this engine’s demise, as with so many other DKW engines, was that on long downhills with closed throttle, or in cold weather when the heavier oil separated in the tank, the engine received insufficient lubrication. That ruined lots of these motors, and was a major cause of their ultimate demise.

Here’s what it once looked like. Since oil fouling was a problem, having a hearty spark in the pre-solid state ignition era was important, hence the triple coils. The “distributor” on the front of the crankshaft had three sets of points too. Those must have been fun to change.

A view into an intact engine compartment. Wonder how long our CC DKW ran before it was disemboweled?

The two door sedan/coupe F93 sported a handsome roof with a wrap-around rear window that gave it quite a natty appearance in the mid-late fifties, compared to the VW anyway. Call me a Kraut, but this coupe really speaks to me. It was the equivalent to Olds and Buick coupes of the time.

Here’s a recent video of a fixed-up 3=6 in Portland getting a high-speed run on the freeway. Only one problem: he doesn’t have his tach reset for a two stroke engine, which has twice as many ignition event per rpm as does a four stroke. He shows it hitting 7,000 rpm on acceleration, and 6,000 rpm at 70 mph.  The redline for the 3=6 engine was 4250 rpm, which corresponded to some 85 mph or so. two strokes sound like they’re revving, but their actually low-speed engines, as their porting doesn’t allow them to breathe like a four stroke. The “hottest” two stroke car sold, the Saab GT750 and 850 Monte Carlo redlined at 5000 rpm. But they sound exactly as if they’re turning twice that fast.

The four-door sedan and the two-door wagon “Universal” shared a longer wheelbase, hence the F94 designation. The wagon really took advantage of the fwd, with a low load floor and lots of cargo room. The DKW Avant.

One thing that all DKWs of this series all shared were the suicide front doors. Rather surprising too, since most manufacturers got away from that by this time. For what it’s worth, it really did make getting into cars rather pleasant, especially small ones.

These DKWs were held in high regard for their fine road manners. The front wheel drive meant a high degree of stability at speed and in windy conditions, excellent traction, and generally good handling. The old fwd bugaboo of heavy steering was largely mitigated by an excellent and accurate rack and pinon gear, which was not that common in Central Europe then.

An upscale version of the DKW appeared in 1958, the Auto Union 1000, with a larger 50 hp 980 cc engine, and a genuine pillar-less hardtop roof. The choice of calling it an Auto Union was a bit odd, since that name had never been used on production cars before. Why not resurrect the Audi, Horch or Wanderer names?

The reason I’ve had DKWs and Auto Unions on the brain lately is that I was recently sent a bunch of old family pictures, and the car ones all went to me. This is one of a cousin of my father’s who lived in northern Germany and arrived for a visit in Innsbruck in the summer of 1959 in an Auto Union 1000 coupe. The 1000 had a slightly larger 890 cc triple belting out 50 hp at 4550 rpm. Hot stuff!

She was a widow, and came with her teenage son, who here has his head in the trunk. Don’t ask how we did it (maybe the son rode in the trunk), but they took my whole family for a day outing into Sud Tirol, where we drove on a remaining original segment of a Roman road. They knew how to build roads that lasted! And being car-less, I remember every one of these rare trips perfectly, except for the details of just how squeezed in we were. Conveniently repressed.

In 1964, the DKW 3=6 and Auto Union 100 was replaced by the DKW F102, the last to carry a two-stroke engine. In every other way a very modern sedan, the F102 also now had oil-injection, so that the mixture no longer had to be measured out in the tank, and avoiding the oil-starvation problems of the earlier DKWs. But it was too little, too late. The two-stroke had no future, most of all because of looming emission regulations. And the two stroke never was quite as efficient with fuel as the ever-more efficient four-strokes being developed.

Mercedes (reluctantly probably) had to bail out Auto Union back in 1958, in the way things were typically done in Germany back then. The Mercedes engineers developed a modern new four stroke four. With the new engine and front grille, the DKW now metamorphosed into the Audi (F103), resurrecting the name that had graced many fine cars in the pre-war era.

Mercedes wanted out of Auto Union, and engineered a deal whereby VW would take on ownership, in 1964. This coincided with the development of the new engine, which would go on to power a number of cars outside of Audi, including the Porsche 924, and a motley assortment of AMC cars when VW handily sold off the engine to them during the energy crisis.

The Audi- F103 came in versions from 60 to 90 hp, whence the designations. Only the Super 90 was imported to the US, and I remember seeing them in the showroom in Towson in 1969, shortly after I had ridden in my godfather’s new S90 in Austria that summer. It’s been ages since I’ve seen one, so I’m keeping my eyes peeled. If I can find a DKW, an Audi S90 shouldn’t be that hard. For that matter, I’d be thrilled to find one of the first generation 100s too. Audi’s reputation for fragility goes back a long way too, even before they were called that. Blame it on the family genes.

Related reading:

1974 Audi 100LS CC: Keeping It Beautiful