Well, this was about the last car I expected to see parked outside a local burger joint on a Monday afternoon in December. I had first caught a glimpse of it half a block away, where I immediately noticed it was 1) old and 2) German. At this time, I didn’t know how old or which variety of German it was, but this was enough to pique my curiosity. It might be a BMW 2000CS, I surmised. That would be worth a stop. But as I got closer, I did a double take. It can’t be…an Audi? A 100 LS? But it was.
Truth be told, I assumed that these had all rusted away decades ago, or been unceremoniously junked due to their notorious (in the US, at least) durability woes. It was on my official CC bucket list, but on the “I don’t actually expect to find one of these but I’ll keep looking anyway” category, rather than the somewhat-less-unobtanium variety.
After hurriedly scurrying around the Audi, trying to get somewhat-decent pictures with my cellphone (the only camera I had with me) despite the massive pole blocking the profile view (sorry about that), I was on my way back to my own car when I was greeted by the Audi’s owner, who was sitting at a table outside. He didn’t seem too surprised that I was taking pictures, but he did offer some additional insight into this particular 100 LS.
According to him, this is the oldest extant US-import Audi. Not the model, this exact car. It’s all-original, completely unrestored, with around 55,000 miles on the odometer. A cursory glance at the pictures will confirm what I saw with my own eyes: it’s in almost perfect condition, from the unblemished vinyl roof to the perfectly-straight chrome to the tufted corduroy seats. The owner was also clearly an Audi enthusiast (as if I couldn’t already from the car he drove), mentioning that he has acquaintances who possess an Audi Super 90, two DKW 3=6s, as well as a DKW Schnellaster. Clearly, I have more hunting around Southern California to do.
Anyway, back to the car. The 100 LS has acquired a bit of a troublesome reputation here in the States. Any time an example surfaces on a car blog or for sale online, it is inevitably accompanied by a raging sea of anecdotal invective from past owners, who (it seems) usually bought theirs in 1979 for the princely sum of a Bee Gees record and a Big Mac and then got stranded on the George Washington Bridge at midnight during a snowstorm when the inboard front disc brake mounts collapsed and the ignition points fried and the HVAC gave out all at once and the rest of the car spontaneously combusted when they tried to push it home.
But when we step back and take a more worldly viewpoint, the C1 Audi 100 was a hugely influential automobile, both in its corporate design language and its establishment of Audi as a viable player in the near-luxury segment. Over 825,000 100s were sold worldwide from 1968 to 1976, before which Audi was…well, barely a brand, and after which Audi was relatively well-recognized as a viable upscale offering and a stylistic innovator. But its development was never certain; in fact, it was done almost entirely in secret.
First, a little history. The 100’s story begins with the acquisition of Auto Union GmbH (itself the parent company of DKW) by Daimler-Benz AG in 1958 after major shareholder Friedrich Flick (who also owned more than 35% of Daimler-Benz shares) was reluctant to finance Auto Union’s William Werner-designed prototype – which did, in fact, become the later DKW Junior (above) – without a concrete production timeline. He instead proposed a merger between the two companies, which was completed in full on December 31, 1959.
Daimler-Benz then set out to modernize Auto Union’s automobile production, first building a new operating plant in Ingolstadt in 1959 (and subsequently acquiring Auto Union’s own Düsseldorf plant). In 1963, they appointed Ludwig Kraus as Auto Union’s Technical Director. Kraus brought with him plans for a Daimler-Benz-designed four-stroke “M118” engine (featuring a high 11.2:1 compression ratio and water cooling).
But in the meantime, Auto Union was struggling. The company’s sales were falling fast, and profits were declining just as rapidly. Consequently, Daimler-Benz sold off Auto Union to Volkswagen in 1964. That was also the year that Auto Union released the new F102, designed to replace the aging DKW 3=6 and Auto Union 100 (in background). It was a very modern looking sedan for the times, but under its hood the now-obsolete three-cylinder two stroke was still there. In 1964 the new BMW New Class cars were profoundly more appealing, along with others in the F102’s class. It was a failure.
But the solution was now at hand. The new four stroke M118 engine premiered in the “Audi” (F103) of 1965 (later called the Audi 72), which was an F102 with an slightly elongated and restyled front end to accommodate the longer inline four. The Audi marque, which had previously merged with three other brands to create Auto Union in 1932, was resurrected to differentiate the new four-stroke model from the exclusively two-stroke (and very image-tarnished) DKW range.
The new engine was far and away superior to DKW’s two-strokes, and the new Audi was a (relative) success: over 400,000 were built over the succeeding seven years.
The Audi 72 eventually turned into the Audi 80 (the numbers correspond to power output in HP), which then became the Super 90 (sold briefly in the United States from 1970-72, with 5,487 finding buyers). This is a US-spec Super 90 with the requisite sealed beam round headlights. Finding one of these in the US would really be a trick.
This is where Heinrich Nordhoff enters the story. Nordhoff, the Chairman of the Volkswagen AG’s Board of Management, was intent on utilizing Auto Union’s Ingolstadt facility primarily for the production of Volkswagens, as the Wolfsburg plant was already operating at full capacity (a contemporary Der Spiegel article noted that 280 Audis were produced per day at the Ingolstadt plant, compared to 400 Volkswagens). Nordhoff therefore forbade any development at Ingolstadt, cutting staff and effectively stalling Kraus’s development of a new Audi model.
But Kraus continued his work in secret, unbeknownst to the corporate bigwigs at Volkswagen. He and a small team of designers covertly put together plans for a new Audi sedan, to slot into the upper-midsize segment. For it was not just the four-stroke engine that Kraus had brought with him to Auto Union. During his time at Daimler-Benz, Kraus led the design team that produced Mercedes’ W118 prototype, which was intended to replace the DKW range at the bottom of Daimler-Benz’s lineup. When the W118 became the W119, the H118 engine accompanied it. The engine, as mentioned previously, was put into production in 1965, but the body was shelved by Volkswagen upon its acquisition of Auto Union. At least, it was shelved by the upper management. But Kraus’s Audi 100 design was clearly influenced by the W118/W119, as was the original Audi of 1965. Though the prototype also bears a strong resemblance to the W113 SL, its upright greenhouse and tapered rear carried over into the production Audi models.
In 1967, Kraus and his team were still working behind a curtain – literally. The employees would stow the clay prototype behind a curtain in Ingolstadt, only revealing it after-hours when they would develop it further. The story goes that Rudolf Leiding, who was the Volkswagen board member overseeing Auto Union, caught a glimpse of the model one day when it was accidentally left uncovered. Leiding was impressed, so he arranged for the prickly Nordhoff to view the prototype under the guise of it being the results of a “body modifications” development order by the board. Nordhoff was suitably pleased, and gave the go-ahead to begin production. The car, now called the Audi 100, was revealed to the press in March 1968 and went on sale in the fall of the same year.
Upon release, it was met with widespread praise from journalists. Its styling was hailed as being modern, clean, and airy, with more than one reviewer noting the “mini-Benz” look to the model; it was also very aerodynamic, with a drag coefficient of 0.369. Its fit and finish was on par with other German marques, and its 100-hp engine proved more than capable of powering the Audi up to speed: a 12.5 second 0-60 time was very competitive at the time.
Contemporary reviews noted that it really shone with its ride and handling combination. Both a May 1970 review by Car and Driver and a May 1971 report by CAR Magazine commended the 100’s compliant, softly-sprung ride. Though both reviews noted the engine’s inherently dubious location (placed in front of the front-axle line, so that the weight distribution was close to 60-40) that seemed to be predisposed to understeer, CAR noted that the 100 cornered very neutrally, in a manner that belied its front-wheel-drive origins. (The front-wheel-drive layout, though novel for many American buyers, was not as revolutionary across the Atlantic: the 100’s lineage had been front-wheel-drive since the DKW F1 of 1932. It did, however, differ from many upscale competitors in this regard: one of the 100’s more progressive attributes.) Popular Science concurred in an August 1970 test, describing its handling as “safe and predictable.” The 100 LS is also rumored to have been a particular favorite of Road & Track’s, but sadly, no easily-accessible copy of their review is available.
But Car and Driver was not so enamored with the 100’s performance. Its testers experienced rampant understeer, claiming it was “almost impossible to get the rear end to come around,” even on tight turns. They also panned the engine’s performance in city driving, with noted unresponsiveness under 3200 rpm, and a peculiar lurching behavior upon throttle liftoff in the same rev range. The powerplant was also reported to be noisy, which may have been more of a function of Americans regarding a four-cylinder engine in this price range to be an affront to the large-engine-focused domestic market than an actual indictment of the mill itself. But nonetheless, it represented a burden-to-entry in the United States market.
It was that price that C/D regarded as most criminal: though the Audi stickered at under $2600 US dollars ($17,335 adjusted) overseas, it was marked up to $3795 ($25,300 adjusted) upon entry to the United States. This made it around $500 dearer than competitive imports such as the Peugeot 504 and Volvo 144S, although a few hundred dollars cheaper than the BMW 2000 and around a thousand dollars cheaper than a Mercedes-Benz 220. It was a tricky segment to occupy in the United States, but Audi thought they had a shot, in large part due to their ability to share dealerships with Porsche (the 100 was marketed under “Porsche Audi: a division of Volkswagen of American, Inc.”) and ability to use Volkswagen’s established mechanic network. Executives projected 30,000 sales a year, which seemed to many an optimistic figure.
But, lo and behold, the 100 LS crested the 30,000-per-year mark in 1973, and sold 146,583 in the United States over an eight-year production run from 1970-1977. While not exactly a runaway success, that number was competitive with BMW and Volvo (especially when coupled with production totals from the Audi Fox), and far ahead of import rivals from Peugeot and Saab. On the whole, it was a very productive venture for Audi. So why is the 100 regarded with such widespread disdain in the States?
In one word: reliability. (Now, it should be noted here that many of these quality issues can be isolated to US-market cars for a variety of reasons. This piece is largely American-focused simply due to the author’s location of residence, and the rarity of finding a US-spec 100 LS in the wild. I’m told that the 100’s pernicious issues are not quite as widespread in its homeland.) The first culprit was the front brake design. The 100 LS came with inboard disc brakes, which was both touted by Audi in contemporary advertisements and allowed for the fitment of larger-than-average 11-inch rotors, as the rotor size was unencumbered by the wheel size due to its inboard location.
On paper, this would seem to be an engineering triumph. In practice, this was not the case. The brakes’ location made them notoriously difficult to service, and contemporary reviews complained about their sponginess. It also appears as if their inboard location placed an undue amount of torque-related stress on them (though I am no engineer: that explanation may not be 100% correct), but the upshot is that they failed often, and when they did, they were exceptionally expensive to fix. The 100 also tended to had a particular penchant for munching CV joints.
The air conditioning was another trouble spot. The compressor was mounted on the engine (complete with rubber bushings), ensuring a frequent need for replacement, and the radiator fan fuse apparently heated up quickly and deformed the fuse block, which led to more frequent failure and expensive fixes. These issues may not have been as problematic in the 100’s German home market, but A/C was a must-have feature in the United States, so its failure was a particular problem.
Overall, the 100 LS’s reliability record in the United States was abysmal. Consumer Reports reported a “much worse than average” rating from 1972-1976, noting particular trouble spots in engine mechanical, engine cooling, exhaust system, fuel system, ignition system, automatic transmission, air conditioning, brakes, and electrical system. So…basically everything. Those who reported selling and/or repairing 100 LSs when they were new are no less critical. More than one mentioned it as the worst car they ever sold/worked on, mentioning that the high temperatures under the hood vaporized any rubber or synthetic parts, and that the complex Solex carburetors had to be meticulously maintained. One former salesman called them “nice riding, well appointed pieces of crap,” and others mentioned that the 100 was colloquially known as “Hitler’s Revenge.” Ouch.
It’s worth noting that many of these issues may have been caused by a few American-specific factors. One: the required smog equipment on US-spec 100 LS’s may have contributed to the unreliability under the hood. And many had air conditioning, which was still very uncommon in Germany at the time. Two: the excessive road salt foisted upon them by many locales in the northeast wreaked havoc upon both their bodywork and many other salt-vulnerable components. And three (this may be the biggest issue): the American mechanics were not well-equipped to handle the Audi’s foreign (to them) layout. Many past owners recall sloppily-performed repairs; one mentioned repeated “major safety-related nuts and bolts loose” after taking the car in for service. Another former parts manager said the mechanics never wanted to work on the cars, and the simple reality of it is that many of these technicians were unfamiliar with the Audis and used to working on the far-simpler Volkswagens. The two had very little in common; ergo, there were bound to be mistakes made. The expensive parts sourced from Germany couldn’t have helped, either.
However (setting aside the American market for a second), on a global scale, the 100 was hugely successful. So successful, in fact, that in 1970 Audi exceeded production capacity at the Ingolstadt plant, forcing Volkswagen to move some production to its own Wolfsburg plant. (Some would call that karma for Nordhoff’s mandate of exactly the opposite just five years before.) As mentioned before, it established Audi as a legitimate player in the upscale market, a front-wheel-drive rival to BMW and a cost-saving alternative to Mercedes-Benz. It looked good, drove well, and was relatively affordable to boot. It proved that a front-wheel-drive car could go toe-to-toe with the best in its class when it came to ride and handling. And its aerodynamic styling (0.369 CD) helped paved the way for the revolutionary Audi 100 (C3) of 1983. In fact, Audi’s own Director of Communications Mark Dahncke said the 100 “influenced everything to the Audi A4. It set the table for all things that came thereafter.”
Some fifty years later, the 100 LS has all but disappeared from our shores. But it’s nice to know there’s still one trundling about the streets: a reminder of Audi’s humble beginnings, a genesis of its road to profitability, and a conduit to its triumphant future.
Photographed in Santa Monica, CA – December 2018
Cohort Capsule: 1973 Audi 100LS – Keep It Beautiful by Perry Shoar
Miniature Curbside Classic: 1972 Audi 100 By Signature by Tom Klockau