The Auto Union Racing Cars, The Precursor To Audi

The Bugatti Chiron is a car largely in a class by itself   While competitors are closing ranks, it still has a price tag of close to $3 million, an engine that produces 1,600 horsepower, and a top speed of 268 miles per hour.  There are no production vehicles that come close to matching these specifications.

In the 1930s, there was an automobile manufacturer that so dominated the racing scene, that it too, like the Bugatti Chiron was in a class by itself.  Auto Union was a combination of German automobile manufacturers that would eventually become Audi.  Auto Union built Grand Prix cars that dominated racing circuits throughout Europe in the mid-1930s.

Between 1935 and 1937, Auto Union racers won 25 races against a very strong field of competitors that included Bugatti, Maserati, and Alfa Romero.

The precursor to Audi

Auto Union was the result of an integration of four struggling German automobile manufacturers in 1932: Audi, DKW, Horch, and Wanderer.  As a way to bring glory to Germany, Adolf Hitler provided an annual stipend the equivalent to $30,000 to help develop racing cars to showcase its technical prowess, leading to an intense rivalry between manufacturers .

A German of Czech ancestry by the name of Ferdinand Porsche had set up a company in the city of Stuttgart by the name of Porsche. Porsche had set up a subsidiary called High Performance Car Ltd., (HFB) in 1932 to develop a racing car. The economy was challenging at the time and Porsche did not have a customer for his P-Car (P is short for Porsche).

Auto Union, in possession of the money from Hitler and in need of a car, bought HFB and its P-Car. Porsche’s P-Car became the foundation for the Auto Union.

Porsche had designed another car that was also funded by Hitler. His car was the predecessor to the Volkwagen Beetle. With Ferdinand increasingly busy with development of Volkswagen, he turned over development of the Auto Unions to his son, Ferry Porsche.

Known as the Silver Arrows, the Auto Union Type A through D dominated grand prix racing in the 1930s up to the breakout of World War I.  The earlier Auto Unions started with 6.0 liter V16 engines that were later reduced to 3.0 liter V12 engines that produced 550 horsepower.  Despite the fact that the Auto Unions were so heavy, they were capable of wheelspin at over 100 miles per hour.  They were also capable of speeds in excess of 185 miles per hour, without any safety equipment!

Keep in mind that this was the mid-1930s, almost 90 years ago!

Not only very fast but very unique as well

Not only were these vehicles incredibly fast, they also possessed many characteristics that were unusual at the time.  Grand Prix cars of the era had the engines located in front of the driver behind the front axle.  The Auto Union racers had the engines located behind the driver in a mid-engine configuration as current Formula 1 Grand Prix cars do. From the front of the vehicle to the rear, the layout comprised of the radiator, driver, fuel tank and engine.

Since all four tires were the same size and most of the weight was in the back of the vehicle, the Auto Unions were subject to oversteer.   So much so, that they were very difficult to handle. Aerodynamics was not applied to racing car design until the 1960s. As a result, there was no way to dial out the oversteer that plagued the car throughout its entire career.

The Auto Union racers also had their fuel tanks in the middle of the vehicle. This kept the weight distribution from changing as the amount of the fuel in the fuel tank changed. This is common amongst today’s Formula One racing cars. However, in the day, this was very forward thinking.

Only the breakout of World War III ended Auto Union’s domination of Grand Prix racing in 1939. Since the Auto Union factory existing in an area that would fall to the Russians, the Russian Army confiscated many of the Auto Union racing cars as spoils of war. Only three of the Auto Union racing cars survived with a fourth reproduction having been built by Audi.

An incredible legacy

Perhaps because of their ties to one of the biggest stains in human history, Adolph Hitler, their influence in modern automotive history is not well known. However, there is little doubt that their history is intertwined with that of modern day Audi and Porsche.

They were ahead of their time in several respects including their mid-engine layout, suspension design, and weight distribution. The fact that they were subject to oversteer and difficult to handle using the tires of the day is testament to their power output as well.

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