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The Little Wonder
March 15, 2003, by Bill Cawthon
A while back, I wrote about models of the cars used by the German Army in World War II. One reader asked for more information about some other brands, including DKW.
DKW's did play a role in Germany's was effort, but they were motorcycles, not cars. There were undoubtedly various prewar DKW-badged Auto Union cars used by the German forces, but not as a specific procurement item.
DKW traces its origins to a transplanted Dane named Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen. Rasmussen was born in Nakskov, Denmark in 1878. While still a young man, he moved to Germany and began to study engineering.
In 1904, Rasmussen and a partner opened Rasmussen & Ernst in Chemnitz, a city in the eastern German state of Saxony. The company initially manufactured and sold exhaust-steam oil separators, automobile mudguards and lighting systems, vulcanizing equipment and centrifuges. Two years later, the firm moved to Zschopau in the Erzgebirge region of Saxony where Rasmussen had purchased a textile mill.
During World War I, Rasmussen became interested in developing a steam-driven vehicle. In German, the word for such a device is "Dampfkraftwagen," and it is from that word the name "DKW" was originally derived.
After the war, Rasmussen met Hugo Ruppe, an engine designer. Ruppe created a small, 2-stroke 25cc gasoline-powered engine for Rasmussen. It was intended to be a toy for young boys, and Rasmussen called it "Der Knaben Wunsch," or the "the boy's wish." This was the second use of the DKW initials.
The final variation, and the one best remembered today, is "Das kleine Wunder," or "the little wonder." This was the name given to an enlarged version of the Ruppe engine, which was powerful enough to be used as auxiliary propulsion for a bicycle.
In 1919, Rasmussen renamed his firm Zschopauer Motorenwerke and switched his company over to production of gas-powered DKW engines.
The little wonder was a success. Soon Rasmussens's company was supplying engines to seventy other German manufacturers, and by 1922, more than 30,000 DKW engines had been produced and Zschopauer Motorenwerke was making its own line of motorized bicycles and motorcycles under the DKW name. Within four years, the majority of German motorcycles either were DKWs or were powered by a DKW engine. By 1928, DKW was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world.
That same year, the first DKW automobile appeared. The DKW P15 had the company's 2-cylinder, 2-stroke engine, which had been enlarged to 500cc and was water-cooled. The P15 was a rear-wheel drive car with a wooden body covered in imitation leather.
Rasmussen's factory did not have the capacity to produce the new car in volume, so in August 1928, he bought the majority of shares in Audiwerke AG, another German automaker that had run into financial difficulties. The fit was perfect: Rasmussen had also secured the manufacturing rights to the American Rickenbacker engines, which would work in the Audi cars.
DKW was again poised for success, even in auto racing. In 1929, a DKW with a 600cc engine ran in Monte Carlo Rally and the following year, two DKW sports cars set 12 international records in their class.
In 1931, DKW switched its design to front-wheel drive, a pioneering move at the time, but one that ultimately paid off handsomely. During the mid-1930s, the DKW became one of Germany's best selling cars, due in part to the successes of the DKW racing team.
I said "ultimately" for a reason. Long term, the new FWD car did well, but by the early '30s, the worldwide Depression was hitting Germany and all of the car companies were in trouble. Then, as now, merger seemed to be the best route to survival.
In the summer of 1932, DKW's financing bank, Sächsische Staatsbank (Saxony State Bank), recommended the formation of a new company made up of the major regional automakers. On June 29, 1932, Audiwerke, Horchwerke and Zschopauer Motorenwerke/DKW merged and an agreement was concluded for the takeover of Wanderer's automotive operations. The new company was called Auto Union AG with its head offices in Chemnitz.
The company adopted a logo consisting of four interlinked rings, which represented the brands joined in the new enterprise. Auto Union kept the original brand names and each was given a specific market segment: DKW was to produce motorcycles and small cars; Wanderers would be midsize cars; Audi would make upscale midsize front-wheel drive cars, while the luxury range was reserved for Horch.
Auto Union was now Germany's second-largest car company. The new front-wheel drive DKW remained in production and was the basis for one of the most successful German small cars of the 1930s. By the end of civilian production in 1942, over 250,000 DKWs had left the factory.
Under Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party, the German car market experienced rapid expansion in the 1930s. Auto Union was a major beneficiary of this expansion and the company grew 400% between 1932 and 1938, when it controlled 25% of the German car market.
Building on the success of its little car, DKW introduced a number of new models in a wide variety of styles for both personal transportation and commercial use.
In 1939, DKW unveiled a new model. Visually, the F8 was simply an evolution of the F7, but under the body shell was a new, low-profile frame that would remain the standard for DKW cars from then on. The F8 was one of the only German cars remained in production during the first years of the Second World War.
One more new model was planned before the war: the streamlined F9, first shown in 1940. However, time ran out and only ten prototypes were built.
During the war years, Auto Union factories produced many types of war materiel, including engines, trucks, light tanks and military cars. As I mentioned, DKW produced motorcycles instead of cars, but the many DKW automobiles still in civilian hands were prized due to the 2-stroke engine's ability to burn several types of fuel.
After the war, Auto Union's factories ended up in the Soviet sector of occupied Germany. The Russians dismantled the plants at Zwickau and Zschopau. They also arrested and executed the works managers of Audi and DKW for war crimes, including the use of slave labor. While the Soviet Union took much of the equipment as war reparations, some of DKW's engineering began to appear in East German cars built in the former Horch works, including the Trabant, which used a DKW-inspired 2-stroke engine for almost its entire production run.
Auto Union's top executives managed to escape to Bavaria, where, in 1949, they set up a new company in Ingolstadt. The new company was called Auto Union GmbH, and it retained the traditional four-ring logo. Auto Union was the only German car company to escape from the East.
As was true of most of the German car companies, the first vehicles to leave Auto Union's production lines were prewar DKW models with 2-stroke engines. However, there was one new model, the F89L Schnellaster, a small commercial vehicle offered as a small bus, delivery van, pickup with an open or a covered bed.
Auto Union's first new passenger car was the DKW F9. Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the F9 was almost production-ready when the war began. Auto Union managed to "acquire" the plans, some say by devious means, and the first F9 left the assembly the line in July 1950.
During the 1950s, the F9 was succeeded by a series of cars and light trucks with 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engines. The company called them "3=6," optimistically claiming a 3-cylinder, 2-stroke engine was the equivalent of a 6-cylinder, 4-stroke engine. New models included the F91 and F93/94. In 1957, the Auto Union name reappeared on the new Auto Union 1000, a further refinement of the F-series cars. A year later, Auto Union introduced the 1000SP, best remembered for its remarkable resemblance to a 1957 Thunderbird.
Although DKW cars were not officially produced for the Wehrmacht in World War II, DKW got another chance with the new German Army.
In 1954, the new German Bundeswehr needed a light vehicle. It asked German automakers to submit prototype models for an "Lkw 0,25 t gl," or "truck, ¼-ton, off-road." The German Army really wanted a refined version of the Volkswagen Type 82 Kübelwagen used in World War II, but VW had its hands full with civilian vehicle production and declined the invitation to compete. The remaining candidates were Borgward's Goliath, Porsche and Auto Union's DKW. After evaluation, it was determined that only Auto Union had the production capacity to meet the army's requirements and so Auto Union won the contract.
Auto Union's winning vehicle was called the DKW F91/4 or simply DKW Geländewagen (DKW all-road). It entered production in 1956 and was built until 1968, making it the last vehicle to carry the DKW name. Auto Union built 46,750 of the little "jeeps" of which about 28,400 went to the Bundeswehr.
While the F91/4 is now almost universally known as the "Munga," DKW did not give it that name until 1962. "Munga" is short for "Mehrzweck-Universal-Geländewagen mit Allradantried" (universal all-road vehicle for general purposes).
Unfortunately, DKW's reliance on 2-stroke engines was becoming a problem. For all their advantages, two-stroke engines are smelly and smoky and their performance was limited. The company simply did not have the capital for new development.
In 1954, Friedrich Flick, a wealthy industrialist, began acquiring a financial stake Auto Union. By December 1957, he had gained a controlling interest. The following April, Flick sold his shares to Daimler-Benz. Daimler-Benz then bought out the other large stakeholders and assumed control of Auto Union.
In 1962, Daimler-Benz decided to focus on luxury and commercial vehicles. DKW had its best postwar sales year in 1962, but the writing was already on the wall. Small cars, like the Junior, introduced in 1959, were moving well, but sales of the larger cars were declining, due in part to Auto Union's addiction to 2-stroke engines. So, in 1965, Auto Union was sold again, this time to Volkswagen.
Volkswagen put an end to development of new 2-stroke engines. In 1965, DKW released a new car with a 4-stroke engine developed while Daimler-Benz owned Auto Union. Since it was such a departure from its standard product line, DKW called the new car an Audi. It was the end of DKW as an automotive brand, but it had outlived its creator. Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen, who had not been directly involved with DKW for a number of years, died the year before.
The major German model companies have produced a number of models of DKW cars, but the only high-quality injection-molded plastic models currently in production come from Brekina, Busch and Roco. Brekina makes a very nice model of the Auto Union 1000. Busch inherited tooling for a couple of different versions of the Schnellaster from Praliné. Roco makes a couple of models of the Munga.
Are they prototypical? Yes. Auto Union had a U.S. dealer network for a number of years while it was owned by Mercedes and even had English-language brochures. All DKW models were available, although I have no idea how many were actually sold. Even the Munga was available in the U.S. as the Cross Country. All three models are on the lot at Oddball's Autos.
DKW's history is very rich and there is a lot of it I have skipped over, including DKW's electric cars, but I am already running way over my usual column length. One of these days, I will have to write about the other ancestors of modern-day Audi.
See you next time!
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.
In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.
Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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