Advertisement

Audi Type D breathed fire in the '30s

August 17, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

It was called the Age of the Titans for good reason.

Fire-breathing monsters such as the Type D were not only built to win races, but represent the honor and glory of a nation. For Auto Union, it would be an auspicious beginning under a new corporate banner.

The best way for a fledgling auto company to make a name for itself is to go racing. At least that was the plan hatched in 1932 by the newly created Auto Union. The result was a series of revolutionary machines that thrust the company into the spotlight and provided some of the most closely contested thrills in the history of Grand Prix.

Auto Union was created from a merger of four struggling German companies: Horch, DKW, Audi and Wanderer. Assisting in its effort to field a successful racing team was Dr. Ferdinand Porsche who, at the time, was an independent automotive engineer and designer. The new rules for the 1934 Grand Prix season were straightforward and uncomplicated. As long as certain maximum sizes and minimum weight allowances were adhered to, engine configurations - and displacement- were virtually unrestricted.

Advertisement

Dr. Porsche's approach called for the positioning of the engine behind the driver and ahead of the rear wheels, a design that's commonplace today but very cutting edge 70 years ago.

More unusual still was the massive Porsche-designed 4.4-liter SOHC V-16 engine that produced 295 horsepower at 4,500 rpm. The only other car in the Auto Union's class was Mercedes-Benz. Whereas Auto Union gambled with a radical design for its competition cars, Mercedes management stuck with its tried-and-true front-engine machines and fitted them with 3.4-liter supercharged inline eight-cylinder motors rated at 354 horsepower.

At the time, both Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz received significant financial development aid by Adolf Hitler's German government, which viewed Grand Prix racing as a test of strength between nations, and thus a source of great national pride. Without the extra funds, both teams would likely have been beaten by the Italians or perhaps even the British.

The Auto Union Type A and Mercedes-Benz W25 race cars collectively won seven Grand Prix races and six hill-climb events in 1934, thoroughly trouncing the competition. The public began calling them the Silver Arrows for their shiny aluminum skins.

For the next three years, the two rivals fought pitched battles for supremacy using race cars with steadily escalating horsepower. By 1937, top speeds had reached the 200 mph mark. Sensing impending mayhem on the track, the sport's governing council wisely limited displacement to 4.5 liters. Supercharged engines were limited to 3.0 liters.

After the 1934 season, Auto Union decided to match Mercedes in creating its own supercharged engine. To accomplish this, a 420-horse V-12 replaced the previous year's V-16.

The new Type D, as it was called, was nearly equal in strength to the sleek looking Mercedes-Benz W154, which also featured V-12 power. Although capable of running at more than 10,000 rpm, its maximum power occurred at a less frenzied 7,000 rpm. One of the car's most unusual features was its horizontal fins that helped keep the car stable at high speeds. Another novel item, called a tachograph, recorded information such as acceleration, braking pressure and engine revs in each of the five forward gears and stored the information on a paper disk. More than 50 years later professional race teams would be collecting the same data via computer.

Sophistication, power and innovation, as it would turn out, were not the team's weak suit. Thrashing it on the ragged edge nearly put an end to it all.

In January of 1938, ace driver Bernd Rosemeyer was killed - at an estimated 270 mph - while attempting to set a new land speed record in a streamlined version of his Auto Union race car. That year, the Type D won only two races, both with aging Italian driving legend Tazio Nuvolari replacing Rosemeyer behind the wheel.

Both Auto Union and the Type D returned for a second and final season in 1939, but managed only two more victories before the onset of the Second World War in early September brought the curtain down on international Grand Prix competition. The cars simply disappeared.

After the war, a number of the rear-engined racers were removed from their hiding spots in Russian-occupied East Germany and shipped to various engineering facilities throughout the former Soviet Union to see what advanced technical secrets they might reveal.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc in 1990, a few of these cars have surfaced along with a number of spare parts. Currently, Volkswagen's Audi division has acquired most of what remains of these priceless legends, including a Type A and three Type Ds, and has restored them to their original condition.

In six years preceding the war, Mercedes-Benz had won the majority of the races, mainly due to superior preparation and hot driving.

But it was the upstart and underdog Auto Union with its more radical race cars that became the fan favorites.

All are fitting memorials to those who built these beasts and to the brave souls who dared to tame them.




Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications' chief road tester and historical writer.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|