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 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.
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 was very cutting edge 80 years ago.
More unusual still was the massive Porsche-designed 4.4-liter V-16 engine that produced 295 horsepower at 4,500 revs per minute. The only other car in the Auto Union’s class was from Mercedes-Benz. Whereas Auto Union gambled with a radical design for its competition cars, Mercedes management stuck with its front-engine machines and fitted them with supercharged 3.4-liter inline eight-cylinder engines rated at 354 horsepower.
The Auto Union Type A and Mercedes-Benz W25 race cars collectively won seven Grand Prix races and six hill-climb events in 1934. 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, 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 and gave up 100 horsepower in the process.
The new Type D, as it was called, was nearly equal in strength to the sleek-looking Mercedes-Benz W154, which also had V-12 power. Although capable of running at more than 10,000 r.p.m., its maximum power occurred at a less frenzied 7,000 revs. 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 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 were not the team’s weak suits. Thrashing it on the ragged edge nearly put an end to it all.
In January 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 wins were with 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 World War II 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 1990, a few of these cars have surfaced along with a number of spare parts. Volkswagen’s Audi division 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 the six years preceding the war, Mercedes-Benz had won the majority of the races due to superior preparation and hot driving.