The Future Started Here

From the most modest of beginnings, Audi has become an automotive titan. We remember where, and how quietly, it all began.

1966 Audi Super 90 (c)

If truth is the first casualty of war, then Audi was a close second in 1940. Having been subsumed seven years earlier into the Auto Union combine that also included the DKW, Horch and Wanderer marques, Audi’s presence in Germany withered away to an inconsequential 0.1% market share before the outbreak of hostilities.

Demand for its large if slightly idiosyncratic Front UW 225(1) saloon evaporated as a result of the economic privations of the 1930’s. Auto Union instead concentrated on small and economical two-stroke engined saloons carrying the DKW brand. The Front was succeeded in 1938 by a 3.3 litre six-cylinder RWD model, the 920, which was manufactured at the Horch plant and was an Audi in name only. The 920 was itself discontinued without a replacement in 1940.

When production resumed after the war, the company remained focused on building small cars under the Auto Union and DKW brands. Mercedes-Benz acquired a controlling stake in Auto Union in 1958, but failed to develop a coherent strategy for an automaker that should have been complementary to its own business manufacturing larger cars. This failure actually led to the cancellation in 1963 of the W119, Mercedes-Benz’s own compact saloon project, in case it cannibalised sales of the forthcoming DKW F102, a medium-sized FWD saloon powered by a three-cylinder two-stroke engine.

The engineer who had led the W119 project, Ludwig Kraus, was dispatched to Auto Union to oversee the company’s future designs. When Mercedes-Benz sold Auto-Union to Volkswagen in 1964, Kraus chose to remain in Ingolstadt and began work on a successor to the recently launched F102. He realised that beneath the car’s attractive and contemporary bodywork lay an engine that most Germans regarded as noisy, smelly and insufficiently refined for a car that would appeal to the country’s increasingly affluent middle classes.

Moreover, the F102’s engine quickly gained a reputation for heavy fuel consumption, unreliability and premature wear. The latter was caused by the Bosch developed automatic petrol/oil mixing system failing to work properly in very cold weather, when the oil became too viscous to mix effectively(2).

Not for us, darling: the 1963 DKW F102

Apparently with Mercedes-Benz’s blessing, Kraus had brought with him the blueprints for the new inline 1.7 litre four-cylinder four-stroke engine intended for the stillborn W119. He began to redesign the F102 around this engine. It would be mounted longitudinally ahead of the front wheels, with a transaxle four-speed gearbox mounted immediately behind.

The new engine required a 100mm (4”) increase in overall length to 4,380mm (172½”) all of which sat ahead of the front axle line(3). In order to minimise the increase in length, the radiator was positioned diagonally to the right of the engine rather than directly in front of it. The engine itself was canted over to the left to allow clearance under the bonnet.

The longer nose, with a new shallower grille and trapezoidal headlamps, actually improved the car’s proportions and stance over its snub-nosed and slightly morose looking predecessor. The tail of the car was altered slightly so that the rear light clusters wrapped around the corners of the wings, while the centre section remained unchanged over the F102. Although the changes were relatively modest, the resulting car would set a stylistic template for a series of new models that would remain in production for a decade.

The new car was originally intended to be launched as the DKW F103, but the company wisely decided that the reliability problems with the F102 and the introduction of a new engine warranted a fresh start, so the Audi name was resurrected. The car was launched simply as the Audi, with no model suffix, in September 1965. It was initially available in two and four-door saloon form, with a three-door Variant estate joining the range in March 1966. The engine was a 1,697cc unit that produced 71bhp (53kW) which gave the car a claimed 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time of 14.8 seconds and a top speed of 92mph (148km/h). An unusual feature was inboard disc brakes at the front, coupled with conventional outboard rear drum brakes.

Audi F103 engine installation (c)

Car Magazine drove the new model in Germany and published its first impressions in the December 1965 edition. Such was the lack of familiarity with the Audi name in the UK that the reviewer first went to some lengths to explain its origins(4). Despite the fact that the engine was still ‘tight’ with less than 2,000 miles on the clock, the reviewer managed to knock a second off the official 0 to 62mph (100km/h) time and achieved the claimed top speed.

He remarked favourably on the smoothness and strong torque of the high (11.2:1) compression engine. Both clutch and accelerator pedals were criticised for their short travel and abruptness, however. Brakes were moderately heavy but effective. The steering was quick and precise, with moderate, controllable understeer approaching the limit of grip.

The reviewer concluded by posing the rhetorical question; was the Audi, at a UK list price of £1,197, worth the £120 premium over the similarly sized Volkswagen Type 3 1600TL? Based on its perceived better quality of finish and workmanship, greater passenger and boot space, style and driver appeal, he felt that it was.

With the introduction of more powerful engine options in 1966, the original model was given the suffix 72, which denoted its power output measured in PS. The new engines were an uprated version of the existing 1,697cc unit producing 79bhp (59kW) and an enlarged 1,761cc unit producing 89bhp (66kW). These new versions were known as the 80 and Super 90 respectively, again representing their PS power outputs.

Late 1968 saw the introduction of a smaller capacity 1,496cc engine producing either 54bhp (40kW) in domestic market tune or 64bhp (48kW) for export. In naming this version, Audi simply split the power output difference in PS terms and called it the 60. In early 1969 the original 72 was uprated slightly and renamed 75, at which point the 80 was discontinued.

1969 Audi 75 Variant (c)

Apart from the different engine options, the model neither required nor received much in the way of updates during its seven-year production life. In late 1967 dual-circuit brakes with (optional) servo assistance was offered on the 80 and Super 90. In August 1970 the exposed fuel filler cap was relocated from below the right-hand tail light to beneath a flap in the rear wing and a new dashboard was installed.

The F103 range sold strongly and re-established Audi in both the German and export markets. By the time it was replaced by the new B1-generation 80 model in 1972, a total of 416,853 had been built. Despite this success, Volkswagen chief executive Heinz-Henrich Nordhoff seemed to be antipathetic towards the marque and explicitly forbade Ludwig Kraus from developing the larger, more luxurious model he proposed. Kraus and his team simply ignored this diktat and worked in secret on what would become the Audi 100.

Fate intervened when Nordhoff suffered a heart attack in the Summer of 1967. He returned to work in October but died six months later in April 1968. Nordhoff’s successor, Kurt Lotz, was considerably more amenable towards Audi and the 100 was launched in November of the same year. Audi’s future path was now clear.


(1) This model name was highly descriptive, as the car was powered by a 2.25 litre six-cylinder Wanderer engine driving the front wheels. UW stood for ‘Umgekehrter Wanderer’ meaning ‘Wanderer turned around’, a reference to the fact that the engine was reversed so the drive to the gearbox was taken from the front of the unit, making the car front mid-engined in modern parlance.

(2) Two-stroke engines run on a mixture of petrol and oil, typically in a ratio of around 40:1 and it is this, rather than a separate oil circulation system, that provides lubrication to moving parts.

(3) The wheelbase of the F103 was actually 9mm (1/4”) shorter than its predecessor.

(4) Having been ousted from the company that bore his name in 1909, Dr August Horch set up a new auto manufacturer in competition but lost the rights to use his own name for the new venture. ‘Horch’ in German means ‘Listen’ so, at the suggestion of his son, a classics scholar, the good doctor simply translated this into Latin, ergo ‘Audi’.


Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

27 thoughts on “The Future Started Here”

  1. Thanks a lot for reminding me of a car I know very well from my youth.

    Car’s test is the first time I ever heard somebody describing the F103’s engine as smooth. There were several reasons why they gave up the high 11.2 compression ratio of the early engines and one of them were their unpleasant NVH characteristics. The other was that the good fuel economy that in theory should have been the result of the high CR never materialised in real life. These engines had a healthy appetite for fuel, particularly in cold weather and on short distances. The automatic choke went out of adjustment in no time and made the engine idle at excessively high revs and with far too rich a mixture.
    The high CR made it necessary to fit spark plugs with a very high heat range, resulting in the plug of the front cylinder permanently fouling as because of the laterally mounted radiator the front of the engine block was exposed to cold air coming through the grille. Solution: fit three spark plugs with a 275 heat range and one with 225 in the front cylinder.
    For a short time they also experimented with a modified gearbox ventilation system resulting in gearbox oil mist directly landing on the right hand brake disc when the car was driven at high speed giving fun effects at the next braking manoeuvre.
    These cars corroded like hell with many a five year old example needing new wings which was done easily because all wings were bolt-on items.
    But the tings were roomy and very comfortable on their long travel torsion bar suspension and they had an enormously large boot as can be seen from this picture – also showing that the 1970 facelift not only moved the fuel filler neck to the rear wing but also brought new rear light units similar to the ones of the then new Audi 100

    1. Here’s the intended picture of the large boot – note the overdose of chrome of the ‘Super 90’.

    2. Good morning Dave and thanks for sharing your personal experience of the F103. When I was a child, one of our neighbours owned an Audi 60 and it was a very rare sighting in Ireland. I recall having plenty of time to admire its quietly elegant lines as it was parked adjacent to our nearest bus stop and the bus service was a bit erratic! It was replaced by an original 100, so the owner was clearly happy with Audi.

      I agree that the extra chrome is an unnecessary flourish on the Super 90.

    3. Digressing briefly, in the picture of the grey Audi 60 it’s good to see the mandatory TR6 which is a feature of all “Oldtimer” events in the Federal Republic.

      I understand that there is a national law, which requires every German town with a population of over 15,000 to own and maintain an example in acceptable condition, that is to say far shinier and better put together than any TR which ever came out of Canley.

    4. Ah yes, Robertas, that would be Pischetsrieder’s law. 🙂

    5. My father ran this type of Audi 100 for a brief period and can attest to its corrosive traits. This and a Fiat 124 are the two cars he always mentions in the context of rust – the difference being that he broke his vow never to return in the former’s case, once a quarter of a century’s allegiance to Munich Milbertshofen’s finest had come to an end.

    6. The F103’s owners’ manual held a picture of the engine compartment showing DKW F102 wings (with indicators at the top of the wing) and the DKW’s circular headlamps and large gille but the F103 four stroke engine. This picture stayed until the end of production.

  2. If we compare the 80 to other cars from the same period, it is not particularly distinctive, though it is very neatly detailed. There is rather subtle sculpting on the rear wings and a little on the bonnet. Even then Audi´s low-key design style was present and they kept this up until the late 90s when it became more overtly styled with the advent of the C5 in 1997. If we wanted to be purist, you could say Audi´s drift to styling started there, by adopting an expressively Modernist approach inspired by Bauhaus as opposed to letting the styling “fall out” from the other constraints.

    1. The C5 was styled in a way, yes. Nevertheless, I don’t see the C5 that much as a tipping point, as the functional approach with reduced formal elements still lived on. This ‘Bauhaus’ period gave us a few very pleasant Audis, among them the A2.

      For me, the tipping point is the B7 (AKA B6 facelift/reskin). There the journey to styling without substance began. It hasn’t come to an end since then, apparently.

    2. I agree, Simon. The C5 A6 was a coherent design, but the B7 A4 was a totally unnecessary and counterproductive facelift of the sublime B6. It was also the first A4 with the ‘big gob’ grille, and we all know how that has gone.

    3. In my opinion the C5 A6 was an important step forward. For the simple reason that this is the first Audi saloon I think is actually desirable. Audi’s left me indifferent before and their design has gotten worse lately.

  3. A lovely article, which has caused me to stumble across a few things which I found interesting.

    Firstly, it looks as though the F103 was created by Bertone.

    The style reminds me of his Mustang concept of around the same time, which I’m sure must have been covered, here, before. By the way, I came across the “Mac’s Motor City Garage” site a while back and think it’s pretty good.

    And speaking of designers, I read that Ludwig Kraus helped to get Guigiaro on board for the Golf. I find it very odd that Benz were prepared to let Kraus (and designs) go, especially given his distinguished career at the company.

    1. Thanks Charles, glad you enjoyed the piece. Thanks also for that Facebook link, which has some fascinating prototypes. 👍

    2. Thanks, Daniel. Yes, I found the prototypes very interesting – very strong Renault and Datsun styling cues of the time, I thought. I must say I rather like that style, although it’s a bit odd – lots of large radius curves. It’s made me look at the mk1 Passat in a different light, too.

      Also, on my virtual travels, I came across the NSU Trapeze, which I hadn’t heard of before. One for another time, perhaps.

    3. That alleged Bertone prototype bears no resemblance whatsoever to Guigiaro’s output at the time. Volumes and that double crease in particular are very much at odds with Bertone’s house style then. Stylistically, F103 was at least half-a-decade behind Giugiaro during that period (his Giulia sprint was introduced in ’63, featuring exactly the kind of up-to-date graphics & volumes that were turning Turin into the capital of car design at the time). I very much doubt those images are correctly captioned.

    4. Hello Christopher – yes, I know what you mean. I guess it was only a facelift job, and as far as that goes, I can see that the front and rear have some Bertone-type style to them (e.g. as in Mazda proposals, etc). The (later) BMW Garmisch concept has a double feature line, but I’d hesitate to say that proves much.

      I’ll look in to it further and see if I can find anything more. I quite enjoy a bit of detective work.

    5. These prototypes look like an F102 with Mazda Luce front and rear grafted on, which they probably are design-wise.

    6. Charles, I’d be very interested in learning whatever you find out in the process.

  4. Regarding two-stroke mix, a ratio of 40:1 might be common these days ( that’s what my chainsaw uses ) but in the 60s the ratio was more like 10:1 ( my motorcycle had a Villiers engine ). A school-friend used to add a dash of paraffin as well, to make the petrol go further…

    1. In the late Seventies Maico motorcycles used a 1 in 100 petroil mixture with fully synthetic oils. Yamaha bikes could run at up to 1 in 125 with separate oil supply going down to 1 in 10 under full load.
      DKW recommended adding ten percent of fuel to the oil to prevent the oil supply lines from clogging up -what a mess at the fuel station (try to put ten percent of fuel to a four litre oil tank) and then they wondered why nobody wanted to buy the two strokes anymore.

  5. Thank you as always Daniel for an excellent piece. I may be wrong here but I think the 90 pretty immediately begat the C1 100 – certainly the mechanical layout and styling are pretty close.

    When I was rather younger -lets say 40 years or so – my father ran a C1 100 (saloon 100GL) and probably it was his favourite car. It did indeed have a remarkably large boot and was pretty forgiving of being overloaded with large numbers of canoes (roof rack), tents (trunk) and trailer tent (very very questionable home made tow bar).

    It was very fine car, but as with its progenitor rust overtook it and it disappeared in favour of a Maxi. What a comedown!

    On the back of the Audi experience I went on to own a B4 80 – 2.3E 5 cylinder- I’d put this in the same class as the C1 100 as a seminal Audi that paved the way to their present market position as full blown BMW / Mercedes competitors. A lovely car to own.

    Such a shame that I could not countenance a 2021 Audi – or BMW or Mercedes – the days of understated excellence are long gone.

    Thank you again for this reminder of Audi’s roots.

  6. Hi Rick. Thank you, and glad you enjoyed the piece. The early Audi models were indeed nicely understated, quite ascetic in their design. Like you, I couldn’t contemplate owning one of Audi’s current crop of ‘showmobiles’.

    Here’s a lovely example of an early (pre-facelift) 100 C1 coupé:

    1. That is indeed lovely, on my wishlist but prices are offputting! A B5 coupe might be a nice second prize.

    2. Call me an ignprant but I’d prefer one of the sublimely elegant two door saloons

      The truly amazing thing about the F104/100C1 is that it was developed against a strict order from Wolfsburg and without VW’s knowing, let alone blessing, in Ludwig Kraus’ and a couple of fellows’ spare time. The drive train and rear suspension are direct transplants from the F103 but nevertheless this car was a smash hit and sold more than 800,000 units despite of original plans of a single production run of 100,000. From day one it was an accepted alternative to the Benz W115 (four cylinder /8) and to this day I can’t understand how and why they managed to get the C2 Typ 43 so wrong by making it a strangely coloured cardboard box on wheels instead of further following the road of a true Mercedes competitor. They could have arrived where they are today twenty years earlier if they hadn’t followed the blind alleys of Typ 43 and 44.

    3. Dave, I took my driver’s test in a C1, I can’t agree with any of your assertions here, except to agree that both 2 door body styles were more attractive than the 4 door. Back when that car was new (1974), a classmate of mine did confuse the car with a Mercedes. I was quick to point out that it only looked like a Mercedes, but it certainly wasn’t one.

      Here’s a photo of a rejected dashboard proposal for the C2. It’s even more 928 like than the production version. I would defend Audi’s moving out of the shadow of being an ersatz Mercedes, since the C1’s mechanical and tactile qualities were never even close to the /8 Benz models it superficially resembled. I think it’s clear that in terms of interior design, Audi began drawing its design inspiration from Porsche instead of Mercedes, if not sharing actual design personnel. Is there not a bit of Pasha in the C2’s distinctive houndstooth velour?

      Regarding the C2’s exterior, Audi wanted to be an aspirational brand so it needed to develop its own image, not continue as a cheap imitation of some other company’s aspirational brand. It was however conceived at a time when the VW brand co-opted most of Audi/NSU’s designs for itself, so the fact that it somewhat resembles a large Passat (especially the Avant variant) isn’t Audi’s fault, the VW brand was raiding Audi’s kitchen for nearly a decade.

      The C3 however, though a bit American looking (long overhangs, fancy glazing, hidden wipers, lots of tumblehome), finally achieved the goal of presenting a uniquely Audi style (remove the badges and the brand identity remains, C3 could only be an Audi) that was premium (as in expensive to manufacture and looking as such).

      The setback which stifled Audi’s growth and acceptance as a premium brand on par with Mercedes was not at all stylistic. It was the tragically unfair 1986 CBS “60 Minutes” hit piece, from which it took Audi 15 years to recover.

  7. I can only add that the F102’s triangular turn signals blended into the tops of the fenders are a great stylistic detail, and the F103’s off-the-shelf looking ones hanging zit-like from the sides are a huge step backwards in that one respect.

    1. Well observed, and fair comment, nlpnt. The change seemed to be driven by a taste for cleaner and less ornate detailing. Those surface mounted corner indicators seemed to be quite fashionable at the time, also featuring on various BMWs:

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