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