A chance sighting in a Hamburg suburb prompts a DTW writer to contemplate the life and times of one of Germany’s lesser known automotive dynasties.
For me, this story starts on a quiet street in a south-western suburb of Hamburg almost exactly two years ago, although the times we have lived through since make the experience feel far more distant. I had based myself in an apartment in west Harburg, close to the A7 autobahn, and on my first morning, set out further west in search of breakfast, and found myself on a street called Tempoweg, close to the Neuwiedenthal S-Bahn station.
The name triggered my memory. I knew that Tempo was a Hamburg-based vehicle manufacturer, and had occasionally encountered their rather quirky products at Oldtimer events. On that day I was bound for Kiel, to meet some remarkable Saabs, but the task of finding out more about Tempo was added to my cerebral to-do list.
The family business of Vidal & Sohn was established in 1883 to provide private fire-fighting services for the coal-importing firms operating in Hamburg’s port area, and in 1924 established a new venture, Vidal & Sohn Tempo Werke GmbH, for the production of small three-wheeled powered freight carts. The proposition was not unique; Rollfix, also based in the Wandsbek district already made similar vehicles. 100km or so south-west, an enterprising coal-merchant’s son from Altona had just started production of his Blitzkarren in Bremen, and much further distant, Phänomen in Zittau, east of Dresden were also building this type of light truck.
Tempo’s early years were not promising. Their vehicles soon gained a reputation for being cheaply made and failure-prone. However, the misfortune of others played into Tempo’s hands when their local rival Rollfix went bankrupt in the 1929 stock market collapse. As well as losing a competitor, Tempo gained the services of Rollfix’s Chief Engineer, Otto Daus.
Work commenced on a more ambitious three-wheeler, introduced in 1933 as the Front 6, the first of the complex dynasty of Tempo Dreirads. With its fully enclosed cab and coal-scuttle bonnet, the new Tempo looked the doppelganger of the contemporary Goliath F400, but was technically very different, with its 400cc two-stroke engine located over the front wheel, which was driven through an enclosed chain drive. The Goliath’s similar engine was mid-mounted, and drove the rear wheels.
The success of the new three wheeler allowed Tempo to move from Wandsbek to larger premises in Harburg-Bostelbek, close to the Suderelbe docks. A four wheeled truck, the V600 had been added to the range, also front wheel driven, but with a larger 600cc JLO two-stroke engine.
Otto Daus was not the sort of engineer who opted for simple and well-proven solutions. Part of Tempo’s contribution the war effort was the G1200 Geländewagen, a staff car and Kubelwagen type vehicle with all-terrain capability.
Four wheel drive was achieved with two 600cc JLO two-stroke twin-cylinder engines, with their own gearbox and final drive, at each end of the vehicle. Four wheel steering was provided, and over 1000 were produced, mostly exported, as the Wehrmacht were unconvinced of its unique virtues.
Post-WW2, Dreirad production re-commenced in small quantities in 1947, with the series being relaunched in 1949 as the Hanseat. In the same year Tempo introduced the Matador, an ingeniously designed forward-control light van and truck with a V-shaped chassis constructed from large diameter steel tubes and featuring independent suspension front and rear.
Tempo had secured a supply of 1131cc 25bhp flat-four industrial engines from Volkswagen, which drove the Matador’s front wheels through a ZF transaxle. The engine was mounted behind the transaxle, beneath the cab seats.
The versatile Matador range was well-received, and sales were strong, but in 1952 catastrophe struck when, by the order of managing director Heinz Nordhoff, Volkswagen withdrew supply of their engines. Nordhoff saw the Matador as a significant rival to his company’s own light commercial vehicles and would not countenance supplying a competitor.
Tempo turned to their traditional local engine provider, Pinneberg-based JLO, who supplied a 3 cylinder two-stroke power unit, but this was a short-term expedient as they had commissioned two engine designs from Andernach-based consultant Hans Müller, to be built for them by Heinkel. The first to go into production was a 672cc three cylinder two-stroke, followed by a 1092cc four-stroke four cylinder.
The unanticipated turmoil was a disaster for Tempo’s production plans, and for their reputation and profitability. The JLO engines were so bad that Tempo later replaced them with Heinkel units free of charge. Unfortunately the newly developed and unproven Müller-designed engines were not particularly satisfactory either, and at its lowest ebb Matador production dropped to around 1000 per year.
In 1953 the Wiking was introduced, a lighter-duty four wheeled van based on the front wheel drive Matador design, and powered by a 452cc Heinkel-built twin cylinder engine.
The smaller four-wheeler helped to maintain production continuity, and was an effective rival to a new generation of light forward-control transporters from DKW, Goliath, Gutbrod, and Lloyd which were bidding to drive the slow, noisy and ungainly Dreirads off the streets of Germany’s towns and cities.
In 1953, Vidal and Sohn commenced the first of their relationships with the British motor industry, when they won a contract to provide domestically assembled Land Rovers for use by the West German Border Force.
The 80” and 86” wheelbase vehicles were delivered from Solihull as partial CKD kits with chassis, bulkhead and powertrain components, and Tempo built their own superstructure and fitted some German-produced electrical components. Tempo badging was applied, and the bodywork design of the Harburg-built Bundesgrenzschulz vehicles differed in detail, but not in principle, from the Solihull originals, most notably as steel, rather than aluminium was used. Between 1953 and 1956, 189 80” and 187 86” wheelbase models were delivered, but plans to produce the revised Series 2 Land Rovers were not pursued, as no further military orders had been forthcoming.
By the middle of the 1950s Tempo were battered but not yet broken by circumstances largely beyond their control. The management recognised that the company’s small size and isolation from Germany’s vehicle manufacturing heartland made their business particularly vulnerable, and actively sought a partner to underpin its survival.
To be continued.