A breed apart
Automotive monsters from the golden age of motorsport.
Easton Chang and Doug White
12 January, 2021
From 1934 to 1939 the battles between the mid-engined Auto Unions and front-engined Mercedes-Benz grand prix cars resulted in the fastest, fiercest, most spectacular sights and sounds ever known in motor racing
In the 1930s, the Auto Union Type C grand prix cars stamped their authority on world racing – absolutely dominating and carrying Bernd Rosemeyer to the 1936 European Driving Championship.
Audi is wonderfully fortunate in having one of the greatest grand prix cars of all time living here in Australia. It’s one of the few Ferdinand Porsche-designed series of Auto Union grand prix and hillclimb vehicles remaining in the world – cars that were, for more than 60 years, the fastest grand prix machines ever.
From 1934 to 1939 the battles between the mid-engined Auto Unions and front-engined Mercedes-Benz grand prix cars resulted in the fastest, fiercest, most spectacular sights and sounds ever known in motor racing. It became known – and remains – the Golden Age of GP racing.
On 28th January, 1938, Bernd Rosemeyer set a class speed record of 432km/h on the autobahn between Frankfurt and Darmstadt in a streamlined Auto Union. Trying for an even higher speed, Rosemeyer crashed and was killed, aged just 28. He’d won what was virtually the grand prix world championship, the Vanderbilt Cup, the previous year and in 1936, claimed three of the four big European Grands Prix – the German, the Swiss and the Italian Grands Prix – with Achille Varzi and Hans Stuck rounding out the podium for Auto Union in Monaco in second and third respectively.
That result behind the wheel of the brutal Auto Union saw Bernd Rosemeyer crowned the 1936 European Driving Champion – essentially the equivalent of winning today’s World Drivers Championship in Formula One. The Auto Unions also completely dominated hillclimb events all over Europe during the period, and in 1936, Auto Union also won the Tripoli Grand Prix in Libya, the Eifelrennen in Germany and the Coppa Acerbo in Italy.
Built at the Horch works at Zwickau in Saxony, the Auto Unions became legendary, even while they were racing. Their supercharged engines, originally 4.4-litres, grew to their intended 6.0-litre design with a single overhead camshaft and hemi-head in a V16 engine.
With vehicle weight capped at 750kg, the speed and power of these cars was truly awesome. Indeed it alarmed the race organisers and regulators to the extent that, in 1937, they halved the class capacity to 3.0-litres. But they were still supercharged with 12 cylinders in a vee and developing around 550hp (410kW). They could, therefore, still spin their wheels at more than a hundred miles an hour (160km/h). Indeed wheel spin was such a problem that at the end of the 1935 season, they incorporated a Porsche innovation, a ZF-manufactured limited-slip differential, an item that is now common on modern cars.
In 1945 the invading Russian army discovered the cars and quickly despatched the 13 Auto Union cars to Moscow by train, along with many parts and all the machine tools from the Auto Union factories. Realising the technical and design expertise in them they took everything, passing some things on to scientific institutions, some to their motor manufacturers.
Sadly some bits of the cars ended up as decorative pieces, even paper weights in offices.
It’s now thought that most of the cars were scrapped and that none of the first two designs, the Type A and Bs, exist today, and only one Type C and three Type D cars, and a Type C/D hill climbing special remain.
No wonder then, when Queensland car collector, aviation enthusiast and businessman Arthur Morris, read an article in Road & Track magazine in 1978 that referenced an Auto Union in Soviet Latvia, he got busy. Contacting the editor, Tony Hogg, Arthur was able to get contacts for the article’s author, Margus Kuuse. This in turn led to a contact for Viktors Kulbergs, president of the Antique Automobile Club of Latvia in Soviet Latvia, who had rescued the Auto Union two years earlier from being destroyed in Moscow and handed it over to the Riga Motor Museum.
That Type C/D hill climb car, now in the Audi Museum in Ingolstadt and known as the Riga car (for obvious reasons), was almost complete and is the most original Auto Union in existence.
The remaining Type C car was originally left to a German museum by Auto Union, after the death of Bernd Rosemeyer. This resulted in only two or three of these historic cars still running. Damaged by bombing during the war, its body today still shows these marks. In 1979/80, Audi commissioned its full restoration whilst keeping details to the body, engine and transmission that would be true to its history.
The remaining Type C car was originally left to a German museum by Auto Union, after the death of Bernd Rosemeyer
But here’s where Australia struck it lucky due to the awareness and energy of Arthur Morris. What he managed to get were the remaining parts and an identity for the second Auto Union which had gone to the Zil Truck Works in Russia.
What Morris has is a re-birthed Auto Union made up of all the bits he could lay his hands on after years of working to gain the confidence of Kulbergs, including genuine rear Continental Grand Prix racing tyres from 1936. On top of that are parts that Morris has had made.
What he now has is probably the most desirable of all GP Auto Unions – of the four evolutionary models, in race and hill climb specification. His is a glorious a 1936 C-Type grand prix racer, that would probably have former drivers like Tazio Nuvolari, Achille Varzi, Hans Stück and Rosemeyer thinking it was recently built at Zwickau – except that it looks better than a hard-worked race car!
It’s taken Morris 40 years to get it this far and he’s still chasing an engine which is being built in conjunction with Audi Tradition. For all that, it looks glorious. When I first saw it, I stopped, gaped, circled it several times then just stood still, ogling this most brutal but also most beautiful grand prix car ever.
He says that the only people who really know the whole story about this car is Audi Tradition, an organisation dedicated to tracking down and ensuring the correct version of the Company’s glorious racing history. What Morris has done is magnificent, well recognised by Audi Germany. It’s a fine example of one of the most glorious grand prix cars of all time.
For all the wonderful Le Mans winners that Audi has designed, built, run and won with in the modern era, if you are anywhere near this Auto Union when it makes an appearance, don’t miss it. You will see one of the most wonderful examples of race car design, from an era where cost and regulation ran a poor second to brilliant engineering and brave drivers. Massive, fire-breathing behemoths for heroic drivers.
... from an era where cost and regulation ran a poor second to brilliant engineering and brave drivers
Want to ensure you always receive the latest news and features from Audi? Subscribe now to the Audi Magazine newsletter.