The silver age
Audi motorsport – the age of the Silver Arrows.
They were called the Silver Arrows and in the 1930s they were the most exciting and successful race cars on the planet.
3 August, 2022
It was obvious to everyone that sporting success had a major impact on vehicle sales which in turn spurred on competition on the track
A rich history of motorsport competition and success is as much a part of the Audi brand as its reputation for outstanding design, innovation and engineering. From those early in long-distance rallies, momentum grew at a cracking pace and the great appeal of motor racing attracted greater and greater attention.
It was obvious to everyone that sporting success had a major impact on vehicle sales which in turn spurred on competition on the track. Following the 1932 merger of Saxony's four automotive companies, Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer, it was important to promote the new Auto Union name and motor racing offered the ideal platform to endorse the message. Ambition allowed no other choice than to compete at the very highest level – Grand Prix racing.
The whole venture took on a new dimension in autumn 1932, when the rules for Grand Prix races from 1934 on were announced. The weight restriction of 750kg required technical ingenuity – ideal circumstances for a fresh start with a man like Ferdinand Porsche. The most exciting part of his concept was the ‘rear engine’, from today’s perspective a mid-engine, which is still avant-garde to this day.
Although this layout was not completely new, it nonetheless seemed exotic and visionary. It eliminated the need for a prop-shaft and meant that the driver could be seated lower, thus ensuring better aerodynamics and a lower centre of gravity. The fact that it demanded a Herculean effort on the part of the driver to cope with the car's unfamiliar handling was quite another matter and the theoretical traction benefits could not be fully exploited with the tyres used at that time.
Other notable technical features were Porsche's torsion-bar front suspension and the car’s lightweight construction, which permitted as large an engine as possible within the constraints of the 750kg weight limit. That meant a whopping sixteen-cylinder power unit which, in its final version, had a displacement of six litres. From 1934 on, the duel between Mercedes and Auto Union heralded in the golden era of German racing cars. Hans Stuck was initially Auto Union's only leading driver, until Achille Varzi joined him and a young hotshot by the name of Bernd Rosemeyer appeared.
Such was the engine output that the tyres of the time were never up to fully capitalising on the massive thrust
When the Type C made its appearance, Porsche's basic idea of ‘enormous grunt from low revs’ worked better than ever
Rosemeyer won a series of races in 1936 and was crowned European Champion – the highest accolade at the time. He became a legend in his own right thanks to his supernatural racing instinct – he is reputed to have driven as fast in fog as he did under normal conditions. In addition to beating his colleagues on the racetrack, he also overtook Mercedes' star driver Caracciola – until then the brightest star amongst the media – as the darling of the masses and his popularity was comparable only to that of the boxer Max Schmeling at the time.
Famous too were the cars themselves, the names of successive model generations progressed through the alphabet. When the Type C made its appearance, Porsche's basic idea of ‘enormous grunt from low revs’ worked better than ever, with peak output of 520hp or 387kW in today’s language and a top speed of 340km/h.
World speed records were highly prized during this period. In 1934, Auto Union took up the challenge against Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo, and set at least three dozen new speed records in various classes and categories. This constant pursuit of record-breaking figures boosted Auto Union’s technology and led to the trauma of January 28, 1938.
The car prepared for the record attempt produced 560hp (417kW) and the plan was to take it out on to the Frankfurt – Darmstadt ‘autobahn’ and beat Caracciola’s existing record in a Mercedes of 432.7km/h. The first run confirmed that the record could be broken. On the second run though, the car left the road in a cutting near Morsfelden and Bernd Rosemeyer was flung out into the trees and died instantly.
Without Bernd Rosemeyer and also without technical support from Ferdinand Porsche, Auto Union tackled a new racing formula, effective from the 1938 season. Robert von Eberan-Eberhorst designed a three-litre, 12-cylinder supercharged engine. The more compact power unit enabling the overall proportions to be improved and the car – the Type D – was stunningly beautiful, without losing its exotic touch.
Tazio Nuvolari and Hans Stuck now vied for the role of the No.1 driver at Auto Union. Highlights of this period were Nuvolari’s victories in Monza and Donington and Stuck’s hill-climb successes. On September 3, 1939, Nuvolari won the race in Belgrade – just as war broke out. It was a sad end of to a wonderful era of racing. These had been years when technology reached new heights and larger-than-life personalities dominated the scene – and when, with sparks of genius, Auto Union built extraordinary racing cars.
The more compact power unit enabling the overall proportions to be improved and the car – the Type D – was stunningly beautiful, without losing its exotic touch
Want to ensure you always receive the latest news and features from Audi? Subscribe now to the Audi Magazine newsletter.