Audi has long been an icon for luxury vehicles that have appealed to the masses. Most people don’t know the rich and colorful history behind the iconic automaker and so that’s what we want to focus on today. Audi comes from a long line of German carmakers, in fact that is where the symbol that stands as a marker for Audi comes from. Audi is one of Germany’s oldest and most established carmakers but it is actually the combination of what were previously four different and independent car manufacturers that were combined in 1932. Horch, Wanderer, DKW, and Audi come together to form the roots of what is today known as Audi AG. That is where we get the symbol of the four rings intertwined that stands as a symbol and a nod to Audi’s beginnings.
All the way back in 1899, August Horch was building cars. He had first attended school at the Technical University in Mattweida, Saxony and graduated. Upon graduation he took a job (his first job) with Carl Benz in Manneheim and started in the Engine Manufacturing Department where he was eventually about to work his way all the way up to the head of the Motor Vehicle Construction Department. In November of 1899 he founded Horch and Cie. Motorwagen Werke in Cologne and started pursuing his dream of car making and designing. In 1902 he moved to Saxony. He was first in Reichenback and then in Zwickau and the company was transformed into a join-stock corporation. His dealings with Horch didn’t last long however and in 1909 after some differences in opinion and designs with the Supervisory Board and Board of Management, Horch left the company and started again. He wanted to start another car company but couldn’t use the Horch name since it was already being used and under trademark. The son of one of his business partners, who was well versed in the Latin language; gave him a great idea and suggested that he use the Latin translation of his name for he new company name. So Horch, which means “hark” or “listen” became “audi” and that, is how his second car company became known as Audi. The idea behind the name was that it was supposed to be associated with the kind of dominance and power that would cause someone to stop and listen, and give respect where respect obviously was due. It was started in Zwickau. It is said that in subsequent correspondence that August Horch even signed his letters with the ending, “Kind regards- Audi-Horch”.
It didn’t take Horch long to make Audi and internationally known name. In December of 1914, the company became a joint-stock company. Part of the company’s success had to do with Horch’s involvement in the Austrian Alpine Runs between 1911 and 1914. He was victorious and got some added attention to who he was and what he did. The company was easily able to establish it’s brand as sporty and came to be synonymous with sporting achievement. In fact that Audi Type C 14/35 hp was even nicknamed the “Alpine Conqueror”. He worked with the company until right after the First World War. After the war he withdrew from the company and became an independent automotive expert in Berlin. That gives you a little bit about the background of Audi, which is part of the “four ring” conglomerate, but what about the others? Here is a brief overview of a few of the other rings that came together in a merger in 1932 to create what we know of AUDI AG today:
DKW- was originally started in Chemnitz as Rasmussen & Earnst in 1902. It then moved to Zchopau in the Erzgebirge region in 1907 where it manufactured and sold vulcanization equipment and centrifuges of all varieties, lights and mudguards for vehicles and exhaust-steam oil separators for steam power plants. In 1916, the company’s founder Jorgen Skafte Rasmussen started experimenting with steam engine vehicles and registered the DKW as their trademark. The DKW was short for Dampfkraftwagen and was a steam driven vehicle. By 1919 the company had started to manufacture small two-stroke engine vehicles and was renamed Zschopauer Motorenwerke. By 1922 they were becoming quite successful in building brand name DKW motorcycles and then they moved onto automobiles and had their first small motor vehicle on the market by 1928.
Wanderer- This company had humble beginnings when two mechanics, Richard Adolf Jaenicke and Johann Baptist Winklhofer opened up a bicycle repair shop in Chemnitz back in 1885. The demand for bikes was high at the time so they quickly started to make and market their own bicycle that was named Wanderer. By 1896 the company was trading as Wanderer Fahrradwerke AG. In 1902, the company built and sold its first motorcycle. By 1913, the company decided to branch out into car manufacturing. For several decades the production of the companies heralded “Puppchen” was alive and well. It was a small two-seater vehicle that was built in the Wanderer’s tradition.
Auto Union AG- Chemnitz- June 29, 1932 was a big day for the auto industry. Zschopauer Motorenwerke/DKW, Horchwerke, and Audiwerke all merged together to form Auto Union AG. They did this at the initiative of the State Bank of Saxony. At the same time, Wanderer was given a leasing/purchase agreement to take over their motor vehicle division. What was interesting about this union was that each car company was going to retain their name and take over a certain segment of the car market. For example, Wanderer took over midsized cars, DKW took over small cars and motorcycles, Audi focused on deluxe/luxury midsized cars and Horch took over the top end of the luxury market. Their emblem of the interlocking rings stood to symbolize the unity and un-separated focus of the four companies that came together to create the second largest motor vehicle company in Germany.
Car manufacturing plants took a backseat to manufacturing cars during the war and instead the plants focused on manufacturing military necessities. However, after the war the plants were quickly turned back into the car manufacturing plants they were built to be. However, after World War II, they found themselves in the Soviet occupied zone in Germany. The Soviets totally dismantled their plant and had the entire company removed from the Commercial Registrar in the city of Chemnitz in 1948. They expropriated their assets and it was clear that the company needed a new start and a new location. Many of the company’s senior management had already left and moved to Bavaria after the war and had started a new company with the intention of continuing the same tradition as the four rings. They opened up shop in the historic city of Ingolstadt and re-launched their efforts and founded a company called Auto Union GmbH on September 3, 1949.
The DKW products with two-stroke engines like cars, motorcycles, and delivery vans had already been well proven and shown that they sold well. So these were the first cars to leave the new company with the four ring emblems decorating the front. These were basic in their design but reliable and robust and proved to be the perfect vehicles to sell during the post-war years while the country tried to rebuild and move on. The DKW RT 125 W motorcycle and the DKW F 89L rapid delivery van were both unveiled at the Hanover Export Fair in early 1949. These were highly successful and helped to establish vehicle production in Ingolstadt. There was also a DKW car that the company was working on that went on to be produced in the summer of 1950 at a new production plant in Dusseldorf.
Starting in 1954 Friedrich Flick started to gradually acquire a larger and larger stake in the Auto Union GmbH equity. He wanted to find a strong partner for the company and in April of 1958, Dimler-Benz AG acquired a whopping 88% of the company’s shares and then the following year, Auto Union GmbH became a fully owned subsidiary. It didn’t take long for the two-stroke engines sales to start continuously dropping, DKW had retained the two-stroke engine longer than they should have and it was time for a serious upgrade and change to the engine that would continue to draw new buyers. In the early 1960’s the parent company Daimler-Benz knew they needed to do something about their dropping sales. So they commissioned Ludwig Kraus, an engineer to go to the Ingolstadt location and be the new Technical Director and figure out how to bring on a new four-stroke engine. So that’s exactly what he set out to do. By 1965 the company was ready to roll out their first vehicle post-war that contained a four-stroke engine instead of the old two-stroke. This change brought in an exciting time for the company that was heralded as a “new era”. This new car from Auto Union was launched in 1965 and was the company’s first post-war design with a four-stroke engine. It heralded the start of a new era.
Along with the new era, it was time for a new rebirth of the car company, so they rebirthed Audi and also brought forth a new product designation. The old-two stroke engines left the production line, and all the new vehicles were produced under the Audi name with four-stroke engines. Something must have been working because the company captured the attention of the Volkswagen Group who liked what they were seeing. They decided to acquire the Ingolstadt-based Audi in 1965. The new boss’s refused to allow the acquired company’s engineers to develop their own models of vehicles. They were going to use the plant they had just acquired to build their Volkswagen Beetles. However, Ludwig Kraus who was on the Board of Management and was also the Head of Development had a different plan, and he decided to go ahead and build out his new model. When he was done, there was little else that could be done but to sanction the car and send it to be presented to the international press in Ingolstadt. The Audi 100 was born, November 1968. It was the very first car that had been developed that stood on it’s own and had shaken off all of it’s previous ties to the DKW models. The company’s “Audi” was a huge success. They went through a few visual and technical modifications but stayed on the production line until 1972. This new Audi helped the Audi Union preserve its separate and distinguished identity and solidified them as an up and coming car manufacturer.
The mergers didn’t stop there however. In 1969 Volkswagenwerk AG decided to have Auto Union GmbH and NSU Motorenwerke AG that was based in Neckarsulm, merge to create a new company that had it’s registered offices in Neckarsulm and was called Audi NSU Auto Union AG, it was established March 10, 1969 but they retrospectively established the company as of January 1, 1969. To give you a little more background about NSU, it was founded in 1983 by two Swabian mechanics named Heinrich Stoll and Christian Schmidt. It was started on the Danube in Riedlingen but stayed there only seven years before it moved to Neckarsulm. The company’s original name was Neckarsulmer Strickmaschinenfabrik (Neckarsulm Knitting Machine Factory) and as you can guess, it got its start in manufacturing knitting machines. In 1886 they decided to diversify into making bicycles and then in 1901 they diversified yet again into motorcycles. After they got their feet wet with motorcycles and produced those for five years, they decided to finally graduate into motor vehicles. They only built the motor vehicles until 1929 when they decided to abandon them and put their sole focus into producing two wheelers. They made a career out of building their two wheelers until thirty years later they finally decided to start building motor vehicles again in Neckarsulm.
Once the merger was complete, the company continued to grow and evolve. The very last of the NSU vehicles that were being produced left the production line in March of 1977. There was a lot of talk about trying to consolidate the long and arduous name of Audi NSU Auto Union AG and finally in 1985 they pulled the trigger and the company was finally renamed Audi AG and their registered offices were moved from Neckarsulm to Ingolstadt and finally all of the products that the company would produce would have the same name.
The drive concepts and engines that Audi and NSU models employed over the years are vast and varied. In 1972 the first-generation Audi 80 (B1 series) was launched and it was top of it’s class with all sorts of new and cool technical features that none of the other vehicles had showcased. There was a self-stabilizing steering roll radius and a new series of OHC engines, as well as fully galvanized bodied and some of the most aerodynamic volume built of its time. These first generation cars were so popular that by the time they ceased production, there had been over a million of them built.
By 1974, Ludwig Kraus’s successor as Head of Technical development Ferdinand Piech was appointed and during Ferdinand’s era, the company was built and transformed into an innovative car manufacturer and the Audi brand continued to rise in both positioning and popularity. They had several other successes along the way like their five-cylinder engine in 1976, the turbocharging in 1979 and also their Quattro four-wheel drive in 1980. They are still today using those features and it’s served them well for decades. Some of the other features that became known with the Audi name were the extensive use of turbocharged petrol engines, direct petrol injection, the development of economical direct-injection diesel engines, the first hybrid vehicles, the aluminum body, and finally one of the finest manufacturers of amazing luxury vehicles with eight and twelve-cylinder engines.
Audi’s still are innovative vehicles that have earned their place among the top vehicle manufacturers in the world. During the 1990’s they were making not only significant progress in the technologies they were using but also their design. They are sleek, sexy and innovative and continue to get better and better every year. They have become one of the most sought after automobile brands because of their design-oriented strategy. Whether it’s the Audi Quattro Spyder, the Audi Avus Quattro, or the Audi TT, it’s clear that the car you are looking at is an Audi. Audi continues to roll out new products, new technologies, and new vehicles that are gaining popularity among the masses.
That’s not the only thing Audi has been doing. They have also been cognizant of social responsibility along the way. They are concerned about the conservation of resources, environmental protection and international competitiveness with their forward-looking human resources policy. They established the Audi Environmental Foundation, which helps them pursue their ultimate goal of mobility that is entirely CO2 neutral. They are looking for ways to make their business more sustainable while also lowering the carbon footprint. It is clear that they are going to keep themselves at the forefront of vehicle manufacturing and social responsibility. We can hardly wait to see what Audi comes out with next and what Audi history will look like for the next century.