In 1900, Danish born Jorge Skaffe Rasmussen moved to Chemnitz ito study engineering. After graduating he decided to stay on in Germany and in 1907 he established a workshop in Zschopau manufacturing industrial steam fittings. In 1915 he began an experimental steam car project, which led him to rename his company to 'Dampf Kraft Wagen' (steam car company), or DKW for short. The steam car wasn't a success but the name stuck. In 1918 Rasmussen developed a tiny two-stroke petrol motor that could be clipped onto a bicycle. In transport hungry post-war Germany it was just the ticket and within two years DKW had progressed to building motorcycles. DKW's motorcycles quickly gained a solid reputation and sold well.
In 1926 DKW's two-stroke engine made a quantum technical advance when they adopted Dr Adolf Schnuerle's patented 'loop scavenging' process. Contemporary two-stokes had been hampered by the amount of unburnt fuel they lost during the exhaust cycle. The use of deflector pistons and other solutions reduced pollution, but at the cost of thermal and fuel efficiency. The Schnuerle process solved all these problems and gave DKW's new generation of two-stroke engines remarkable power to weight ratio and extremely good fuel efficiency.
The advantage two-strokes had over four-strokes was that they completed their power cycle in half the time of a four-stroke engine. This meant they could rev very fast, so 'Das Kleine Wunder' (the little marvel) was the perfect engine for DKW's new range of motorcycles. 1928 was a bumper year for DKW as thousands of motorcycles practically raced off their production line. Year on year sales just keep increasing with motorcycle production peaked in 1937 at 55,000, making DKW the largest and most successful motorcycle company in the world.
The restless and ambitious Rasmussen wasn't content to run the largest motorcycle company in the world. In 1923 he tentatively pushed DKW into automotive manufacture via a joint venture with the Rudolf Slaby and Herman Beringer's cyclecar company. Slaby-Beringer began manufacturing little electric cyclecars in 1919 and Rasmussen was one of their first customers, with an order of 30 electric cars. Several hundred were sold domestically and they even managed to secure a large export order to Japan, but when hyperinflation brought almost all economic activity in the Weimar Republic to a standstill in 1923, Slaby-Beringer were facing bankruptcy.
Slaby (front) and Beringer (rear) in their car.
Rasmussen bought up their surplus stock of cars and then bought out the company. Beringer and Slaby were offered positions on the DKW board and in the design office respectively. The electric engine was dropped and replaced by a rear mounted DKW single cylinder motorcycle engine.
This photo shows a couple of single seat Slaby-Beringer-DKW cyclecars with a two-stroke engine.
DKW's first experiment in automobiles was the 'little hill climber.' The car looked a lot like the Slaby-Beringer cyclecar but was in fact an independent design. The car was powered by a single cylinder stationary engine mounted on the left hand running board. The pre-Schneurle patent engine wasn't powerful enough and was vulnerable to overheating so the project was discontinued.
These developments encouraged DKW to grander ambitions. 1929 saw the introduction of a new two cylinder 490cc engine for the new DKW Z range motorcycle. The engine used the new Schnuerle process, which substantially improved its power output. Rasmussen realised that at last he had an engine that could be used to power a real car.
The DKW P-15
DKW's first true car was the P-15, the name indicating the horsepower of the engine, a two-door economy car. Power was transmitted from the two cylinder, 600cc engine to the rear wheels was by a conventional drive-shaft and differential. A three speed gearbox was mounted on the floor. The self supporting body was constructed entirely of plywood and the car had no chassis.
A view into the engine bay of a restored DKW P-15
Due to capacity issues in Zwickau, the P-15 was built at DKW's coachworks in Spandau near Berlin. About 3000 P-15's were sold. http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/1929-dkw-p15-brochure.html
Rasmussen standing beside his personal P-15
Following on from the success of the P-15, DKW upped the ante with their next model, the 4=8 1000. The 4=8 was powered by a new, 4 cylinder two-stroke that was entirely unlike anything else in DKW's range. The engine was designed before the introduction of Schnuerle process in an attempt to address the inherent problems with the two-stroke. It consisted of two engine blocks in a V arrangement, driving a single crankshaft. Each engine block comprised two cylinders and a charging chamber. As the petroil was pumped through the charging chamber and not the crankcase, the crankshaft needed its own lubrication system, as in a four-stroke engine.
Cutaway of the 4=8 engine with charging cylinders at the front.
The marketing department claimed that the 4 cylinder two-stroke was the equivalent of an 8 cylinder four-stroke engine, but in reality the engine was full of problems and relatively unreliable.
As with the P-15, the 4=8 had no chassis, the bodywork being a self supporting plywood construction. Body panels were plywood with imitation leather covering for weather protection. 3000 cars were produced and some were even exported to the UK and other countries.
This contemporary British write up of the DKW 4=8 model shows both the completed car and its underlying mechanics. The front and rear axles were linked only by the drive shaft. The axles were mounted straight onto the plywood frame. This explains why so few of these machines have survived.
The Road to Auto-Union
Whilst DKW's business fortunes were looking up, things were not so rosy in Germany during the Great Depression. The shrewd Rasmussen, however, was always on the lookout for opportunities. He took over the automotive fittings company Framo, which began manufacturing DKW engined three-wheeled commercial tricycles. After a visit to the US he bought out the Rickenbacker car company and shipped its plant to Germany. Then in 1931 he bought out the struggling Audi company, but there was little he could do to lift Audi's fortunes. A Rickenbacker engined Audi model failed to make and impression so Audi was shut down and their factory turned over for the manufacture of the new DKW car.
Rasmussen's last ditch effort to save Audi was the Audi Type P, which was basically a DKW 4=8 with a Peugeot engine. It was too expensive to be an economy car and sales were poor.
Rasmussen's main creditor, the Bank of Saxony, was concerned about its exposure to the automobile industry. One of their customers, Horch, the luxury car maker, was in terrible financial shape. The Bank asked Rasmussen to take over Horch, but even Rasmussen baulked. Without a massive injection of capital Horch was doomed. Rasmussen and his board considered the problem and came back with a plan to form a conglomerate between DKW and Horch, streamlining their operations and cutting uneconomical models. The Bank of Saxony agreed, but added Wanderer into the group. Wanderer, provided the capital required to fund the merger. Under the agreement Horch retained the market for limousines, Wanderer kept the mid-sized car market and gave up its motorcycle arm (which carried on separately in Czechoslovakia as JAWA), and DKW retained the market for low-cost, budget vehicles and motorcycles.
A display at the August Horch Museum in Zwickau, Germany demonstrates each company's wares. The DKW F5 car (second from the left). http://www.e90post.com/forums/showthread.php?t=441803
DKW may have been servicing the bottom end of the auto market, but the Depression required even more cost cutting and design simplification. Rasmussen and his design team set themselves an ambitious goal to design and build a new car for the 1931 Berlin Motor Show - a timeline of only six weeks.
The design was simplified and construction costs reduced by dispensing with rear wheel transmission in favor of front wheel drive. The little DKW engine was transversely and power was transmitted directly to the wheels via chain drive. Chain drive gave the car high torque but unpredictable performance. The car was an instant success.
The staff at Zwickau pose around the new F1 model in 1931.
A beautifully restored F1 roadster at the Dresden Technik Museum. http://www.deutsches-museum.de/en/collections/transport/road-transport/The F1 was such a pleasant and well performing vehicle that many were still on the road into the 1960s.
The DKW Front quickly became Auto-Union's best selling car and a prop for the economic survival of the conglomerate. One half of all Auto-Union vehicles sold was a DKW and DKW contributed fully two thirds of the profits of the group. So great was demand that DKW completely took over Audi's production facilities at Zwickau in order to increase production; Audi being relegated to a small section of Horsch's Chemnitz plant. Although this was great news for DKW, it proved to be less than satisfactory for Rasmussen. Rasmussen had expected that due to DKW's dominant position within the group he would be offered the position of CEO. His banker shareholders had other ideas, however, and the position was offered to Wanderer's former director of sales, Baron Klaus Von Ouertzen. Rasmussen was outraged - and said so. The board responded by sacking him in 1934, but Rasmussen refused to go quietly, taking his complaint public. Auto-Union were forced to pay Rasmussen an unheard of settlement of 600,000 Reich Marks to make him leave. Rasmussen went into semi-retirement on his estate in Potsdam, but as he retained ownership of Framo, he continued to work automotive projects. http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/framo.html
Design responsibilities for DKW now resided with the Auto-Union central design committee under William Werner, formerly of Horch, which pooled the creative talents of the four companies. The DKW Front went through rapid development and by 1935 the F5 no longer looked like a budget automobile. This of course was part of the appeal of the brand - modern styling at low cost.
A 1935 marketing photo demonstrates the strength of a DKW car. By the mid 1930s DKW was competing with steel bodied cars, like the Opel Olympia, so DKW invested a lot of money in marketing.
Photos from DKWs specialist coach building plant in Berlin-Spandau. Although cheap to manufacture, the wood and leather bodywork was labour intensive. The bodies were then shipped down to Zwickau.
A contemporary brochure showing the range of body styles and colour schemes available for the F series. For detail of the process and materials used, here is a link to a modern DKW coach building service - http://dkw-karosseriebau.de/index.html#
DKW F5s on the construction line. DKW used modern construction line processes for both cars and motorcycles. The DKW factory was capable of producing 200 cars a day, quite an impressive feat for its time.
The Master Class
In 1935 DKW began moving into the serious auto market with the introduction of the new Meisterklasse model. The 'master' featured a larger 688cc engine, more room and luxurious fittings. Styling was borrowed from sister company, Wanderer, whose own production had waned. Customers could choose from a range of body styles - four door, two door, hard and soft tops, sedan or cabriolet.
This 1937 sales brochure shows the entire auto range, including the two brand new models of Schwebeklasse.
With the increased engine size came an increase to 18-20 horsepower, depending on the style of the car, but this made no real difference to the physical size of the engine. The old style chain drive had long been replaced with a modern style shaft drive and the underlying chassis was also expanded and strengthened.
A peak under the hood of a Meisterklasse.
Advertising became more sophisticated and ambitious too. Pitched at the increasingly prosperous middle class customer, reliability, economy and style were key features of Meisterklasse advertising campaigns. Click this link for a copy of DKW's 1939 sales brochure: http://www.autounion1939.com/dkw/ All up some 160,000 F series cars were built.
The DKW was sold as far away as Australia. The Australian sales campaign made much of a grueling cross Africa odyssey by a team of DKWs. For more info about DKW's Australian sales - http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/the-history-of-dkw-cars-in-australia.html
The Big DKWs
While DKW's front range were selling exceptionally well, DKW's rear wheel drive range languished. The 4=8 was hampered by its overly complex and unreliable engine. Nevertheless, in 1934 DKW up-styled the 4=8 1000 under the name Sonderklasse 1001. Body styling was modernised, but the engine and rear wheel drive remained the same. Power was increased by the addition of a fuel pump, however the engine remained the weak point of the car.
French advertising for the Sonderklasse 1001. The 'big' DKW range are noticeably larger than the Front models and were built in a separate factory. They never sold as well as the cheaper, Front range.
The Floating Car
With the advent of wind tunnel testing in the mid-1930s, German auto manufacturers, such as Adler and Mercedes all began experimenting with aerodynamically streamlined cars. The outputs of this very interesting phase in automobile design were often hit and miss.
Does this car look familiar? The 1932 experimental streamliner, with its rear mounted engine, bears a striking resemblance to both the pioneering Czech Tatra 77 and the later Volkswagen. Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the Volkswagen, worked in the Auto Union design team on the Silver Arrow racers that dominated the interwar Grand Prix.
DKW leapt on the streamlining bandwagon with their 'Schwebeklasse' model. Essentially the car was a modernised DKW 1001 Sonderklasse. Powered by the dubious 4=8 V engine with rear wheel drive, the car featured a curvaceous streamlined body, completely constructed of wood and covered in artificial leather. The distinctive concave radiator was typical of contemporary Wanderers. Hitting the market in late 1936, the Schwebeklasse was a pointer towards the future but not the success DKW hoped for as the 4=8 engine still caused trouble and the wooden chassis exhibited a disturbing tendency to break under prolonged stress. http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/1934-dkw-schwebeklasse-brochure.html
The schwebeklasse' styling was distinctively different from the rest of the DKW range. Thanks to both the war and their inherent mechanical problems, few have survived.
Advancing towards the Brink
The Meisterklasse continued it's evolution throughout the late 1930s. The F7s and F8s offered a much better ride and performance than their predecessors. Fittings especially were much improved and the days when DKW was seen only as the manufacturer of cheap cars were a thing of the past. 4500 F7s rolled off the production lines each month while demand continued to increase.
War may be looming but these prosperous youngsters haven't a care in the world, not when DKW cars and motorcycles can take them wherever they want to go (or so says the DKW marketing department!).
But things were changing. DKW took the lessons from the Schwebeklasse and reworked them into a new design which they unveiled at the 1937 Berlin Motor Show. The new Sonderklasse 37 was rear wheel drive and powered by the 4=8 engine but unlike all other DKW cars it featured a modern steel body and chassis. For any other company it was quite a conventional vehicle, but for DKW it represented a radical departure. Streamlined and elegant, but not too modern to look out of place, the Sonderklasse was a popular vehicle that could directly compete with the Opel Olympia on an even playing field. Over 10,000 Sonderklasse were sold before DKW was diverted to war production in 1940.
In appearance, the Sonderklasse 37 was entirely conventional, very like contemporary Audi's. Only the two-stroke engine differentiated it from its cousin.
Having taken on Opel at their own game, DKW now had to face a threat from Adolf Hitler's pet auto project - the Kdf 'Work Through Joy' car. In 1934 all the German auto companies were asked to present designs for a cheap peoples' car. The car companies recognised this as significant threat to their business and attempted to equivocate. Hitler however was not one to compromise and at the 1936 Berlin Motor Show declared angrily, "Either automobile makers produce the cheap car or they go out of business. I will not tolerate the plea, 'it cannot be done!'" There was nothing for it but establishment of a nationalised car project.
Hitler himself sketched out his vision of the car, which looked surprisingly like the stunningly advanced Czech Tatra and Ferdinand Porsche made the vision a reality. Powered by a rear mounted four-cylinder, air-cooled four-stroke engine that could push it along at a maximum speed of 100 kilometres per hour, and wrapped up in a streamlined, steel body, the 'Volkswagen' was a sensation. By 1938 the prototype Kdf Wagens had been built and production was gearing up. Tens of thousands of German workers had signed up for the stamp scheme that would enable them to save up to purchase their car. This was a significant market threat to DKW as it directly targeted their original market segment, even though DKW itself had drifted some way from that market. If DKW was to compete with Kdf's modern steel car, they would have to pull something out of the hat.
Work hard, fill your stamp card and you too could enjoy the freedom of the road in your Volkswagen. Tens of thousands of German workers bought their stamps but not a single one received their car before the war intervened. The cars were instead passed on to Nazi party officials and the army.
In 1939, with the clouds of war darkening the horizon, DKW presented their new F9 model. In appearance it looked like a stretched Volkswagen, but was more luxuriously fitted. Like the Sonderklasse 37, it was an all steel construction. The tired old 688cc two cylinder engine, which had not changed since 1928, was replaced by the new 3 cylinder 900cc engine. Engineering costs were minimised somewhat by reverting to front wheel drive. To compensate for the expected lack of steel, all body panels were to be manufactured from a new synthetic product called duraplast, made from wood pulp hardened with resin. Planned to go into full production in 1941, only ten vehicles were built - with all steel bodies - before the war intervened.
The surviving F9 prototype was seized by the British at the end of the war and then handed over to the Australian Government for testing. This may have been because the Australian Government intended to establish an Australian auto industry utilizing DKW two-stroke technology. This plan fell through and 1946 the Government auctioned off this and other war bounty to private owners. Melbourne DKW aficionado Peter T found and purchased the car in the 1980s. It was later bought by Audi and returned to Germany for restoration. http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/1939-dkw-f9-prototype.html
Development of the F9 was put on hold while DKW switched over to war production but the design would be resurrected after the war to enjoy a strange double life and surprising popularity, but that will have to wait until Part Two....http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2011/02/dkw-germanys-post-war-wonder-car.html
Or Part Three....http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com/2011/02/veb-sachsenring-east-germanys-peoples.html
DKW in Australia....http://www.heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/the-history-of-dkw-cars-in-australia.html
Contemporary DKW advertising from 1939 - http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/1939-dkw-program.html & http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/the-four-rings-auto-union-magazine-1939.html