Motor sport was one of the most prominent mass-appeal attractions between the wars. Diverse club events, from “foxhunts” to rallies, also attracted plenty of spectators, but the top-class events proved to be overwhelming crowd-pullers. It was only too obvious that sporting success had a drastic impact on sales, and the leading manufacturers devised their strategies accordingly.
Following the merger of Saxony's four automotive companies in 1932, it was important to promote the new Auto Union name among the public, and motor racing was identified as an ideal means of spreading its reputation. In view of the technical standards which the new company was striving to demonstrate and the prestige it was seeking, there was no other option but to start at the very highest level: Grand Prix racing. The contacts already established between Wanderer and Ferdinand Porsche proved invaluable, and his name held the power to inspire exceptional achievements.
The whole venture took on a new dimension in autumn 1932, when the rules for Grand Prix races from 1934 on were published. The weight restriction of 750 kg halted the trend towards gigantic engines, and technical ingenuity was called for instead: these were the ideal circumstances in which to start afresh with the aid of a designer of Porsche's calibre.
The most exciting part of his concept was the "rear engine", in modern-day terms a mid-engine, in other words the be-all and end-all of modern-day racing-car design. Although this layout was not completely new, it nonetheless seemed utterly exotic and visionary. It eliminated the need for a propeller shaft and meant that the driver could be seated lower down, for 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 (the theoretical traction benefits could not be fully exploited by the tyres in use at that time).
Other technical features of particular note 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 750 kg weight limit: a 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 radiant young talent by the name of Bernd Rosemeyer was discovered.
Rosemeyer won a series of races in 1936, and also captured the title of European Champion (tantamount to World Champion, even though no such title existed at the time), giving Auto Union its most successful year yet. He became a legend in his own time thanks to his "hot-blooded temperament" (in the words of his wife, Elly Beinhorn), manifested in his unbridled nature and his extra-sensory racing driver's instinct: he is reputed to have driven just as fast in fog as in normal visibility conditions. These qualities not only helped him to get the better of his colleagues on the racetrack; he also overtook Mercedes' star driver Caracciola, until then the brightest star in the firmament of German public opinion, by captivating the masses. Rosemeyer's popularity was on a par with no less a personality than boxer Max Schmeling.
As the names of successive model generations progressed through the alphabet, the Type C made its appearance. Porsche's basic idea of "giant low-down pulling power" worked better than ever; the torque of 87 mkg at 2,500 rpm was even more impressive than the peak output of 520 hp. The Type C's top speed was quoted as 340 km/h (with the AVUS bodywork, but even in its other guises it was capable of more than 300 km/h).
World speed records were considered most impressive in this period. In 1934 the Auto Union took up the challenge represented by Mercedes-Benz and Alfa Romeo, and set at least three dozen new speed records in various classes and categories. This striving for constantly higher absolute figures boosted the Auto Union’s advanced engineering activities, but also led to the trauma of January 28, 1938.
The car prepared for the record attempt had a power output of 560 bhp. The plan was to take it out on to the Frankfurt – Darmstadt “autobahn” and beat Caracciola’s existing figure of 432.7 km/h. The first run confirmed that the record could be broken. On the second run the car left the road in a cutting near Morsfelden; Bernd Rosemeyer was flung out into the trees and died instantly. At such high speeds, where tyre adhesion and aerodynamic lift are crucial factors, it is probable that a side wind through the trees caused the car to swerve so suddenly away from its straight-line course that it could no longer be corrected.
Type D: a most magnificent racing car
Auto Union therefore entered the 1938 season, in which a new Grand Prix racing formula took effect, without Bernd Rosemeyer and also without technical support from Ferdinand Porsche. Construction of a new three-litre, twelve-cylinder supercharged engine was supervised by Eberan von Eberhorst; the car’s basic mid-engine layout was retained, but the slightly more compact engine enabled the overall proportions to be improved. The result was not only a most attractive car, but one sufficiently exotic to suggest to the onlooker that something special was about to occur. In its fully developed form, the Type D is one of the most magnificent racing cars of all time.
Tazio Nuvolari and Hans Stuck now competed for the role of Number One Auto Union driver. Highlights of this period were Nuvolari’s victories in Monza and Donington, and Stuck’s hillclimb successes. On September 3, 1939 Nuvolari won the race in Belgrade – the day on which war broke out. This was a grotesque way for a wonderful era in motor racing to come to an end: years in which technical skills reached new heights, larger-than-life personalities dominated the scene – and Auto Union built racing cars that were like flashes of genius.