DKW wasn’t the first car company to supply other manufacturers however their name certainly appears in the history books of many other companies. Not only did they become the worlds largest motorcycle manufacturer for a while but also their engines went into quite a few other manufacturers models.
DKW was founded in 1916 by a Danish engineer based in Germany. Jorgen Rassmussen set up a factory to make steam equipment. He seemed to have a desire to call everything DKW after designing his first car – a steam one naturally after arriving in Germany. DKW in the case of the car stood for Dampf Kraft Wagen or “steam car” in German.
He also made a 2-stroke toy engine that he called the Des Knaben Wunsch (or DKW), translated it means “the boys desire”. He also started his motorcycle business with “the little marvel” or Das Kleine Wunder – you guessed it – DKW! The engines used by the motorcycles which were developed from the toy engine, helped start the car business.
In 1928, DKW fitted their 2-stroke 500cc engine into a small chassis known as the P-15. By the early 1930s, the engine had increased to 600cc and powered a variety of models including the F2 and the F5 sports roadster. The Sonderklasse Limousine used a different style engine – a 1 litre 2-stroke V4 motor with extra cylinders – the design looked like a V6 but the two extra cylinders had no spark plugs – they were used for forced induction, a very clever way to get more power from the motor. It was like a built in turbocharger.
The same year that Rasmussen started to develop his cars, he took a majority stake in Audi – this would have helped to reduce costs as the world sank into the Great Depression. Although they built rear drive models, in the early 1930s the company started to develop front drive – one of the first companies to do so and their models became the best selling cars in Germany – before Hitler had commissioned the true people’s car!
During 1932 as the Socialists were dominating German politics, DKW and Audi merged with Horsch (the original version of Audi) and also Wanderer. The combined group were called Auto Union and had stacks of cash injected by the Government to show the world that German technology was the best. The Auto Union logo and badge can be seen today on the only remaining brand of the group – Audi.
Whilst the main brands continued to build cars for different market segments, Auto Union became famous for their Silver Arrows Grand Prix racing cars.
In 1939, DKW were the first to develop a prototype with a 3 cylinder car – the war intervened and it didn’t get into production until the late 1940s as a DKW and as a Wartburg – the East German manufacturer had got hold of the design as well, thanks to the original factory being on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The Trabant also used the DKW designed motor. The same motor also went into the SAAB prototype in Sweden.
When Germany split during 1945 it left many companies with assets in East Germany which were promptly nationalised. Not only did DKW subsequently help EMW (later Warburg) by having to leave designs and tooling behind, it also helped MZ because the DKW motorcycle factory was grabbed too. Interestingly, the designs that MZ got hold of were also used as war reparations by the Allies: both BSA in Britain and Harley Davidson were given the designs for their own motorcycles.
Auto Union was recreated in West Germany in the late 1940s with only one of the 4 brands left: DKW. The other three were dropped as luxury cars weren’t popular in a depressed country. The factory was moved to Ingolstadt – the same plant that Audi use today.
The cars now used the 900cc 3-cylinder motor and the DKW models were the F89, F91 and F93. They also produced a glass fibre sports car called the Monza after the company won several speed records at the Italian circuit. They also developed the 1000Sp, a 2-stroke 56 Ford Thunderbird look alike! The 1000Sp continued through to the mid 1960s.
In 1957 Daimler-Benz bought Auto Union – which is why the later McLaren-Mercedes F1 cars were also called the Silver Arrows until Mercedes-Benz bought the Brawn GP team. Daimler then introduced a new model sharing Mercedes technology such as disc brakes – the car was the F102, actually the last of the true DKW models and was released with an uprated motor – it was resized to 1200cc. Daimler also spent some cash to help DKW develop a 1700cc engine.
In 1965, Daimler sold Auto Union to Volkswagen with the help of the Government because they felt that the 2-stroke cars were becoming less popular. VW sold the new model as a DKW Audi, internally it was known as the F103. A year later in 1966, VW dropped the DKW name and resurrected the Audi brand, which continues on today.
In addition to the German factory, DKW had a factory in Ireland during the 1950s and also had arrangements with South American companies who built the cars under licence. Some of these continued in production until the late 1970s, although VW slowly absorbed some of the licensees to replace them with other VW branded models.
What you can say about DKW is that they influenced many manufacturers during the late 1940s and 1950s as their designs and engines spread globally.