1953 DKW
1953 DKW; photo courtesy Volkswagen. Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

The current sleek, high-tech Audi’s almost forgotten ancestor, the DKW, had an influence on today’s Audis. DKW’s history dates from 1904 when an entrepreneur named Jorgen Rasmussen formed a company in Chemnitz, Germany, to manufacture machinery and mechanical equipment, including steam engine parts.

The company tried building steam engines, and later established a reputation as manufacturers of high quality, two-stroke motorcycles (DKW originally meant steam powered vehicles, but later became Das Kleine Wunder – the small wonder) becoming the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer by 1928.

This success led to the car business, also in 1928. They carried their two-stroke motorcycle principle over, and would retain it to the end of their automobile production. The first model had a 584-cc two-cylinder, two-stroke engine.

DKW acquired the Audi company in 1928, and the Depression forced Audi, DKW, Wanderer and Horch to merge in 1932 under the Auto Union banner. They continued building cars bearing their own names, although gradually integrating and standardizing components. The four interlocking rings on the Audi grille symbolize the four companies.

In 1931 DKW’s F1 model, later called the Front, was a significant pioneer as the first production car to combine front-wheel drive, a transverse engine of 490 cc, and four-wheel independent suspension, 28 years before the layout was used by the famous Austin/Morris Mini.

Through the 1930s DKW moved gradually to larger cars, and by the time production shut down for the Second World War more than a quarter million DKWs had been built.

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