1938 Horch 855 Special Roadster
1938 Horch 855 Special Roadster. Click image to enlarge

Article and photo by Bill Vance

Horch was once a well respected German luxury car, particularly in the 1930s. But in spite of a few that were privately imported, the name is unknown in North America. It has a symbolic presence here, however; the third ring of the familiar four-ring badge on Audi cars is for the Horch.

August Horch, a pioneering German automotive engineer and father of the Horch, was also responsible for the first ring, which represents Audi itself. The rings represent Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer, the four companies that economic circumstances forced together into the Auto Union consortium in 1932. Horch was the most upscale of the group, virtually an equal with Mercedes-Benz in the German luxury market.

Horch was established in 1899 by August Horch. After working for Benz & Cie in Mannheim from 1896 to 1899 where he became manager of assembly, he left to establish an auto repair garage, August Horch & Cie. in Cologne.

But Horch wanted more than a repair shop. He wanted to manufacture cars, and by early 1901 had designed and built a front-engined, two cylinder prototype. Power went to the rear wheels via shaft drive through a rear-mounted transmission-differential. He was determined to build “strong, good quality cars,” and claimed this Horch was the first German car with shaft drive.

When capital became available in Reichenbach, he moved there in 1902 to set up automobile manufacturing. His two-cylinder models were noteworthy for using chrome-nickel in highly stressed gears, and light alloys for such parts as crankcases and transmission and differential housings.

Another move came in 1904, this time to Zwickau where it became August Horch Motorwagenwerke. Production increased from 18 cars in 1903 to 100 by 1905. Two-cylinder engines were displaced by fours in the Zwickau cars, followed by a six in 1906 featuring the liberal use of ball bearings in engines and drivelines. They ranged from 22 to 40 horsepower.

But while Horch was a brilliant engineer, he couldn’t handle the dissent and intrigue in the boardroom. This finally erupted in 1909 causing him to leave the company bearing his name, a fate that had befallen other automotive pioneers like David Buick, Ransom Olds and Henry Ford.

Horch was a determined man and less than a month later he set up a new company with the slightly revised name of August Horch Automobilwerke. His former company, August Horch Motorwagenwerke, immediately took legal action, and August Horch was forced to abandon his name for the new company. He chose Audi, the latin word for Horch, which also means “listen,” and Audi Automobilwerke launched its first Audi car in 1910.

In spite of August Horch’s departure from August Horch Motorwagenwerke, it continued under a new chief engineer, with its cars still bearing the strong Horch influence in such features as overhead inlet valves.

The Horch company used four-cylinder engines ranging from 1.6 to 6.4 litres which did well in competition. Horch would also soon add a six, and began building trucks in 1912.

Paul Daimler, an engineer and son of German automotive pioneer Gottlieb Daimler, co-inventer of the automobile, joined Horch in 1922 following a dispute with the Daimler company. He became Horch’s chief engineer and began moving it into the luxury field.

He designed a 3.1-litre inline eight with shaft-driven twin overhead camshafts, which was expanded to 3.4 litres in 1927. A 4.0-litre version was added in 1928, and Horch was well established as Germany’s leading producer of eight-cylinder cars.

The Horch had such engineering advances as four-wheel vacuum assisted brakes, central chassis lubrication and hydraulic shock absorbers. Engines were expanded to 4.5 and 5.0 litres, now with single overhead cams rather than double.

Horch was now truly in the luxury market and production had increased from four cars a day in 1925 to 15 a day in 1929. From 1927 on Horch would make only eight-cylinder cars, which were meticulously engineered and rigorously tested before release. Cars could be bought with factory bodies, or as a chassis to be bodied by a respected coachbuilder. By 1932 Horch made 44 per cent of all German cars over 4.2 litres.

In 1931 Horch showed its most luxurious venture, a 6.0-litre V12. It was a sensational model with a seven bearing crankshaft and hydraulic valve lifter, but within a couple of years and the production of only 80 V12s, the Depression forced Horch to trim its ambitions back to a 3.5-litre V8. Production of V8 and straight-eight Horches ended in 1939 with the start of the Second World War.

After the war, Horch’s Zwickau plant ended up in the Soviet controlled People’s Republic of Germany where it was promptly nationalized.

An attempt was made to revive the Horch name in Zwickau in 1956, but Auto Union, now based in Dusseldorf, West Germany, owned the name, and soon stopped it. It was marketed under the name Sachsenring, but lasted only until 1959.

The Zwickau plant, once producer of Horch luxury cars and the mighty Porsche-designed Auto Union Grand Prix cars, ended up building the depressing little Trabant smudgepot, a sad comedown indeed. All that remains of Horch today is a history of great cars and a ring in the Audi badge.

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