January 13, 2012
1937 Auto Union V12 Grand Prix racer. Click image to enlarge
By Bill Vance; photo courtesy Volkswagen
It is well known that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and associates designed the Volkswagen Beetle in the mid-1930s, and that after the Second World War Porsche and his son Ferry developed the Porsche sports car with a similar layout. What is not so well known is that Dr. Porsche also designed Grand Prix racing cars during the 1930s.
In the highly charged atmosphere of Hitler’s 1930s Germany, Porsche’s genius would become intertwined with the government’s desire to advance technology and generate national prestige by demonstrating technical superiority through automobile racing.
Porsche’s work, therefore, was not only an instrument of engineering innovation, it was also exploited for political and propaganda purposes.
Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. He was a racing enthusiast, and to encourage German manufacturers to pursue racing, Hitler offered a large cash prize for the most successful German racing car of 1934. He also gave subsidies to Mercedes-Benz, and later, Auto Union to develop Grand Prix racers. Auto Union was a consortium formed in 1932 by the amalgamation of Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer. Those forebears are represented today in Audi’s four-ring badge.
Engineer Porsche had set up his consulting office in 1930 and was soon contracted by Auto Union to design a car for the new 1934 Grand Prix racing formula. The main formula stipulation was a maximum car weight of 750 kg without driver, tires or fluids.
There was no engine displacement limit, race organizers naively believing that low weight would slow the cars down. The formula favoured light cars powered by large engines, the type in which Porsche excelled.
Never one to follow convention, Porsche took a highly unusual direction. In an era of front-engined, rear drive racers his Auto Union GP car’s layout bore a strong resemblance to the humble Volkswagen which was being designed at the same time.
He boldly mounted the Auto Union’s engine longitudinally behind the driver, but unlike the VW, ahead of the rear axle. In this mid-engine placement Porsche and his associates Adolf Rosenberger and Karl Rabe demonstrated their forward thinking. It would be a generation before Formula One and other open wheel racers recognized the superiority of mid-rear engine placement.
The all-independent suspension employed torsion bars and twin trailing arms in front, like the VW. At the rear were VW-type swing axles, although with a transverse leaf spring. Torsion bars would come later.