Historic Car Brands


The history of the Audi brand is quite complicated and even the name ‘Audi’ had an unusual origin. The brand began in 1910, after its founder, August Horch, parted from the Horch car company he founded and started a new enterprise, retaining his name as the brand for the new company’s cars. This was judged illegal and so he had to come up with a new brand name.

During discussions on this topic with his new partners, the son of one of them – a Latin student – reportedly pointed out that ‘Horch!’ in German means ‘Hear!’ And the Latin equivalent is ‘Audi!’ (singular imperative case of ‘audire’, ‘to hear’).

The first Audi was the 2.6-litre, 10/22hp four-cylinder Type A Sport Phaeton, which looked very similar to the last Horch August had built. It was followed by 3.6-litre, 4.7-litre and 5.7-litre models. 

The major reason August Horch had left his original company was disagreement over the cost and value of motorsport, and he was determined to show off his new Audis in competition. He drove a 2.6-litre Audi Type B in the 1911 Alpine Trials and finished without incurring any penalty points.

That success led to development of the 1912 40hp 3.6-litre Type C that was later named ‘Alpenseiger’, because of its subsequent success in the Australian Alpine Trials, in 1912/13/14. This car featured an F-head, with advanced inlet over inclined exhaust valve cylinder head design.

Audi Type E 1923

After WW I Audi released the 1919 Type K, powered by a radical 3.5-litre aluminium-block engine with overhead valves and replaceable steel liners. It put out 50hp and the car was good for 60mph.

August Horch left Audi in 1920, to take up a senior government post, but remained on the board of trustees.

The first six-cylinder Audi was the 1924 Type M, with a seven-bearing, 4.7-litre, overhead-camshaft aluminium-alloy engine that put out 70hp. Innovations included bevel-gear camshaft drive, four-speed transmission, servo-assisted hydraulic brakes on all four wheels and hydraulic shock absorbers. The Type M had a claimed top speed of 75mph.

Unfortunately, the Type M was expensive and only 228 were produced. The cost of the program nearly sent Audi broke and to compensate, the Type R was launched in 1928. On paper it seemed more extravagant, boasting a straight-eight engine, but a closer look at the specification showed otherwise.

With its iron side-valve engine, three-speed gearbox, mechanical brakes, shorter wheelbase and lighter weight, the Type R was a cost-saving effort. It was a cheaper vehicle, but it couldn’t save Audi and the company’s major shareholding fell into the hands of Jorgen Rasmussen, the owner of Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (DKW).

DKW already owned the North American Rickenbacker car company remnants, including the rights to its eight-cylinder engines. These were used to power ongoing Audi models and the Type P Audi used a four- and six-cylinder Peugeot engines.

In 1932, as the great Depression began to bite, Audi, DKW, Wanderer and Horch combined to form Auto Union AG. The best-known fruits of that endeavour were the famous silver racing cars of the mid- to late-1930s, but there were production-car advantages of the bond.

An example was the Audi Front, of 1934 that combined DKW’s front wheel drive technology with Wanderer’s six-cylinder engine, becoming the first European vehicle with a six and front wheel drive. It was launched with a two-litre engine that was upgraded to 2.3 litres a year later.

Audi Front – Brian Clontarf

The front suspension mimicked Alvis, in having twin transverse leaves and the rear axle was hung on a single transverse leaf pack. 

The Front was the only production Audi in the 1935-38 period and the brand disappeared, literally, during WW II.

Post-War Germany was divided into East and West, so companies in the West benefitted from Marshall Plan aid, while those in the East were crushed under Soviet boots. Auto Union bailed out of East Germany in 1945 and headed to Bavaria.

Initial Auto Union products were upgraded, pre-War, two-stroke DKW cars, vans and motorcycles, but market expansion was limited. A very smart Daimler-Benz principal shareholder, Friedrich Flick, persuaded D-B to buy Auto Union in 1958, because he could see it was undervalued. However, Daimler disposed of Auto Union in 1964, because of its unprofitability, despite having invested heavily in a new engine plant.

That was free kick for Volkswagen, which took a 50-percent interest and started marketing not Auto Unions or DKWs, but the reborn Audi brand. However, VW never intended for Audi to be a vehicle developer in its own right, but an adjunct to VW’s production needs. That’s not the position Audi engineers enjoyed, so in secret, they set about designing a unique Audi product.

When the Audi prototype was unveiled VW had no choice but to recognise its appeal and the Audi 100 model series began production in 1968. That initiative was followed by the Audi 80 front wheel drive model in 1972 that became the template for subsequent VW FWD cars as well.

In 1969 Auto Union merged with NSU and Audi became an entity in its own right.

The next significant Audi initiative was the 1980 Quattro. Using input from the VW Iltis military vehicle, Audi engineers came up with a full-time-4WD road and rally rocket, powered by a 200hp turbocharged version of the Audi 2.1-litre, five-cylinder engine. It had a five-speed transmission and both centre and rear differential locks.

Rally success was immediate, taking the World Championship in 1982-83. Australian racing driving legend, Kevin Bartlett, has a Quattro in his limited collection.

The V8 Quattro was launched in 1990.

Audi introduced the Audi A8 in 1994, introducing aluminium space frame technology that saved weight and improved torsion rigidity compared with a conventional steel frame. Prior to that effort, Audi used examples of the Type 44 chassis fabricated out of aluminium as test-beds for the technique. 

The disadvantage of the aluminium frame was that it was very expensive to repair and required a specialised aluminium bodyshop. Nonetheless, the A8 was the lightest all-wheel drive car in the full-size luxury segment.

The Audi A2, Audi TT and Audi R8 also used Audi Space Frame designs.

For the ultra-luxury version of its Audi A8 flagship sedan, the Audi A8L W12, Audi used the Volkswagen Group W12 engine instead of the conventional V12 engine favoured by rivals Mercedes-Benz and BMW. 

The W12 engine configuration was created by merging two imaginary narrow-angle 15-degree VR6 engines at an angle of 72 degrees. The narrow angle of each set of cylinders allowed two overhead camshafts to drive each pair of banks, so just four camshafts were needed. 

The advantage of the W12 engine was its compact packaging, allowing Audi to build a 12-cylinder sedan with all-wheel drive, whereas a conventional V12 engine would permit no space in the engine bay for a differential and other components required to power the front wheels. In fact, the 6.0 L W12 in the Audi A8L W12 was smaller in overall dimensions than the 4.2 L V8 that powered the Audi A8 4.2 variants.

The 2011 Audi A8 debuted a revised 6.3-litre version of the W12 (WR12) engine with 370 kW (490 hp).

Stay informed and receive our updates

From Jim Gibson & Allan Whiting directly to your inbox

You have Successfully Subscribed!