By Ben Harrington
Since its inception in Zwickau, Germany, in 1909, Audi has had a colourful history to say the least. Its origins can be traced back to 1899, when former Daimler- Benz employee August Horch founded A.Horch & Cie in Cologne.
Following a dispute with the supervisory board, Horch had to leave his own company and establish a new one in Zwikau. This company also carried the Horch name but having been successfully sued for trademark infringement, Horch was barred from using his own name and 26 variations of it.
The Audi name came about when a business associate’s son was present at a meeting, apparently busy with his Latin homework. After hearing Horch’s annoyance at being barred from using his own name, the boy suggested they use the name Audi, as Horch is German for ‘hark’ or ‘listen’, translated into Latin, this is Audi. The suggestion was joyfully received and the name stuck.
The first Audi, the Type A, rolled out of the factory doors in 1910 equipped with a 2611cc, four cylinder engine producing 28hp. August Horch soon realised the importance of standardised construction elements with all engines, regardless of size, having the same crankcase thus enabling fitment into the same chassis. This drastically reduced costs and is a concept in widespread use today.
Audi also advanced into motorsport with the Type C winning the Austrian Alpine Rally three times in succession from 1912 to 1914.
August Horch left Audi in 1920 to take up a position at the Department of Transport although he remained on the board of trustees. Another significant development at this time was the Audi Type K which was left hand drive. Although Germany favoured right hand traffic, all early vehicles were also right hand drive. Engineers at Audi realised that producing left hand drive cars would result in better views of oncoming traffic and safer access and egress for passengers. By 1928, all German manufacturers had followed suit.
1932 saw the Audi brand merge with DKW, NSU and Wanderer to form Auto Union, its symbol was the four interlocking rings seen on Audis today with each of the member companies represented by a ring. They all continued producing there own specific models however with the Auto Union badge only being used on the company’s racing cars.
Economic pressure in the 1930’s led to a far greater demand for cheap, economical motoring and by 1938, DKW with its two stroke engines and front wheel drive accounted for 17% of all car sales in Germany, whereas luxury brand Audi accounted for just 0.1%.
The outbreak of the Second World War led to many German factories being modified to fabricate military equipment; Auto Union were not exempt. The end of the war saw the factories being overrun by Soviet forces. They dismantled the machinery, expropriated assets and deleted Auto Union from the commercial register. Auto Union were re-launched in Ingolstadt, West Germany in 1949 with their model range following on DKW’s affordable traditions.
By 1959, Daimler-Benz had acquired 100% holding in Auto Union and spent considerable amounts on a state of the art factory for their production. The early 1960’s saw an economic boom which equalled a major upturn in the fortunes of many motor manufacturers. Unfortunately for Auto Union, the frugal nature of their range that had served them so well in the 1950’s didn’t suit the mood of the 60’s and 1964 saw Daimler-Benz deem Auto Union unprofitable. The company changed ownership yet again, this time to Volkswagen who assumed complete control in 1966.
Initially, Volkswagen simply planned to use the Auto Union factory in Ingolstadt to increase their production of Beetles, banning their engineers from designing new models. 1965 saw the DKW name dropped altogether due to their association with outdated technology, the Audi name was reborn as Volkswagen wanted to utilise the name’s heritage of luxurious models.
1969 brought about another mergence with NSU, leading to the group being called Audi NSU Auto Union AG although the NSU name was effectively killed off almost immediately when their new model, the K70 was rebadged a Volkswagen for their own range.
This new era for Audi brought about a model range in conjunction with Volkswagen that thrust them into the public view once more, by 1971 they even had their own slogan – ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ meaning ‘Progress Through Technology’ which they still use today.
In 1980, Audi introduced what is arguably the greatest advance in Rallying ever – the Ur Quattro. They had taken a four wheel drive system developed by Volkswagen for military use and converted it for racing purposes. Initially dismissed by critics for being too heavy, the Quattro dominated the sport until Audi withdrew from all international rallying in 1987 following the death of three spectators after a Ford RS200 left the track in Portugal. The Quattro branch now have their own headquarters with the name being used on all 4wd Audis.
Today, Audi is still under the ownership of Volkswagen and are very much considered their luxury arm although in 2002, the Audi Brand Group was formed which included Audi, Lamborghini and Seat (Seat were removed in 2007). This left Lamborghini under the direction of Audi, not Volkswagen, as this was deemed to be more appropriate.