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Audi can be counted among the “German Big 3” luxury automakers, along with BMW and Mercedes-Benz, which are the three best-selling luxury car manufacturers in the world. Its position was not always so comfortable however, and Audi’s path to success was a long and rough one. With its famed Quattro four wheel drive system, and its success in rally racing, though, Audi has never been afraid of taking the road less traveled.
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Look no further than 1A Auto for your aftermarket, original equipment (OE) replacement, new and performance Audi auto parts and get your car or SUV the new parts it needs today from Audi enthusiasts just like you! If you happen to be an enthusiastic Audi owner, have a deep passion for Audi vehicles, or just want to learn more about the automobile manufacturer, continue reading below for a detailed look at the brand's history and some of its past and present models.
Audi AG is a German automobile manufacturer and majority owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group. The company was officially founded in 1932, though its roots can be traced back to several companies that were founded in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Today, Audi is one of the best-selling luxury automobile brands in the world, and their vehicles are produced and sold globally.
The story of Audi begins when four car companies banded together to form the Auto Union AG in 1932. First, there was Winklhofer & Jaenicke, which eventually became known for its Wanderer-branded automobiles. The company was founded around the year 1895 in the Chemnitz, Germany by Johann Baptist Winklhofer and Richard Adolf Jaenicke. They began to manufacture bicycles, and eventually branched out to machinery, motorcycles, and then automobiles. The brand name “Wanderer” was first used on their bicycles in the early years, but eventually the company changed its name to Wanderer Werke AG and applied the Wanderer brand name to its automobiles as well when it began producing them in the early 1900s. The company produced numerous models during this period, but success would not last long and the company soon began to lose money. In 1929, the motorcycle business was sold off, setting the stage for what was to come.
Next, there was August Horch & Cie. Motorwagenwerke AG. Established in Germany in 1899 by August Horch and his first business partner Salli Herz, they soon ran into financial troubles and Horch was forced to seek out new partners. Horch & Cie. Motorwagenwerke AG was officially founded in 1904 in the city of Zwickau with the purpose of manufacturing cars. Over the next few years, the brand produced numerous models that were considered to be superior to those being manufactured by Mercedes and Benz (who were separate automakers then). In 1909, Horch was forced out of the company he founded by its supervisory board. Horch went on to establish his second automotive company—Horch Automobilwerke GmbH—that same year. He continued to use the Horch name but was eventually sued by his former partners for trademark infringement. The German Supreme Court eventually determined that the Horch brand did indeed belong to his former company, Horch & Cie. Motorwagenwerke AG.
Since the Horch name was already a registered brand and Horch himself did not hold the rights to it, he had to rename the automobile company he had initially founded as Horch Automobilwerke GmbH. Horch called a meeting with his business partners Paul and Franz Fikentscher, where they discussed ideas for a new name at Franz’s apartment. Franz’s son happened to be listening to the men chat nearby. He then suggested to his father Franz and the other men that they call it Audi instead of Horch. Horch means listen in German and becomes audi when translated into Latin. Everyone at the meeting thought this was a great idea, and thus the company name was changed to Audi Automobilwerke GmbH—or Audi AG for short—in 1910. Horch would go on to become a highly desirable brand in the 1920s, and the company released several models before falling on hard economic times. Audi also released a number of vehicles during this period, and their cars were successful in sporting events as well. August Horch left Audi in 1920 for a position in the German Ministry of Transport, though he would continue his involvement with the company in a lesser capacity as a member of the board for a time afterwards. The following year, Audi was the first German company to produce a car with the driver’s seat on the left side. This was a huge safety improvement, giving drivers a better view of oncoming traffic, and was quickly adopted by other German manufacturers.
The last company involved with the origin of Audi is Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (DKW), which translates to steam-driven car in English. DKW was founded in 1916 by a Danish engineer named Jørgen Skafte Rasmussen in Zschopau, Germany. Originally, DKW set out to produce steam fittings, but not long afterwards Rasmussen attempted to produce a steam-driven car, which he called the DKW. Although this venture was unsuccessful, he was able to make a two-stroke toy engine a few years later. Rasmussen named the engine Des Knaben Wunsch, which translates to "the boy's desire" in English. Rasmussen then put a slightly modified version of this engine into a motorcycle, calling the machine Das Kleine Wunder, which translates to "the little marvel." This event marked the real beginning of the DKW brand, and by the 1930s it was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. In 1928, the company produced its first passenger car. It was also in 1928 that Rasmussen acquired a controlling interest in Audi Automobilwerke GmbH, as well as the remains of a US automobile manufacturer called Rickenbacker, which included manufacturing equipment for producing eight-cylinder engines. These engines were used in a few Audi-branded vehicles that were released following the acquisition of Audi by DKW. In 1931, DKW also began manufacturing front-drive, two-stroke cars at the Zwickau plant it had acquired when it became the majority owner of Audi. These cars were produced until 1942, with the last being the DKW F8, and were the first mass produced cars in Europe to incorporate front wheel drive.
Unfortunately, like Wanderer Werke AG and Horch, Rasmussen’s businesses DKW and Audi were hit hard by the world economic crisis going on at the time. Demand for motorcycles and cars were way down. This led to a review of Rasmussen’s various automotive businesses, which resulted in some rationalizing and eventual pruning. The outcome of it all was DKW, Audi Automobilwerke GmbH, the car division of Wanderer, and Horch being amalgamated and brought under the umbrella of a new, communal shareholder company called Auto Union AG in 1932. Wanderer Werke AG retained its other divisions, such as the machine tool and bicycle production. Rasmussen would remain on the board of the newly formed Auto Union AG until 1934, at which point he was removed following some "differences" with fellow board members.
You may notice that the current Audi logo includes four interlinked rings. Well, each of those rings represents one of the four car companies that were merged to form Auto Union. Initially, the badge was used only on the infamous Auto Union racing cars (which were highly successful in races and achieved numerous victories) that were produced during this period following the merger and up until the onset of World War II, before reemerging later.
Pre and Post-World War II
All four brands continued to manufacture cars under their own names and emblems throughout the '30s alongside Auto Union-branded racing cars as well, though the technological development became more concentrated, and some Audi models even contained engines built by Horch and Wanderer. Due to the economic pressures of the time, however, the company concentrated heavily on manufacturing smaller cars, which favored the DKW brand. DKW vehicles accounted for a large portion of German car sales, while the other Auto Union brands accounted for much less.
The end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s brought with it the start of World War II. Following the outbreak of the war, all civilian automobile production was suspended. The last Audi vehicles built before World War II were delivered in 1939, with Horch, Wanderer, and DKW vehicles not far behind. The Audi nameplate would not be used again until 1965. Auto Union shifted gears and began focusing solely on the production of military vehicles for the German armed forces, of which it became a major supplier. This fact made Auto Union factories a target for Allied bombing during the war, and thus they suffered heavy damage as a result. Some plants, such as where Wanderer automobiles were produced, were essentially destroyed; the Wanderer brand never recovered and went defunct following the war.
As a result of the war, Germany was dismantled into two new states—East and West Germany. East Germany was first occupied by the US Army immediately following the war, and then later by the Soviets. Located within this Soviet occupied zone were multiple Auto Union plants. Both the Horch and Audi plants located in Zwickau were soon dismantled by the Soviets as war reparations. Like Wanderer, the Horch brand never recovered after the war and also went defunct. Shortly afterwards, all of Auto Union’s assets were liquidated without compensation, and Auto Union AG of Chemnitz was officially deleted from the commercial register. Auto Union executives had no choice but to flee from the Soviets to the Western side of the now separated Germany, in order to try and salvage what was left of the company in hope that they could re-establish it there (since it had been originally established in the Eastern zone). They were able to do so thanks to loans from the Bavarian state government and Marshall Plan aid (economic support given by the US to help rebuild European economies after the end of WWII in order to prevent the spread of Soviet Communism), and a “new” Auto Union company was launched in Ingolstadt, Bavaria in 1949.
Following the resumption of civilian automobile production, Auto Union’s former production facilities would become the Volkseigener Betrieb (VEB for short) Automobilwerk Zwickau, which was later renamed to VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau in the late 1950s after the former Horch and Audi operations in Zwickau were unified. Volkseigener Betrieb, which translates to "Publicly Owned Operation" in English, was the main legal form of industrial enterprise in East Germany, until reunification of Germany took place in 1990 and rendered it obsolete. All East German vehicle manufacturers, including VEB Automobilwerke Zwickau and then later VEB Sachsenring, were part of what was known as the Industrieverband Fahrzeugbau (IFA for short), which translates to "Industrial Association for Vehicle Construction" in English. The IFA was a conglomerate and a union of companies for vehicle construction in the former East Germany; it, too, was rendered obsolete when Germany reunified in 1990.
The most famous vehicle to be produced by VEB Sachsenring was the Trabant, which debuted shortly after the new “Sachsenring” name. The car became East Germany’s most common vehicle and was produced by VEB Sachsenring until 1990, when the company came under Volkswagen control following the reunification of Germany (it has since been sold off). The company was renamed to HQM Sachsenring GmbH at that time, and brought the old Auto Union factories under the same umbrella as the Audi brand (which is now owned by the Volkswagen Group) for the first time since the end of WWII.
The New Auto Union
The former Auto Union operations, now under East German control, restarted assembly of pre-war models in 1949. These models were renamed the IFA F8 and IFA F9 since the East German facilities were not able to use the DKW brand following a lawsuit after the war; initially, they were called the DKW-IFA F8 and F9. They were based on the previous DKW 8 and DKW 9 versions, the latter of which was just a prototype built prior to the war, intended to be the successor of the DKW 8 before WWII interrupted that plan. Both were produced until the mid-1950s, when the IFA badge was dropped. VEB Automobilwerk Zwickau became VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau shortly afterwards, and the company released its first unique model, the aforementioned Trabant.
After the war, Auto Union, newly founded in West Germany, also resumed civilian car production, but only the DKW brand survived, continuing its tradition of producing front-wheel drive vehicles with two-stroke engines. This was mainly due to the widespread poverty in postwar Germany and the fact that DKW specialized in manufacturing the small types of vehicles people could afford at this time. The “new” company started out slowly, first by providing spare parts, then moving into the production of the RT 125 motorcycle and a newly developed delivery van—the Schnellaster F800, also known as the DKW F89 L. This van used the same engine as the last F8 made before the war. Production took place in Ingolstadt site initially, however this site was not suitable for the mass production of an automobile. This led to the company renting out some space at a second plant in Dusseldorf, which was owned at the time by another company, in order to manufacture its first postwar, mass market passenger car (Auto Union would acquire the plant later on). This car was called the DKW Meisterklasse, also known as the DKW F89, and was released in 1950. This vehicle also shared commonalities with the previous DKW F8 and DKW F9 vehicles, and was produced until the mid 1950s as well.
In the late 1950s, the Auto Union brand would return with the release of the Auto Union 1000, a compact front-wheel-drive saloon. In addition, Daimler-Benz bought an 87% share of Auto Union, and bought out the remainder the following year in 1959. Small cars equipped with two-stroke engines were not the focus of Daimler-Benz's interests, however, nor was DKW motorcycle production, which ended almost immediately after Daimler-Benz purchased the company. The early 1960s saw Daimler-Benz invest largely in new Mercedes models and in a new factory for Auto Union vehicle production in Ingolstadt. Production of Auto Union automobiles at the Dusseldorf plant was terminated, and it was converted to a Mercedes-Benz plant with the purpose of producing commercial vehicles, which it still does today. Daimler-Benz also began to develop a new four-stroke engine, which was intended to replace the old fashioned two-stroke cars. Also during this period, DKW, Auto Union, and Mercedes were able to establish a greater presence in the North American market in a shorter span of time, thanks to an agreement it was able to strike with the Studebaker-Packard Corporation (SPC) in 1956, which had a large network of dealers. This agreement lasted through 1964 and SPC was the only distributor of these brands in the United States during this time.
The last DKW vehicle to be produced was the DKW F102 series, which was equipped with a Mercedes engine. It was designed to be the replacement for the now outdated Auto Union 1000. Unfortunately, the company's model range had begun to show its age and it was not benefitting from the economic boom of the early 1960s, which included prosperity returning to West Germany, as much as its competitors like Volkswagen for example. Vehicles equipped with two-stroke engines became less and less popular as consumers were becoming attracted to vehicles with smoother four-stroke engines, and this trend would continue into the mid 1960's. Daimler-Benz became extremely worried that the only market for Auto Union's two-stroke vehicles would be the still impoverished East Germany, unless there was a massive investment, which they were not willing to undertake. Daimler-Benz decided to dispose of Auto Union due to its lack of profitability, selling shares of the company which, with the agreed help of the West German Government, were acquired by the Volkswagen Group. They initially acquired 50% of the business, which included the new plant in Ingolstadt and the trademark rights of Auto Union; this was increased to 100% by 1966. As part of the sale, Daimler-Benz retained the old Dusseldorf plant.
The Rebirth of Audi
Ironically enough, it would be a shiny, new factory and a near production-ready four-stroke engine that Volkswagen also acquired that would propel the company to new heights under its new owners. As the market for two-stroke engines continued to spiral downward during the 1960s, the DKW F102 vehicles sold well below what Volkswagen expected and it was a huge financial loss for the company. As a result, Volkswagen was forced to implement a radical development change. The old DKW F102 model was redesigned with a four-cylinder, four-stroke engine, rather than a two-stroke engine, along with some new body work. The name "F103" was the internal designation for the new model based on the F102, to be produced by Auto Union. To signify the change from a two-stroke engine to a four-stroke engine, Volkswagen decided to drop the DKW marque altogether, and resurrect the Audi name, which had not been used on a vehicle since just prior to World War II. The new model, simply known as the "Audi" at the time it was launched, was released in 1965, with the name being a model designation rather than a manufacturer, which was still Auto Union. The last DKW F102's rolled off the assembly lines in 1966, and the brand ceased to exist after this time, save for a short period where they continued to be built—under license—in the countries of Brazil and Argentina until 1967 and 1969.
From 1965 to 1972, more models were added to the Audi F103 series of cars. This included the original Audi 80, Audi 60, and the Audi 75, all named after their horsepower ratings; the original Audi model was renamed the Audi 72. Oddly enough, the sweeping changes that Daimler-Benz had undertaken before it sold Auto Union to Volkswagen not only helped to provide the basis for these front wheel drive Audi models, but Volkswagen models as well—especially the Volkswagen Passat. In 1968, the Audi 100 was released, which was the first luxury Audi automobile to be produced since the revival of the brand. Initially, Volkswagen was not keen on the idea of Auto Union as a standalone entity producing its own models; in fact, Volkswagen's chief at the time had actually forbade Auto Union to develop any new products. They had basically acquired the company in order to boost its own production capacity via the Ingolstadt assembly factory. Fearing that the company's long heritage would simply disappear under Volkswagen's ownership, making marginally different Volkswagen models under the Audi name, Auto Union engineers had actually embarked on developing the prototype of the Audi 100 in secret in order to try and convince Volkswagen that Audi had value as a standalone product. When they presented the finished prototype to Volkswagen's top executive, he was so impressed that he gave the green light for the car to be mass produced. It went on to become a huge success, and the resurrection of the Audi brand was really complete with this launch. The F103 series was discontinued in 1972 and was replaced with a new version of the Audi 80, dubbed the "B1." This vehicle would last all the way up until 1996, when it was finally discontinued. Rather than being forced to rebadge Volkswagens, Audi began to actually provide the platforms for Volkswagen. The 1973 Volkswagen Passat was based on the Audi 80 while the Audi 50 was rebadged as the Volkswagen Polo in 1974.
In 1969, the Volkswagen Group also acquired the German manufacturer NSU Motorenwerke AG, commonly abbreviated as just NSU. Originally founded in 1973 as Mechanische Werkstätte zur Herstellung von Strickmaschinen to produce knitting machines, NSU moved on to producing bicycles which replaced knitting machine production by 1892. At the same time, the brand name NSU began to be used for the first time. The first NSU motorcycle was released in 1901, and the first NSU car appeared in 1905. The company sold its car factory to Fiat in 1932 and went on to become the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles by the 1950s. In 1957 they re-entered the car market with the release of a small car named the Prinz (Prince in English). The company then went on to focus on new rotary engines based on the developed ideas of Felix Wankel. This led to NSU actually producing the world's first Wankel engine car in 1964, dubbed the Wankelspider. In 1967, they released the NSU Ro 80. Unfortunately for them, the production of this type of engine was very costly for the company, which was quite small, and its development brought with it problems that damaged the brand's reputation in the eyes of consumers. This led to the company's acquisition by the Volkswagen Group. Volkswagen then immediately merged NSU with Auto Union and the new company was called Audi NSU Auto-Union AG. The K70 model that NSU had been working on was incorporated into the Volkswagen lineup instead, and the NSU Prinz models were phased out in 1973. The last NSU model to be sold was the Ro 80, and it was phased out in 1977, signaling the end of the NSU brand. All future production by the company would bear the Audi name, although the four interlocking circles of Auto Union would be used as the logo.
The Modern Era of Audi
Audi did adapt one important piece of technology from Volkswagen, though. Hoping to change the prevailing image of Audi vehicles at the time as conservative cars, an Audi engineer made a proposal to develop the four wheel drive technology used in Volkswagen’s Iltis military vehicle for an Audi performance and rally racing car. The resulting turbocharged coupe, released in 1980, was known as the Audi Quattro. Although many thought a four wheel drive system would make a car too heavy to be competitive, the handling benefits made the car very successful in rally racing. In its first rally, the Quattro finished nine minutes ahead of any of its competitors. Audi won the manufacturers’ title in the World Rally Championship (WRC) in 1982 and 1984. Quattro drivers won the drivers’ titles in 1983 and 1984. 1985 brought with it another milestone, albeit a different one. It was then that the company name Audi NSU Auto-Union AG was shortened to just Audi AG; this marked the end of Auto Union and the beginning of Audi as we know it today.
Unfortunately, the rules that would lead to Audi’s success in rally-racing would eventually lead the company to back out of it. In 1982, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) introduced the Group B classification in Rally Racing. Where Group A required manufacturers to make 5,000 production cars to enter a car in a race, Group B required only that 200 be built. There was also no power limit, wider leeway in materials that could be used, and no prohibition against four wheel drive. This offered automakers an opportunity to bring all their engineering prowess to bear without facing too high of a financial cost. The cars became absurdly powerful and fast. They could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds—on dirt. The original Quattro was soon replaced by the Sport Quattro S1, which was twelve and a half inches shorter and built with a very light carbon-kevlar shell. It was rated around six hundred horsepower.
If all this sounds highly dangerous, that’s because it was. 1985 and 1986 saw several fatal accidents in Group B racing. In 1985, a Lancia driver died in a crash in the Corsican rally. In 1986, in Portugal, a Ford driver swerved to miss a group of spectators in the road only to kill three and injure thirty on the side of the road. Another Lancia driver died later that year after launching off the road into a ravine. The Group B cars began to be referred to as the “Killer Bs.” Audi decided to drop out of Group B competition, even though its cars had not been involved in the fatal crashes. Soon after, the class was banned altogether. The Sport Quattro S1 did, however, have one more series of motorsports successes. In 1985, Michele Moulton—who five years earlier, in an original Quattro, had become the first woman to win a WRC race—won the Pike’s Peak Hill climb and set a new record for the course in an S1. The following year, Bobby Unser did the same, and the year following that Walter Rohrl did the same.
Meanwhile, Audi’s production cars were facing a safety scandal of their own in the United States. Audi faced several lawsuits from drivers of the Audi 100 (sold in the US as the Audi 5000) who reported that they experienced sudden unintended acceleration with the brake pedal depressed. The alleged malfunction resulted in six deaths and 700 accidents. In 1986, the television news program 60 Minutes aired a report on the car that showed footage of an Audi 5000 apparently undergoing unintended acceleration. The car used for the footage had actually been doctored to do so, at the behest of one of plaintiffs suing Audi. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that the majority of unintended acceleration cases resulted from human error, such as the confusion of the accelerator and brake pedals. In many of these cases, the unintended acceleration had occurred while the driver was shifting the car out of park, presumably with their foot on the gas instead of the brake. Audi initiated a series of recalls between 1982 and 1987, and made several modifications including adding a mechanism which prevented the car from being shifted into drive unless the brake pedal was depressed and changing the distance between the pedals in an attempt to prevent such accidents from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, the publicity damage was already done. From 1985 to 1991, Audi’s U.S. sales fell from around 74,000 to about 12,000. It wouldn’t reach 1985 sales levels in the US again until 2000.
In the 1980s, Audi had adapted Vorsprung durch Technik, “Advancement through Technology” (adapted as “Truth in Engineering” for the US), as its slogan. Although it had definitely taken that motto to heart with its rally cars, the company began to embody the ideal in its passenger cars through the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1988, Audi released its first car to use a V8 engine, the aptly named Audi V8. The V8 resembled the 100 in many ways, but marked Audi’s move into the luxury segment to compete against the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW. It featured both the quattro four-wheel drive system and an automatic transmission. It also featured a galvanized steel body to protect against corrosion. Other standard features included anti-theft alarm, rear window defogger, cruise control, and a built-in first aid kit. The V8 was replaced in 1994 by the A8, though it was not released in North America until 1997. The company had contracted with the Aluminum Company of America to develop an aluminum frame car to be much lighter than other similar vehicles. The V8, which had become Audi’s flagship model, was picked as the most likely candidate for the project. The new car, built with an aluminum space frame, was introduced as the A8. The A8 was joined that same year by the A6 which replaced the Audi 100 and the A4 which replaced the Audi 80. In 1999, Audi released a semi off-road A6-based SUV called the Audi allroad quattro. It is, to date, the only car-based SUV able to complete an official Land Rover test course. In 2005, the A6 won the World Car of the Year award and was also named “Towcar of the Year,” by Practical Caravan magazine.
Audi also began to produce sports versions of its standard models. The Audi S2 and the Audi S4, which were released in the early 1990s, were the beginning of these mass-produced performance cars, which Audi dubbed its S Series. The S4 is a sportier version of the A4 for example, with four-wheel drive standard, better brakes, and stiffer suspension. The S model designation stands for sport and also harkens back to the S1 rally car. In Europe, even more finely tuned RS (RennSport, racing sport) models are also available. Audi would make another tribute to its rallying days with its 2003 concept SUV, the Pikes Peak quattro. This was eventually developed into the Audi Q7 SUV, released two years later.
Audi in the 2000s and Today
Audi's sales grew strongly in the 2000s and the company expanded globally to the point where today, they manufacture vehicles in numerous plants all around the world. In the 2000s, Audi turned its attentions to racing again. This time around, the company delved into sports car prototype racing. An Audi has won at the 24 Hours of Le Mans every year from 2000 to 2013 with the exception of 2003 and 2009. The model used from 2000 to 2005 was designated as the R8. The R8 name was later used for a high-end performance car built by Audi. The R8 street car, released in 2007, features an engine from fellow Volkswagen Group manufacturer Lamborghini. The R8 has won effusive praise, being named Best Handling Car and Fastest Car in the World by Autocar magazine in 2007, winning World Performance Car of the Year and World Design Car of the Year in 2008, and winning Playboy’s Car of the Year award that same year.
Today, Audi is positioned as Volkswagen’s luxury brand, and is one of the most successful luxury automakers, but it has had to come a long way to reach that summit. The Audi company, though, has proven to be just as robust as its products when it comes to travelling a rough road. With a lineup that consists of a broad range of vehicles from sedans to SUVs like the Q5, and from convertibles like the A5 Cabriolet to coupes like the TT and the TTS, Audi will be an automotive force to be reckoned for years to come.