Vorsprung Durch Technik, Advancing through technology… with a long confusing history.
Audi is currently enjoying the longest period of profitability and stability in the company’s history. With outstanding cars like the R8 and beastly RS7, that’s good news for all of us.
Of course, the road to get to this point has been anything but smooth. In fact, you might say it was a road ridden with bomb craters, rocks, snow, and gravel. Of course that’s also why Audi brought us cool stuff like quattro all-wheel-drive.
Audi has taken on many forms since it was founded over 100-years-ago, and was even completely dormant for a few years following World War II. It’s been absorbed, sold-off, and merged almost more times than we can count, but it’s still here.
Here’s how it all came to be.
13. The name Audi is the Latin for “hear”
August Horch founded his first car company, A. Horch & Cie. in 1899. But just 10 years later, Horch wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye with his Chief Financial officer and left his own company to start August Horch Automobilwerke GmbH. Unfortunately, Horch soon learned the Horch name belonged to his former company when he was notified of a copyright infringement.
In response, Horch changed the new company’s name to the latin translation of his last name. In German “horch” means “hear,” which in Latin is “audi”.
12. The four rings in the logo represent the four companies of Auto Union
By 1932, the name fiasco between Horch the man, and Horch the company was water under the bridge. Horch (the company) and Audi entered an agreement along with two other German car manufacturers, DKW and Wanderer, to form Auto Union. The four rings, which Audi still uses today, originally represented the four companies of Auto Union.
After the merger, Auto Union became the second biggest car company in Germany after Mercedes-Benz. Each of the companies were allocated a market segment: Horch would build high-end luxury cars, Audi focused on deluxe mid-size cars, Wanderer was put in charge of standard mid-size cars, and DKW was tasked with small cars and motorcycles.
11. Audi has been conducting crash tests for over 75 years
We’re not entirely sure it should count, but Audi can claim to be the first to conduct crash test. These weren’t the sophisticated crash tests you see in commercials today with slow motion cameras, dummies, and advanced impact sensors. Instead, engineers from DKW simply rolled one of their subcompact F7 models down a hill in front of a group of spectators to demonstrate the car’s safety.
After the little car stopped rolling, the group of onlookers were astonished when they saw the F7 was virtually undamaged and the engine was still running.
10. An Auto Union racecar went over 268 mph way back in 1938
Before World War II, Auto Union and Mercedes had an epic rivalry on the track that was unfortunately funded by Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi Party. Ferdinand Porsche, whom you may have heard of, was put in charge of designing the Auto Union contenders and put the engine behind the driver to save weight. It just so happened the improved weight distribution also benefited handling.
The Auto Union Type C was powered by a V16 engine with 560 horsepower — bonkers power for the time. Legendary Auto Union racer Bernd Rosemeyer took a streamlined version of the Type C up to 268.4 mph at a top speed competition on the autobahn. Unfortunately, Rosemeyer was 4/10 of mile per hour off the best speed of the day, set by a Rudolf Caracciola in a Mercedes. Rosemeyer went back out to beat it, but was tragically killed when he lost control of his car in crosswinds.
9. There was no Audi after World War II
Like most German car companies, Auto Union pivoted to focus on the war effort. After WWII, most of Auto Union’s assets were located in Soviet controlled East Germany, and the main factory in the city of Chemnitz was dismantled in 1948. Company management fled to Ingolstadt a few years before, and in 1949 founded a new company called Auto Union GmbH.
As Germany’s manufacturing sector and economy began to improve after the war, the new Auto Union started building motorcycles and light delivery vehicles under the DKW name. This would continue into the late 1950s when Daimler-Benz acquired Auto Union as a wholly-owned subsidiary.
8. Mazda wasn’t the first to use rotary engines
In 1965 Auto Union found a new owner in Volkswagen. Four years later, Volkswagen purchased another German car company called NSU. VW then merged Auto Union and NSU to form Audi NSU Auto Union AG. The Audi name had officially returned.
But before that, NSU made a name for itself by producing some very forward-thinking cars.
When we think of rotary engines we think of Mazda, but it was NSU that first worked with Felix Wankel to produce the world’s first rotary powered production automobile in 1964, the NSU Wankel-Spider. Its successor, the Ro80 (pictured), might be one of the coolest cars you’ve never heard of.
Here’s a pre-Clarkson episode of Top Gear featuring the R080
7. The first Audi RS model was co-developed with Porsche
The RS 2 was the first of Audi’s high-end performance cars and the first of a long line of fast Audi wagons. It would have never happened without the performance expertise of Porsche.
Bodyshells from the Audi 80 estate, on which the RS 2 was based, were shipped to Porsche in Stuttgart, where they underwent a thorough transformation. The turbocharged 2.2 liter 5-cylinder was tuned by Porsche to produce 311 horsepower. Porsche also supplied the braking and suspension systems.
Thanks to its quattro all-wheel-drive, and the Porsche tuned engine, the RS2 was able to out sprint the venerable McLaren F1 to 30 mph.
6. The origins of quattro all-wheel-drive came from this thing
Yes, the system on which Audi has built its modern corporate philosophy comes from a humble Volkswagen military vehicle, the four-wheel-drive Volkswagen Type 183, also called the Iltis.
Volkswagen chassis engineer Jörg Bensinger was conducting tests in Finland with several VW group vehicles, one of which was the Iltis. The Iltis was walking away from every other car in the snowy tests despite having far less horsepower. Bensinger’s idea to put the Iltis’ four-wheel-drive system in an Audi 80 body would eventually become the original Audi quattro.
When it came to the most revolutionary Audi, timing was everything. Just as quattro was being released into the wild, the World Rally Championship was adjusting the rules to allow for all-wheel-drive cars.
Audi had snuck in it’s all-wheel-drive beasts while the competition wasn’t looking, and it turned out to be a gigantic advantage. After working out a few kinks, the quattros went on a rampage and won numerous rallies between 1981 and 1986, and the drivers championship in 1983 and 1984. It also won the Pikes Peak Hill Climb six times between 1982 and 1987.
4. There was secret 1000 hp Audi rally car
It was so top secret not even the president of the company knew about it. Audi rally team manager Roland Gumpert (who later went on to form his own supercar company) recognized the need for a mid-engine rally car when Lancia and Peugeot started getting a leg up on the quattros in the late 1980s.
In a classic case of don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness, Gumpert and his team began developing a new mid-engine 1000 hp rally car in complete secrecy. But, when a spy photographer snapped the car on a clandestine test run, their secret was blown. It’s rumored that when company boss Ferdinand Piëch discovered the unapproved project, he went to the workshop and demanded the cars be disassembled while he watched. Luckily, Gumpert had one hidden away, which now resides at Audi’s museum in Ingolstadt.
3. An Audi named Shelley scaled Pikes Peak with no driver
It might’ve been some 19 minutes off the current record held by Sebastian Loeb, but an autonomously driven Audi TTS made it to the top of Pikes Peak in 2010 without becoming a ball of scrap metal at bottom of the mountain. To be fair, the Audi was also down about 700 hp on Loeb’s Peugeot.
The team named the car Shelley after Audi rally driver Michèle Mouton, who was the first woman to win a World Rally Championship round and the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Shelley was developed with assistance from Stanford University at Volkswagen’s Electronics Research Lab. It’s sophisticated GPS system was able to track the car’s position to within less than an inch.
2. Audi was the first to win Le Mans with both diesel and hybrid powered cars
By 2005 Audi had used its R8 racer to thoroughly stomp every competitor that showed up at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So, as a challenge to its engineers, Audi set out to be the first to win the 24 hour race with a diesel engine. Just one year later, the R10 TDI powered by a turbodiesel V10 won at Le Mans its first time out.
Six years later in 2012, Audi won Le Man with the R18 e-Tron quattro. The R18 utilized a diesel/electric hybrid, also making it the first manufacturer to win the race with a hybrid drivetrain.
Despite winning Le Mans 13 times, Audi is still behind Porsche which has 16 wins.
1. Only the best, most experienced factory employees get to build R8s
Audi’s Neckarsulm facility is the home of quattro GmbH, where all of Audi’s high performance models are built, including the R8 supercar.
This isn’t the type of place where just any yokel can walk in and get it a job. It takes 5000 different parts and 70 hours to build an R8. Only 20 R8s roll out of the factory on an average workday. The workers here are the best of the best, and have usually been with Audi for decades. Within the company they’re called “silverliners,” because most of them have gray hair.