The LeMans-dominating Audi R10 is an incomparable engineering spectacle. Honed from the finest materials and tested by banks of supercomputers before the first part was even crafted, the LeMans Prototype car is only now being challenged three years after its birth by an improved Porsche RS Spyder. The irony here is though these two teams battle for the same prize, they share the same grandfather, Ferdinand Porsche. Today we examine the R10's oldest and most revolutionary ancestor: the Auto Union Type C.
To tell the story of the Type C, you have to start at the Great Depression. As they were everywhere, the period was hard for Germany, and though the engineering talent of Ferdinand Porsche was well know at the time, the commissions for automobiles had simply dried up. Not one to have his ambitions squelched, Porsche joined with a group of his former associates including Adolf Rosenberger and Karl Rabe to form the Hochleistungs Motor GmbH (High Efficiency Engines company). At this point, development work on a Grand Prix-competitive engine began in earnest without a contract.
In parallel, the companies of Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer formed Auto Union in an effort to ride out the storm of the depression by way of leveraged finances and increased purchasing power. As all good, freshly minted European auto makers in the 30's must do, a race car was commissioned, and this one went through Porsche, who had connections to Auto Union through Wanderer. The cash to do the development is what gives these cars a special, perhaps infamous place in history. Adolf Hitler, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany, had commissioned Mercedes Benz to build a car to dominate racing and had provided 500,000 Reichmarks to do it. After convincing Hitler of the benefit of two entries from Germany, the chancellor split the pot and 250k RM went to each team.
At the time, the front engine, rear-driver layout was considered the state of the art, but flush with funds, Porsche's team set to work bringing the drawings of a low, mid-engined, wundercar to life — and the design would be called the Auto Union Type C. By placing the engine at the rear, fuel tank in the center, and the driver in the front, concessions for the drive shaft and transmission tunnel were no longer necessary. And oh, that engine, a twin-block, 6 liter, 45 degree bank, 32 valve V16, was force fed air through a Roots supercharger and developed 520 HP in its final form. With the uneven 40/60 front to rear weight distribution and the massive power available, the car tended to oversteer and it was difficult for drivers used to a rear seating position to determine the limits of adhesion. Before the advent of the ZF limited slip differential, the car was known to produce wheel spin at speeds as high as 150 MPH.
The front and rear suspensions were considered state of the art at the time. The driver sat over a split axle and torsion bar setup in the front while the rear was managed with a double wishbone and transverse leaf spring suspension. The body stretched over this mechanical symphony was carefully crafted in the German Institute for Aerodynamics and provided both efficient cooling and enviable aerodynamic effect. When completely developed, the 1,618 lb. car was capable of 211 MPH flat out.
Drivers of this infamous car read like a who's who of early Grand Prix driving — Hans Stuck, Ernst von Delius, Achille Varzi and of course Bernt Rosemeyer. It was Rosemeyer who mastered the chassis and drove these cars into legend, securing six victories of twelve races in the 1936 season. The wins lead to Auto Union securing the builders title, and Rosemeyer being awarded the European Champion title. Over the next two years he would win another eight races outright and lose to Mercedes in 1938 only after they tied in race wins, but lost in laps led to the newly developed W125.
The Auto Union Type C, as well its competitor the Mercedes Benz W125, represent a pinnacle of engineering achievement not seen again until the turbocharged racers of the 1980s.The Type C was the exact car that started the racing revolution, the shift which was necessary to go faster and lighter. The move to mid engine racing was ultimately inevitable, but the confluence of history, engineering passion, staggering performance, and intimidating design captures the imagination. It also demands a place in the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage.
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