The history of Audi is as dynamic and tenacious as its award winning vehicles. Founded on the vision of one man, the company has overcome many economic and political challenges to emerge as one of the most popular and enduring brands in the world today. Mixing its flair for design with its desire to create state of the art vehicles, the brand is poised to successfully navigate the challenges of the 21st century motor industry.
August Horch – a former production manager for Karl Benz - dreamed of making cars in his own name. In 1899 he realised this ambition and along with 15 others, started a company in Germany which produced its first vehicle in 1901. Had the story finished there we may never have heard of Audi. Yet events changed when suddenly in 1909 the Board of Directors forced Horch out of the company he had been instrumental in launching.
Still determined to pursue his love of cars, he set up another business. As the name Horch was already in use, he chose Audi – Latin for ‘Hear’. (Horch).
By 1910 driving had a loyal – and growing – fan base. In the UK alone as many as 100,000 cars were on the roads and manufacturers kept pace with this increasing demand. It was in this year that Audi released its first car. Known as the Type A this instant classic with a 4-cylinder, 4 stroke-engine embodied the design values key to Horchs’ vision. Only 140 were ever produced.
Quickly followed by Type B and Type C – each building on its respective predecessors successes, Horch began entering his vehicles in races and for three years running won the prestigious International Austrian Alpine Run.
Fast becoming a favourite of German drivers, the First World War interrupted the journey of Audi who were required to manufacture vehicles used in many military campaigns. When the war was over the company struggled to get back on its feet incurring heavy losses.
Horch left the business in 1920 to take up a senior position at the ministry of transport, but he was still involved with Audi as a member of the board of trustees. In September 1921, Audi became the first German car manufacturer to present a production car, the Audi Type K, with left-handed drive. Left-hand drive spread and established dominance during the 1920s because it was considered to provide a better view of oncoming traffic.
In order to consolidate and develop the business further, in 1932 Audi merged with DKW, Horch and Wanderer and in so doing launched the iconic four-ring badge emblem. The business, named Auto Union, laid the foundations of modern motoring as we know it.
DKW originally manufactured parts for steam power plants as well as a range of accessories while Warender initially started life as a bicycle manufacturer. Both went on to design and launch their own range of cars with the ‘Puppchen’ from Wanderer being in production for nearly 2 decades.
Very astutely each of the four brands was assigned a specific market segment: DKW – motorcycles and small cars; Wanderer – midsize cars; Audi – cars in the deluxe midsize segment; and Horch – luxury cars at the top end of the market. Following this successful merger the company was the second largest motor vehicle manufacturer in Germany.
Reflecting the economic pressures brought on as a result of the Great Depression, Auto Union concentrated increasingly on smaller cars through the 1930s, so that by 1938 the company's DKW brand accounted for 17.9% of the German car market, while Audi held only 0.1%. After the final few Audis were delivered in 1939 the "Audi" name disappeared completely from the new car market for more than two decades.
War Period and Beyond
Like most German manufacturing, Auto Union plants were retooled for military production at the onset of World War II, and were a target for allied bombing during the war which left them damaged.
At the end of the war, the same factories were dismantled as part of war reparations and all of the company's assets were expropriated without compensation. In effect the business was now liquidated. However, through financial backing, in 1949 the former Audi factory in Zwickau restarted assembly of the pre-war-models.
It wasn’t until 1965 that a brand new, post-war vehicle with a four-stroke engine was released. Along with this dawning of a new era, it was felt that the time was ripe for a new product designation.
The traditional Audi name was therefore revived. A short time later, the last two-stroke DKWs left the production line in Ingolstadt. From then on, the new models with four-stroke engines were produced under the brand name "Audi”.
A new era had begun in another sense, too: the Volkswagen Group acquired the Ingolstadt-based company in 1965 although went on to merge with NSU Motorwerke in 1969.
Considered to be rather conservative, the company went on to develop four-wheel drive technology in the 1980’s. Named ‘Audi Quattro’ the technology was personified in a high performance, turbocharged coupe.
From then until today the brand has cleverly navigated its way in a challenging and competitive market space. Marrying its design flair with its innovative approach to technology, Audi has given the world the sporty TT, the cutting-edge A2 and the supercar, the R8, to name a few.
Navigating through two world wars, several recessions – including the great depression and the financial crisis of 2007 - as well as handling several mergers and changing customer tastes has seen the business emerge stronger than ever.
Today they are regarded as one of the most desirable global brands and are perfectly placed to deliver against a range of industry challenges which include shifting global demand patterns, rising consumer expectations as well as the need to be respectful of the environment and develop sustainable powertrains,
No doubt August Horch would fully approve.