Audi has been a part of the Volkswagen group for fifty years and Audi is the brand that North America associates with the Four Rings. But each of those rings represents a separate company. A brief chronology of those companies will help chart the course Audi has taken to date:
1896 – Johann Winklhofer and Richard Jaenicke form a company in Chemnitz, Saxony to build bicycles and other equipment. In 1902 they started selling motorcycles and the following year started building automobiles. The brand name, Wanderer, was chosen for export models, but soon it was attached to domestic models as well. Wanderer is a brand represented by a ring.
1904 – August Horch, a former production manager for Benz (pre Mercedes-Benz), establishes the Horch & Cie. Motorenwagenwerke AG in Zwickau, Saxony. Horch is one of the four rings. Much like Henry Ford, he argues with the board and leaves to found another company, August Horch Automobilwerke GmbH in 1909, also in Zwickau. The company name had to change, since the Horch & Cie. retained the rights to Horch (unlike Henry Ford, who was able to continue using his name after his second attempt at manufacturing automobiles was sold and became Cadillac). The problem became what to name the new company – Horch is derived from the German verb ‘horchen’, hark or listen. Cleverly they used the Latin translation of Horch and another ring of the four is created, Audi,
1916 – Jorgen Rasmussen, a Dane, founds a compnay in Zschopau, Saxony to produce steam fittings. His first attempt at building an automobile with the Dampf Kraft Wagen (DKW) fails – dampf is the German word for ‘steam’. After the war he builds a toy two-cycle engine for sale under the label, Des Knaben Wunsch, the boy’s desire. A version of that two-stroke engine goes into a motorcycle and is labeled, Das Kleine Wunder, the little marvel. Two-stroke engines become a hallmark of DKW. The fourth ring is DKW.
1932 – Auto Union is created after the financial uncertainty and inflation of the 1920s. After the start of the worldwide great depression, consolidation of automobile manufacturers hastened. Auto Union’s four rings covered a good spread of vehicles and through the mid 1930s, as the German economy perked up, Auto Union did well. But, starting in 1938 and early 1939, German industry was steadily being subordinated to a wartime footing.
1945 – For all intents and purposes, German industry was dead. Managers from Wanderer migrated west to revive DKW. As the Soviets extracted machine tooling from their zone of occupation, Auto Union managers migrated west also, to Ingolstadt, Bavaria where they rekindled the Auto Union name.
1948 – Following the currency reform in the western occupation zones, the inevitable partition of Germany began between east, the Deutsche Demokraticshe Republik (DDR or in English, German Democratic Republic, East Germany) and the west, Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD – known in English as the Federal Republic of Germany, West Germany). Plants in the DDR were absorbed into a state run enterprise known as the IFA. Saxony was in the DDR and the plants previously used to produce Auto Union cars were know in the IFA group or shuttered.
1953 – Chemnitz is renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt, however, the Wanderer plant was no longer in operation. But IFA operations continued in Zwickau and Zschopau as well as the former BMW plant in Eisenach. The IFA were direct descendants of DKWs, including their two-stroke engines. IFA produced a number of classics such as the Wartburg and the Trabant.
1957 – Auto Union is purchased by Daimler Benz. Benz puts the kibosh on further development of the Auto Union’s DKW two stroke engine. Auto Union survives Benz’ management, but Benz will soon sell Auto Union.
1964 – The VW group purchases Auto Union from Daimler Benz. The four-stroke DKW F103 becomes an Audi and the rest, as they say, is history.