Germany has a history of machinery development, especially in the automotive industry and even in the late nineteenth century it was shown that there would always be a market for products of engineers as skilled as Karl Benz, Gottlieb and Paul Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach and August Horch.
In 1885 Karl Benz produced the first motorised carriage for use on the road – a tricycle. Four-wheeled cars followed soon after. At about the same time, only 96 km away in another part of southern Germany, another superb engineer, Gottlieb Daimler, was starting the company which would become Benz’s greatest rival.
Daimler and Benz never met, but their machines were among the most advanced produced anywhere. One admirer, Emile Jellinek, became a Daimler director and named the cars he sold after his daughter Mercedes.
Soon all German Daimlers, designed by the founder’s assistant Wilhelm Maybach, were called Mercedes, while the products of allied companies in Austria and Britain continued to be called Daimler. Benz was their greatest rival but kept pace only in fits and starts of indecision. Wilhelm Maybach left in 1907 to set up his own company producing very large cars and aero engines, and Gottlieb’s son, Paul, returned from Austria to take over as chief engineer.
Meanwhile another young journeyman, blacksmith’s son August Horch, had wandered as far as Budapest to learn his craft on the railways before he saw his first car at the age of 27. He wrote to the maker, Karl Benz, to ask for a job and was soon made plant manager in charge of 70 employees. But he left two years later in 1898 when Karl Benz was squeezed out of his own firm, accused of being too conservative in the face of the threat to sales from Maybach’s advanced new Mercedes.
Horch managed to borrow enough money to start making his own cars in 1899, rapidly acquiring a reputation for employing advanced new technology. Because he put quality before profit he spent the rest of his life constantly trying to raise enough money to develop new lines. In 1910, like Benz before him, he found himself forced out of the firm he had founded. But he hit back and started building cars called Audi, the Latin equivalent of his German name, meaning Listen! or Hark!
The cars which August Horch built in his new factory performed better than the cars still being built under his name; but he made the mistake of concentrating on big expensive cars after the 1914-18 war.
In the economic depression which followed, sales slumped to such an extent that he found himself in 1920 out of work while the Horch and Audi factories carried on making cars without him. Horch was in such severe trouble that it was taken over by the Argus aero-engine makers. Amazingly, they promptly hired Paul Daimler, a chief engineer with similar ideals to Horch, who had fallen out with his father’s old firm! He was responsible for a magnificent succession of Horch cars, featuring straight 8-cylinder engines like those of Isotta-Fraschini, but more advanced with single and, later, twin overhead camshafts.
While August Horch was reporting on new advances in technology for the German Transport Ministry, Audi floundered and, in 1928, was taken over by the Dane Jorgen Rasmussen, who built small but successful DKW cars of advanced design.
Recession gripped Germany the following year when DKW and Audi joined Horch and another firm from Saxony, Wanderer, to form Auto Union, in a fight for economic survival. August Horch was reinstated as a director and he returned to the splendid halls of Horchwerke for the first time in 20 years. But his influence was minimal as the Austrian Dr Ferdinand Porsche was hired to design its great, state-subsidised racing cars.
Meanwhile Fiedler replaced Paul Daimler at Horch, and was responsible for the magnificent Horch 670 V12, aimed not so much at Mercedes as Maybach, who had been making the only 12-cylinder German car. The theory was that because ordinary people could not afford a new car during the Great Depression, it was only worth making very profitable ones for the lucky few who could finance such extravagances.
Maybach, and Voisin, in France, creamed the profits from such extraordinary vehicles because their main business was in aero engines, which absorbed the development costs. Horch failed because there were not enough car buyers who could afford to pay for their dreams. Nevertheless, the Horch type 670 was an incredible machine and was designed, quite literally, to last forever.