Another automotive legend comes under the hammer

A classic 1939 Auto Union D-type racing car, long abandoned in pieces in the Soviet Union, has been rebuilt, and will be auctioned in California in August.

According to the Web site of Bonhams, the auctioneers:

Bonhams & Butterfields is delighted to offer for sale by auction nothing less than one of the most charismatic Grand Prix racing cars ever built – the 1939 Auto Union ‘D-Type’ with rear-mounted 3-liter twin-stage supercharged V12-cylinder engine. The annual collector’s motorcar car auction is set for August 14, 2009 in Carmel, CA.

This legendary racing car – absolutely confirmed today as chassis number ‘19’ – was driven to placing finishes in the 1939 Grand Prix racing season. Handled by Auto Union factory team drivers Rudolf Hasse and Hans Stuck, this pioneering rear-engined Grand Prix projectile finished fifth in the German EifelRennen event on the North Circuit of the Nurburgring, and sixth in the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France around the super fast public road course at Reims-Gueux.

. . .

During the 1939 racing season, Auto Union deployed 11 ‘D-Type’ chassis in the six significant Grand Prix Formula events contested. In addition to Nuvolari’s second place in the EifelRennen, Hasse finished second in the Belgian GP, before his team-mates H.P. ‘Happy’ Muller and ‘Schorsch’ Meier brought the team a wonderful 1-2 success in the French race at Reims-Gueux.

It was there that chassis ‘19’ raced for the last time, driven by Hans Stuck, the veteran Austrian star. In his hands, this ‘D-Type’ Auto Union completed the works team’s day by finishing sixth.

Today, Auto Union ‘D-Type’ chassis ‘19’ is the only proven surviving Grand Prix car of its type with contemporary 1939 racing history. It is one of the classic car world’s most charismatic machines, and is exquisitely well-restored to running order. In a world hungry for genuine intrinsic value, it has much to commend it.

Post-war Myth and Mystery

For nearly half a century the survival in Communist Russia of ex-works German ‘Silver Arrow’ Grand Prix cars from the 1930s seemed little more than unproven myth. The search for any such cars from Mercedes-Benz or – much more so – Auto Union – was regarded as historic motor sport’s quest for the Holy Grail. While several 1930s Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars survived at the Stuttgart factory and in private Western hands, the only known Auto Union was a sectioned 1936 V16 model exhibited in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

It was known that the surviving Auto Union team cars had been expropriated by Soviet forces in the Autumn of 1945. In fact, no fewer than 13 Auto Union cars were transported by train from the company’s devastated factories in Zwickau and Chemnitz, Lower Saxony, in what was to become Communist East Germany.

They were delivered to the Soviet Union’s NAMI motor industry research institute in Moscow, where early in 1946 a working group of engineers was established to investigate these dazzlingly high-tech German designs. Four Auto Unions – one with wheel-enveloping streamlined bodywork – were dismantled and effectively destroyed during the NAMI group’s inspection and analysis.

Two sister cars were delivered to Moscow’s ZIS production car factory for parallel examination and research. One, a V16-cylinder, was subsequently scrapped. The other – which was a hill-climb car comprising a 16-cylinder-type chassis powered by the later V12 engine – escaped destruction, eventually passing into a museum in Riga, Latvia, and subsequently to Audi.

Four other Auto Unions – three 1938-39 V12 Grand Prix cars, plus one streamliner – went to the GAS factory in Gorky (now renamed Nizhniy Novgorod) where some components were cannibalized for use in GAS, Moskvich and ZIL-based competition cars. When one staffer required a trailer, a stripped Grand Prix chassis frame was cut in half to suit . . . !

Generally, the Soviet technicians were unable to run the cars, with the exception of one V12 ‘D-Type’ at Gorky, whose tanks were found to contain the correct sophisticated German fuel mix. This car was started successfully and tested at high speed, only for driver Leonid Sokolov to find his path obstructed by encroaching roadside crowds. He lost control under braking, and crashed into them, killing as many as 18.

Around 1950, two surviving open-wheel GP Auto Unions and one 16-cylinder streamliner were assigned to engineer Vladimir Nikitin in Kharkov, Ukraine. He cannibalized the streamliner to build his ‘Kharkov’ racing car, powered by a 4-cylinder Podeba street engine. A fellow Ukrainian engineer, Eduard Lorent, also benefited from Auto Union study in building his small- capacity ‘Kharkov L1’ and ‘L2’ racing cars.

One complete open-wheeler chassis, the trailer-frame and their major mechanical components survived surplus to Nikitin and Lorent’s requirements, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian-born American Paul Karassik – a Florida-based antique car enthusiast – spent much time in Russia hunting down the truth of the Auto Union legend. Karassik accumulated an incredible treasure-trove of pre-war Grand Prix car components, including Auto Union serial ‘19’s complete, unspoiled chassis and the late-model V12-cylinder engine which powers it today. Mr Karassik entrusted restoration of this car to the renowned British ‘Silver Arrow’ specialists, Crosthwaite & Gardiner in Buxted, England, and they rebuilt it in as-original two-stage supercharged form.

Seventy years later, Auto Union ‘D-Type’ chassis ‘19’ will star in the Bonhams & Butterfields sale at Quail Lodge in California on August 14, when it is expected to realize in excess of $8-million.

There’s more at the link.

That’s a pretty amazing story! To have survived in pieces, neglected and abandoned, for so long, only to be rediscovered by an enthusiast seventy years later . . . I imagine the restoration must have been quite a big job. The chassis and engine were available, but all the bodywork, suspension parts and the like would have had to be either obtained elsewhere, or fabricated by hand. I know Crosthwaite & Gardiner specialize in that sort of thing, and probably have the largest collection of genuine Auto Union parts in the world to help them, but even so, it’s no wonder it took years to accomplish.

I hope whoever buys it will allow it to join the other three surviving Auto Union cars on the road now and again. Here’s a video of the other three at Zwickau, Germany, a few years ago. Note the incredible sound of their engines, something duplicated by no other motor, either at the time or since.

It’s nice to see such a rare example of automotive history in public.


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