1938-39 Auto Union Type D Race Cars
Two race cars reunited. A simple enough event. And yet the fact that either car still exists at all really is a triumph of bravery and dogged determination, involving – implausibly – smuggling, bribes, heavy drinking and the KGB. Some of you will have heard some of the story before, but this is the first time the two cars – of 11 Type Ds built – have been seen together in nearly a decade, and this year’s Goodwood Revival will see both on track for the first time since 1994.
These are magical machines. Born of a desire to demonstrate German superiority, the Auto Unions’ mere existence threw competitor teams into disarray because, simply, they were so much more powerful than any racing car previously seen. In the last variant, the twin-stage supercharged Type D, power output was a phenomenal 450bhp and a streamlined version recorded 380km/h on a banked concrete track. Along with the similarly advanced Mercedes-Benz, they were known as the Silver Arrows.
None of the Auto Unions was conventionally beautiful, but under the studio lights the silver paintwork of the two Type Ds here shimmeringly accentuates their curves, from their blunt noses to the long, graceful flows of their tails. The presence of the two multi-million-pound cars in the studio on the outskirts of Ingolstadt (home town of Audi) is a closely guarded secret, and I’ve had to promise complete confidentiality.
The first, with the red number four on its nose, is a 1938 Type D, owned by Audi since 1998. The second is the 1939 twin-stage-supercharged Type D that returned briefly into the limelight in February 2007 when Christie’s offered it for sale at its Retromobile auction, only to withdraw it when it became clear that the car’s history had been wrongly reported by the auction house. Not long after that the Christie’s motor car department was disbanded, and the Type D quietly disappeared, to be looked after for owner Abba Kogan by historic race car specialist Hall & Hall.
Back then, Audi wasn’t in a position to buy the 1939 Type D, having only recently seen through the recreation of the very same car. But more recently, with Audi sales flying high, the company started to negotiate to buy the original Type D. It’s not letting on how much was paid, but the kerfuffle over the history shouldn’t have affected its value, which was placed at £6 million-plus even in 2007.
‘Now we have the replica to demonstrate on the track,’ says Audi Tradition’s Peter Kober, ‘and we can keep the original in the museum.’
These are deeply important cars for Audi. From the beginning of the new Grand Prix rules that, from 1 January 1934, allowed unlimited engine capacity but a maximum weight of 750kg (which the governing body thought would limit the ever-rising speeds in Grand Prix racing), to the final Grand Prix of 1939, the Auto Unions won 20 of the 63 (plus many other races and hillclimbs).
And then, of course, came war. While the Mercedes were stashed away safely in Stuttgart, the Auto Unions were hidden in a coal mine building close to the factory in Zwickau, in the far east of Germany. As the war ended, the victorious troops marched through Germany and, eventually, the Russian Red Army arrived in Zwickau. No-one knows for certain but it’s thought that there were around eight to ten fully assembled Auto Unions in storage when the troops arrived, though there could have been as many as 13 if parts and stripped-down cars are included. It wasn’t long before they were all gone, dragged (according to eyewitness reports) by army trucks to packed trains bound for Russia.
So that was that. The Iron Curtain came down and who was going to be worrying about redundant racing cars anyway, in the aftermath of the war? The Auto Unions were lost.
Years later, though, word filtered out that the cars, or at least parts of them, still existed. In Riga, a few enthusiasts had applied to the state to form a car club – it wasn’t easy to convince the authorities that this early Iron Curtain car club wasn’t a political movement. Its formation made national news, and caught the eye of a professor in the Moscow Zil factory, who contacted the club to inform them of a racing car that was about to be scrapped. It turned out to be the Auto Union Type C/D hillclimb car, and it was rescued and exhibited in the Riga motor museum. It’s now owned by Audi, who commissioned a recreation to fill the space in the museum.
But the cars here are different again, both Type Ds, and they owe their existence to Paul and Barbara Karassik. Paul’s parents were Russian emigres – his father had been an officer of the Imperial Russian Army – who had fled to Yugoslavia, until wartime when they moved into forced labour in Munich. In 1946 Paul was able to emigrate to the USA to join an uncle and aunt and become a US citizen.
At around the same time Barbara emigrated from her home region of Lower Saxony to live with an aunt in the USA. In time Paul and Barbara met and married; take a look at their photograph here. Could they look more normal? And yet their persistence and bravery is why we’re admiring the two Auto Unions here.
As a 12-year-old, Paul Karassik had been inspired by Tazio Nuvolari’s victory in the Auto Union Type D at the 1939 Grand Prix of Belgrade – the last ever Grand Prix before the outbreak of war. Some say that Paul simply saw the front page of the 4 September 1939 issue of the daily paper; its lead story was the Grand Prix (a smaller story reported that Britain and France had declared war on Germany). However, Paul told Audi Tradition historian Thomas Erdmann that he was actually at the race.
Years later in the USA, Paul’s language and Cyrillic script skills enabled him to build a business supplying gravestones to the local emigrant community, later expanding into real estate dealing. The Karassiks started collecting cars, some as exotic as a Pebble Beach-winning Mercedes-Benz 540K, from around the world.
During the 1970s, Paul and Barbara’s car-chasing took them to Eastern Europe. In Bulgaria they discovered a rare Mercedes-Benz and DKW; customs documentation was looking difficult until an official casually mentioned that his car was in need of new tyres. One set of tires later and the documentation was approved. Welcome to the Eastern Bloc.
In Poland, in around 1972 or ’73, the Karassiks met car club member Tadeuse Tabzensky, who told them of the existence of an Auto Union race car in Russia. This set the couple on the trail of the lost Auto Unions, which was to dominate their next two decades; Paul dreamt of returning an Auto Union to the Belgrade circuit.
Paul was determined to go hunting in Russia for the Auto Unions but he was worried that his White Russian background would attract unwanted attention from the Russian authorities – and quite possibly the KGB. But this had become a family affair, and daughter Elaine – who would stand out less than her father – volunteered to travel into Russia to judge the political climate. She met up with an old friend of Paul’s, Oleg Tolstoy, the great-grandson of War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy.
It wasn’t until 1982 that Paul undertook his first visit into Russia on an Intourist package tour – an escorted visit organised by the state tourist agency. However, he managed to evade his guide to meet up with Oleg and his friend Vladimir Savich, who took him to a meeting of the Moscow Veteran Car Club and the Riga car club that had helped rescue the Auto Union hillclimb car – Paul was even shown the car in Riga, against Intourist travel restrictions.
Buoyed by the positive reactions he’d received from Russian enthusiasts, Paul (and often Barbara) continued to visit Russia, sometimes loaded with electronic goods to use as bribes, chasing down leads on the Auto Unions. Most came to nothing.
To the day of his death, Paul never revealed all his sources within Russia, and Barbara continues to remain tight-lipped about their adventures. The couple had planned to write a book but never found the time, though Paul did speak to Doug Nye in 1993 for an article that was published in Classic & Sportscar magazine.
‘I would speak in broad generalities and meet several times with the same people before they began to trust me,’ he explained to Doug. ‘Many were suspicious of my accent until I explained that in America we have very good schools!’ Doug says that many of the Russians that Paul questioned suspected him of being a KGB agent.
Paul told a similar tale to Audi’s Thomas Erdmann. ‘Nobody else would have been able to do such a thing at that time in Russia,’ he says. ‘Paul knew how to address people, and he was willing to pay a lot. But he told me that his informants were very reluctant, worried they would be caught. Once they had to flush money down the toilet to hide it from the KGB. He often told me, “You cannot believe how much alcohol I had to consume to get near to these parts!” It would take several rounds of vodka just to talk about the weather; another to mention cars; many more still before he could ask about the Auto Unions. Paul actually made himself ill but he never gave up.’
Finally, in Vilnius, Lithuania, around 1984 or ’85, Paul was told of a ‘big, big engine, probably a big Horch’. He tracked it down to Petrodvorec near Leningrad, and was eventually shown photographs of what was clearly a V12 Auto Union Grand Prix engine and matching transaxle. There was talk of ‘half a body’, which never materialized, but there was half a chassis and a collection of other parts. Someone had chopped up the original Grand Prix chassis, welded a towbar on one end and turned it into a trailer, which is what Paul was shown. It was rough but it was genuine Auto Union. At last!
Negotiations followed. Paul and Barbara had to find a way to collect the parts; with son Sascha they bought a camper van in Austria, drove it to Helsinki loaded with an old Peugeot engine, crossed into Russia (with correct paperwork for the Peugeot unit) and drove to just outside Petrodvorec, where they hired an Intourist minibus and driver who drove them into town, where they collected the parts and took them back to the camper van. The two vehicles were backed together, and the parts loaded across a plank from one to the other. Then it was back to the border, nervously taking the historic Grand Prix parts through the border on the Peugeot paperwork. They were waved through after the usual checks.
‘We drove on in silence for the next few miles,’ Barbara told Doug Nye. ‘Then we looked round at each other… and we whooped and screamed and yelled. We had done it!’
This was the basis of the 1938 Type D here. But the best was yet to come, and it came via an odd coincidence, a result of the Karassiks’ generosity.
A Ukranian woman back in the USA had heard of the Karassiks’ visits to Eastern Europe, and told them how she’d been deported to Germany as slave labour during the war, and forced to leave her daughter behind. She had an address for her in the Ukraine but had never seen her, so she asked the Karassiks if they could make contact.
They did exactly that on their next trip, though they uncovered nothing on the car trail. The mother duly wrote to her daughter, and mentioned that the Karassiks had, so far unsuccessfully, been trying to track down an engineer thought to be called ‘Valery’ Nikitin, who had reportedly set a USSR land speed record of 175mph during the 1950s in a car built in Kharkov, Ukraine.
The daughter replied to the letter asking why the Karassiks hadn’t told her this, for surely they meant Konstantin Nikitin, who had worked in a nearby factory with her husband. Paul and Barbara were quick to visit him and found a man much-decorated for his technical achievements, but living so modestly that a sack of potatoes was ‘a prized possesion’. The couple gave him money, cigarettes and anything else to make his life easier; Nikitin told them that he’d dealt with two or three Auto Unions at Kharkov technical institute. He recalled how, in his absence, some of the team had overcome a lack of special tools needed to dismantle the Grand Prix engine by simply sawing it in half to view the internals.
Several visits later, Konstantin Nikitin felt confident enough in the Karassiks to lead them to a pile of parts in an old brickworks: an engine, gearbox, complete chassis, suspension parts, twin-stage supercharger, carburetors and the unsalvageable remains of the bodywork of a 1939 Auto Union Type D. An incredible find.
Protracted negotiations and legal wranglings followed. Each part had to be sold by the man ‘in charge’ of the remains to a Government surplus shop, which then sold the parts to the Karassiks for a profit, adding a stamped and counter-signed receipt for each part.
In Austria, the Karassiks bought a Mercedes minibus, which they hoped would accommodate the long chassis, and headed for the Ukrainian border loaded with cola, beer, sweets, chocolate, cigarettes and cosmetics.
The chassis fitted – just – and the rest of the parts were loaded up and driven to the Finnish border; a two-week drive on terrible roads, overcoming fuel shortages by flagging down (and bribing) tanker drivers and farmers, and jumping long fuel lines by handing out gifts. At the border the receipts got them through, and then the parts were shipped to the USA.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the Karassiks revealed their hoard, contacting historian Martin Schroder, Auto Union owner Nigel Corner, Dick Crosthwaite of renowned historic racing car engineers Crosthwaite & Gardiner, and Audi Tradition. The Karassiks had decided to restore both cars, and wanted Crosthwaite & Gardiner to undertake the work, assisted by Audi Tradition.
The decision was made to use as many original parts as possible in the 1939 Type D, the ultimate development of the Auto Union racers. That’s why we’ve concentrated on that car here, and if you look closely you’ll see such spine-tingling detail as the original, battered, wheel spinners. In fact, original parts in this Type D include engine, gearbox, chassis (number 19 it turns out), wheels, hubs and most of the axle and suspension parts. The ’38 car features original engine (with recreated cylinder heads), gearbox and some axle parts.
Both cars’ bodywork was recreated by Rod Jolley Coachbuilding, while missing parts were produced from Audi Tradition’s original drawings – at least where they existed – and surviving parts rebuilt and often re-engineered by Crosthwaite & Gardiner. Don’t let that simple sentence mislead you, for this was a task of incredible complexity: the V12’s roller-bearing crankshaft assembly, for example, broke down into no fewer than 1111 individual parts.
By the summer of 1993, the 1938 car was ready to be presented at Audi HQ in Ingolstadt; and a year later the two cars were emotionally demonstrated at the Nurburgring. Paul Karassik’s plan to return the cars to Belgrade was scuppered by war in Serbia, and the need for specialized technicians even to start up the V12 engines limited his enjoyment of them. Paul and Barbara had achieved the impossible, and by 1998 were happy to sell the ’38 car to Audi, with the ’39 car moving on to Abba Kogan in 2000. Now they’re back together at Audi, against all the odds.
Published Dec 7th, 2015