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Unparallelled Discovery - The last Horch

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The last Horch ever made has turned up again in the USA after half a century. The surprise is that it was built in West, not East, Germany.

'Well,’ confesses Al Wilson after a pause, ‘it was left outdoors for too long.’ He slowly leafs through a pile of photos. They are from the Audi factory archives; Ralf Hornung has brought them to Texas from Ingolstadt. Together they look at this big car. The sun has scorched its black paintwork, making it split and peel and fall off like scabs. Pristine chrome still shines in stark contrast, adding definition to the shape.
The two men read the letters that Al has collected in a folder. Many of them are in German and they are about 40 years old; a postmark on one envelope advertises the Leipzig Spring Fair 1969. In the ’60s Al Wilson, now 78, tried hard to find out more about his scrapyard find. Now he is told by Ralf Hornung: ‘It was the last Horch to be built.’    

Here, in the middle of Texas in 2008, lots of fragments of information are coming together. When over half-a-century has passed, memories will inevitably have been lost and blurred, so it is lucky that one eye-witness has also been in touch.  

‘We were so proud then,’ says Erwin Appel, now 81 years old. In August 1949 he started work as a skilled worker at the newly reformed Auto Union in Ingolstadt. The man who worked on the bodywork remembers his job in the spring of 1953 very well. The contract that had just been received by the new bodywork research department was so exciting: to build a vehicle for Dr Bruhn, who had been the managing director of Auto Union GmbH since its formation in 1949.  

Richard Bruhn was the driving force behind the 1932 amalgamation in which Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer came together under a new emblem made of four interlinked rings. Now that the war had been lost and Germany divided, Bruhn pressed ahead with the new start-up of Auto Union in the American sector – its home was originally in the eastern state of Saxony. He had the development of the DKW brand in mind: it was the cheapest product portfolio of the four brands, ideal for starting from Ground Zero in difficult times. There was just one small drawback: a DKW special edition would not be particularly suitable as a chauffeur-driven saloon for a director.

In 1953 that was set to change. The management of Auto Union decided to provide their boss, who frequently had to commute between the car plant at Düsseldorf and Ingolstadt, with a suitable car. Why not a Horch? They did own the trademark rights after all, and the numerous former Horch workers who had fled from Zwickau to Ingolstadt had plenty of expertise. The people who had once built noble limousines were demoralized by the two-stroke stigma of the small DKW. Now they could dream of a new Horch, which would prove that nobody should write off Auto Union at the top of the market.  Nevertheless, a healthy amount of pragmatism was needed in 1953 for such a project. There was no budget for the kind of technical innovation that an advanced engine, for example, would have required. The construction of a modern unitary body was not up for discussion either. The research department had to use what they were given: a Horch 830BL from late pre-war production. Its impressive Pullman bodywork had been damaged in an accident, but that didn’t matter. ‘It took 12 men to lift it up,’ remembers Erwin Appel.

The new build progressed quickly. Modelmakers had already constructed patterns of the wings and other parts, and Appel and his colleagues worked all of the sheet metal parts by hand. Much of the brightwork was taken straight from the pre-war model, while other parts were made specially – the radiator grilles, for example, and the housings for the rear lights.

‘We worked for four or five months,’ he says. ‘Nothing was contracted out.’ The men put all they could into this Horch; it was to be a totally convincing car.

The designers in Ingolstadt took as their inspiration the Mercedes 300, the fastest and most powerful production vehicle in Germany when it entered the market in 1951. It went down in history as the first German Chancellor’s car and has been nicknamed the ‘Adenauer’ ever since. There were even defamatory – and false – stories later that the builders of the DKW body had simply adapted Adenauer wings for their majestic new Horch.  

The new Horch emerged as a mixture of elements of DKW styles; a large model, which could have marked the return of the brand at the top of the range. Could have. Preferably with eight cylinders, two more than Mercedes and BMW offered at the time. However, it was a vain hope. Richard Bruhn may well have enjoyed his new chauffeur-driven car, which was presented to him for his 67th birthday on June 25, 1954. He sat on the back seat on fine brown corduroy fabric, could crank up a window to separate him from the chauffeur and make calls on the radio-telephone. But even on the long journeys between Ingolstadt and Düsseldorf he appears not to have wanted to think about reviving the Horch brand. The risk was too great.

At some point Richard Bruhn gave the car back. A problem with the front axle was the final straw – the technology below the ’50s bodywork was pre-war, after all. The car was to go to a planned company museum, but this fell through due to a lack of money. DKW had more pressing needs at the end of the ’50s, because the demand for two-stroke vehicles was drying up. Bruhn’s Horch was sold, and the trail of this unique car went cold until author Werner Oswald dedicated a page in his Horch book to the car in 1980. ‘It landed up in America, like so many valuable German cars at the time, where someone photographed the wreck in a scrapyard in the late ’60s.’

What was left were personal memories like those of Erwin Appel, and the numerous photos that had survived in the Audi archives. ‘The construction of the car is extraordinarily well documented,’ says Ralf Hornung, who is responsible for the purchase and restoration of collectors’ cars at Audi Tradition. 

Nobody thought that this unique car would ever resurface. Until, that is, Ralf Hornung received a surprise from Texas in the post. The photos clearly showed the car from Oswald’s book – Bruhn’s Horch. Hornung flew immediately to San Angelo in Texas, a town so remote that it’s not even near an interstate.

Al Wilson, who had been known as a collector of elderly cars since he was a young man, had received a call in 1967 telling him that a strange car lay stranded in a scrapyard. The caller read out the name on the radiator, and Al heard something like ‘Porsche’. But that big? And four doors? Curiosity triumphed. Al paid 500 dollars and towed the unknown vehicle home. He started to research the history of his car with enthusiasm at the end of the ’60s. He wrote to Germany, to Audi, to the Deutsche Museum, to marque experts. Yes, there were replies, but hardly any information. He even made enquiries in the GDR. Auto Union authority Peter Kirchberg replied – but couldn’t help. The chassis was clearly identifiable as a 1939-built 830BL. But the bodywork? There were no more than vague suppositions.    

Al tackled the tangible. He put new bearings into the engine, overhauled the cylinder head and rebuilt the carburetor. The gearbox was more of a challenge. Al had to have a gear built up by welding and filing the teeth individually. Then he drove his Horch until it came to a halt again after just 20 miles – the repairs had not held. Al pushed the Horch aside, and turned his attention to his business and his family. The years passed by.  

That was until Ralf Hornung arrived from Ingolstadt. He looks through cacti at dozens of classic US cars, which have been sitting here for decades as they wait their chance of a second life. Then Al opens the door to his tin hangar and the man from Audi sees Bruhn’s Horch in the metal for the first time.  

They talk for a long time, the Texan and the Audi historian. The car must go back to Ingolstadt, that much is decided. ‘That bond is much stronger than the one I have with it,’ says Al. The name of the man who bought Bruhn’s Horch from Auto Union also turns up in Al’s collection of documents. He was a US soldier stationed in Germany who took the car back with him, and then lost interest in it – presumably because of its defective gearbox.

He died a few years ago. But the soldier’s children can still remember journeys in this strange car from Germany. ‘We will look for pictures,’ the astonished son promises on the telephone.

Al shakes his head: ‘I always knew that there was something special about this car,’ he reflects. ‘I just never thought that I would find out its history after all this time.’


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