Posted by: Jerry Garrett | August 7, 2012

Why Isn’t Your Audi Called a Horch?

Horch automobiles are among the auto world’s most collectible. This 1938 Horch 853A could fetch $8 million at an RM Auctions event Aug. 17.

Why isn’t your Audi called a Horch instead?

Perhaps it could have been, if history had gone just a bit differently.

August Horch (pronounced Hork-uh) was a young German engineer who, after working for Karl Benz for three years, started his own automotive business in 1899. In 1901, he produced the first automobile of his own. It was called the Horch, somewhat understandably. The company grew steadily and attained a reputation for high-qualty, durable and fast automobiles; in 1906 a Horch won the equivalent of the world driving championship. But trouble was brewing with investors and stockholders Horch had brought in, to help him get the company off the ground.

August Horch (Audi.com)

After a dispute, in 1909, he left, or was squeezed out of, his own company. And, in a legal settlement with his former business partners, Horch was prevented from using his own name for any other auto venture.

In these regards, Horch’s career arc was similar to that of another automotive pioneer, Ransom E. Olds, who started Oldsmobile. Just as Olds was forced out of the company he founded and prevented using his own name for another automotive brand, Horch found a way in 1910 to form another eponymously named automobile company. While Olds started REO (using his own initials), Horch named his new company Audi.

Horch (actually the verb Horchen) means something the equivalent of “to listen” in German; in Latin the word for “listen” is Audi.

Horch stayed at the helm of Audi for a decade, but at age 52, he retired from its board of management in 1920. Eight years later, Jorgen Skafte Rasmussen, a Danish businessman who had just acquired the American Rickenbacker automobile brand and the German steam car maker, DKW(Dampfkraftwagen), also bought Audi.

Original Horch logo

By 1932, thanks to the economic vagaries of the Great Depression, there was another odd convergence in the industry as several money-losing German auto companies merged, in an effort to stay alive. Wanderer, another small German marque, and the original Horch company merged with the Audi and DKW brands; the result was called the Auto Union. Its logo, emblematic of the merging of the four companies, became four interlocking rings.

And, in a final irony, August Horch was asked to return and become a member of the company’s supervisory board.

Newer Horch logo

Although the company produced vehicles badged as the “Auto Union”, automobiles with the Horch name – its logo was a capital “H” with the letters HORCH atop it, like jewels in a crown – were also produced. These vehicles – few in number and marketed only to a very exclusive clientele – were meant to compete against the gorgeous Mercedes-Benz 540K and similar cars.

World War II interrupted the whole enterprise.

Auto Union, which was making some of the most amazing racing cars of all times, was pressed into service as a supplier to the German military. The company paid a terrible price for being on the losing side. The company’s remnants after WWII made a variety of small motorcycles and economy cars under the DKW badge.

Auto Union: Horch, DKW, Wanderer, Audi

What ever happened to Horch? Horch, the man, became a university professor after the war, and lived until 1951. The main Horch factory in Zwickau ended up in East German hands, and a small Horch-badged automobile was produced there, 1955-1958; after that, the Horch brand was discontinued, and the factory began producing the infamous Trabant.

Mercedes-Benz actually acquired what was left of Auto Union in 1958, but then, in turn, dumped the parts it didn’t want on Volkswagen in 1964.

VW tried to stamp out any remnants of Auto Union, but a few employees of the old company remained, and they refused to let the beloved marquee die. Secretly, they developed a new car. To make a long story shorter, that car found its way to market in 1968 as the Audi 100.

So, that is how Audi was reborn.

But why revive the Audi name, and not the more storied Horch? The East Germans still claimed the rights to the Horch name, even though they’d snuffed out the brand a decade earlier. But that claim became moot when the Berlin Wall fell, and Germany was reunited in 1992.

So there, that’s why your Audi doesn’t wear a Horch logo. But  maybe, in its soul, it really is a Horch.

[Postscript: Did the reunification of Germany, all that meant to the country’s auto industry, stir the hopes of the company’s traditionalists – yes, they still exist! – for a Horch revival? I wonder – because during a recent tour of an Audi museum in Ingolstadt, I noticed on a desk in an administrator’s office a very detailed scale model car shaped very much like the vehicle that, in 2003, became the re-born Bentley Continental. (Volkswagen acquired Bentley in 1998.) “Before the Continental was born, it’s shape was born; and there were some discussions about what else that vehicle could have been,” said a museum employee, looking at the elegant model. That was all he would say. But he did call my attention to the model’s prominent “H” logo, topped with letters forming a tiara-like H-O-R-C-H. So, maybe we haven’t heard the last of this story.]

Jerry Garrett

August 7, 2012

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Responses

  1. […] Wat als terzijde té aardig is om niet te vertellen, is dat de August Horch van dat merk na ruzie met de financiers het bedrijf verliet en Audi begon, Latijn voor zijn naam (imperatief van hören). Voor […]

  2. No amazement in the story concerning the wonders of communism. East Germany managed to take the production capability of one of the finest cars then manufactured and by applying the wonders of socialism turn out just about the worst car in history, the Trabant. Will the left never learn?

  3. Hi Jerry, I’m a photographer who recently did a photo shoot of an extremely rare 1928 Horch Right Hand Drive which was commissioned for a German owner who lived here in Ireland. The current owner has restored it from the ground up in astonishing detail and care and it has taken him 10 years but it is ready to be sold. I’m putting together a .pdf catalogue or sales brochure detailing the restoration, the history of the car itself and I wanted to include a little of the background of Horch itself and formation of Audi etc.
    I’m writing to you because I found just what I needed in the above article and would like to use some of it in the brochure.
    I know it’s cheeky but it’d be saving me lots of time and I’m really a better photographer than I am a copywriter, so I was hoping you’d allow me to use some of your atricle? I must stress that this will not be widely published, it will simply be emailed (or in one or two cases, printed and posted) to prospective buyers of the car.
    I’ve linked a gallery of my photos on my contact details. Please let me know as soon as you can as I’m under a bit of pressure to get this finished. Many thanks,
    Steve Wilson.


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