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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The fast and the Führer: Own Hitler's car for £5.5m

In Adolf Hitler’s estimation, the Auto Union D-type was up there with the Blitzkrieg – lightning fast in the 1939 season. Now you can own it but – schnell! – at £5.5 million you’ll be facing stiff Russian opposition...

By Simon Lewis

Auto Union D-type racer

The Auto Union D-type racer is one of the rarest vintage cars in the world - and one of Hitler's favourites

Expected to fetch at least £5.5million at auction in August, this Auto Union D-type racer is one of the rarest vintage cars in the world – and one of Hitler’s favourites.

Driven by the Führer’s friend Hans Stuck in the 1939 Grand Prix racing season, it is one of only three D-types known to exist – and was lost behind the Iron Curtain for 50 years.

Hitler was obsessed with motor racing as proof of German technological superiority and the Silver Arrows – as the Mercedes and Auto Union teams were known – utterly dominated the sport in the Thirties. Stuck, originally a hill-climb champion and friend of Hitler’s chauffeur, impressed the Nazi leader when they met on a hunt in the mid-Twenties and was protected throughout his career by the acquaintance.

When the Red Army overran Berlin at the end of the war, all Silver Arrows cars were immediately shipped back to the NAMI motor research institute in Moscow to be reverse-engineered: a brutal process that destroyed almost all of them, one being chopped in half to serve as a trailer for an apparatchik’s car.

Nobody knew this chassis – number 19 – had survived, until American car enthusiast Paul Karassik tracked it down, adding an original engine from a separate D-type carcass and handing it over to British Silver Arrow specialists Crosthwaite and Gardiner to restore to its original form.

For more details about the D-type auction, visit

Cockpit of the Auto Union D-type


Wider and shorter than modern race cars because, in the Thirties, drivers still sat upright. The broad steering wheel has to be removed to get in, and the only instruments are a huge rev counter and gauges for the temperature and pressure of the oil and water. A chunky five-speed gear lever is by the driver’s right knee, with a long rod linkage to the rear-mounted gearbox. There is no seat belt or crash protection of any sort.

Engine in the Auto Union D-type


Three-litre 485hp V12 with two valves per cylinder, a Roots-type supercharger and two Solex racing carburettors. The D-type uses magneto ignition, these days used only on lawnmowers and chainsaws. Audi’s modern equivalent 12-cylinder uses electronic ignition and fuel injection, and has twice the capacity – but still only produces 450bhp to the D-type’s 485. Weighing less than a ton, this was one of the most powerful cars seen until the era of turbocharged Formula 1 – 40 years later. Torque is so great that the driver can easily spin the rear tyres at 100mph. Top speed is over 200mph.

Adolf Hitler receiving winner Rudolf Caracciola and second place driver Manfred Von Brauchitsch in the German Grand Prix at Bayreuth

Adolf Hitler receiving winner Rudolf Caracciola and second place driver Manfred Von Brauchitsch in the German Grand Prix at Bayreuth, also Josef Goebbels (back to camera)

German driver Hans Stuck

Hitler's favourite driver was Hans Stuck


Hitler took a personal interest in motorsport and the dominance of the Silver Arrows in the Thirties served as good PR material for his Nazi party. He’s pictured above with Rudolf Caracciola after the Mercedes-Benz team leader won the 1939 German Grand Prix, but his favourite driver was Hans Stuck. Indeed, when Auto Union offered Stuck’s place on the team to someone else, the SS somehow persuaded them to change their mind...


The D-type’s ‘Toblerone’ shape is due to the fuel tanks lying down each side, which gives a lower centre of gravity – previously, racing cars had the tank behind the driver’s head. Starting the D-type is quite an operation: the spark plugs are removed and a remote starter-motor is plugged in to build up oil pressure, then the plugs are refitted and the carburettors primed with four-star petrol – but once up and running, twin aircraft pumps feed
the engine from the main tanks with high-performance methanol-benzole. It is very loud.

Auto Union D-type


Continental racing tyres, much taller and narrower than modern tyres. No power steering.


All aluminium on a steel chassis, designed by Auto Union engineers – whereas their A-, B- and C-types had been designed by Porsche Engineering.


The front axle has Porsche Engineering’s torsion bar suspension, later found in the VW Beetle. The DeDion
rear suspension was the D-type’s chief competitive advantage, guaranteeing much better road-holding than the opposition’s swing-axle rear suspension.


Wide drum brakes with air-cooling fins (modern cars use disc brakes).


Auto Union brought together four struggling car manufacturers during the Great Depression, the four rings of the badge representing Horch, Audi, DKW and Wanderer. It became ‘Audi NSU Auto Union’ in 1969 before reverting to simply Audi in 1985.