Classic Cars

Defunct Euro Carmakers: Horch

The brand might have died off after WWII, but it was one of the most important automakers in Germany in its day.

Horch is a company which never actually went under. It was simply absorbed by bigger companies until it became irrelevant. But the history of Horch ties together most of the biggest names in German automotive history, quite an accomplishment for a company with such a relatively short history. And even from the beginning, Horch was a company which understood that technology would be what drove the German luxury car market.

The history of Horch begins with August Horch, a brilliant engineer who had worked as production manager for Karl Benz, the man who essentially invented the gasoline automobile. But Horch wanted more, and with business partner Salli Herz started the company which bore his name in 1899 in Cologne, Germany. Innovation was key to Horch, unsurprising for a man who had worked with Benz. In 1901, his very first car used a two-cylinder engine with an alloy crankcase and a drive shaft (rather than a chain), both rare and technologically advanced features at the time. The first four-cylinder engine came in 1902, and a six-cylinder engine was developed in 1904 and introduced in 1907.

The problem was that Horch always had more interest in developing new technology than he did in actually selling cars, and by the time his company was 10 years old, it was in deep financial trouble. New investors were brought in, and in 1909, the board of directors forced Horch out of his own company. But this wouldn’t stop him as he decided to simply start a new company and keep right on making cars. He was barred from using the Horch brand, even though it was his own name, because the old company still owned the rights to it. So a solution was thought up by an investor’s son, who was studying Latin at the time.

The name Horch, which is German for "listen" was simply translated into Latin, and thus Horch became Audi (the word "audi" is also the root of the English word "audio", although the pronunciation is different). But even without August Horch, his original company went right on innovating. An eight-cylinder engine was developed, as well as a V12, and by the Thirties, Horch was one of the top names in luxury cars in Europe. In 1932, Horch would join with DKW, Wanderer and its rival of sorts, Audi, to form Auto Union. Auto Union is still justly famous for its Silver Arrow race cars, designed in part by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.

Each of the Auto Union brands occupied a different pricing tier, with Horch on the top. But even though Horch was the luxury brand, its cars became smaller and less expensive than they had been when it was an independent company. The V12 engine was even killed off in 1934, with all subsequent models being powered by eight-cylinder engines. The cars were still impressive machines, and models like the 853A Sport Cabriolet now go at auction for a small fortune and is one of the most sought -after of pre-war German cars. Unfortunately WWII would shut down civilian automotive production in Germany in 1940, and that of course included Horch as well.

While every German brand had some difficulty in starting back up after the war, Auto Union had a particularly difficult time. Its factory was bombed during the war, and when the Iron Curtain fell, what was left of the facilities were on the East German side. This was taken over by Trabant, the makers of particularly horrible Communist-era cars, and Auto Union was left with nothing. The company was finally able to get started back up in 1949, but revived only the DKW brand. A later sale to Volkswagen in 1964 would allow the parent company to revive Audi, which now wears the four-ring logo of Auto Union.

Though one of those rings had once represented Horch, the brand has been dead since 1940. VW could revive the brand, but it already has Bentley, and Maybach already proved that reviving dead German brands to compete with Rolls-Royce doesn’t work. It is a shame, given the company’s rich history, but it is the truth.

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