The early years
A Dane - Engineer J.S. Rasmussen (1878-1964) founded the company in 1906, initially producing parts for textile machinery. In 1917 his company - "Zschopauer Maschinenfabric", spurred by wartime petrol shortages, produced a "DampfKraftWagen" steam-engine car, or shortly - DKW.
In 1919 they produced for first time a two-stroke engine – “Das Kleine Wunder” – “The Little Marvel”, fitted to a bicycle.
By the end of 1921 the company, renamed “Motorenwerke Rasmussen”, built the first own complete vehicle. The company built his first motorcycle in 1922 and soon became powerful. In 1926 with the E 206 DKW put into operation on the assembly-belt.
The next innovation was made in 1929 – the production of press-steel-frames was reorganised which gave the company the opportunity for a production in much greater numbers – Now they were the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles making 100,000 units per year.
1932 - Fusion to Auto Union
In the times of the Great Depression of the 30’s DKW suffered a massive cease in the production and in 1932 on account of economical reasons they merged with the motorcars producers Audi, Wanderer and Horch to form Auto Union AG. Four brands represented in the company’s logo – the four well known rings worn by Audi motorcars that you see today. However, this badge was used only on Auto Union racing cars in that period while the member companies used also their own names and emblems.
With the licensing of several technical innovations in the beginning of 1930’s DKW started to produce motorcycles with improved cooling and decreased fuel consumption. From 1934 the economical upsurge remained constant and the company was able to introduce a number of newly developed models.
Although the NZ models were exported to a number of countries. Below a NZ 350 advertisement from Bulgaria (1939).
DKW in motorcycle racing
The company soon became prominent in racing – DKW’s effective designed and reliable machines won the European Championship four times before the beginning of World War II. During the 1930’s the DKW’s name needed no advertising, most of Germany’s greatest riders belonged to DKW’s international race team. A wonderful designed 250cc machine, participant in the 1938 TT races, rode by the famous for the time rider Ewald Kluge, achieved record-top-speed of 183.2 km/h. Ewald Kluge was the top DKW rider in these pre-war years, who won the European Championship in 1938 and 1939.
Racing experience gave DKW the lead in the two-stroke technology world-wide. The company produced two-stroke engines, fitted not only on motorcycles, but limousines, convertibles, roadsters and even pickups.
NZ 350 Das Motorrad der Kradmelder
Soon these untroubled times went to an end as World War II started. The production of the newly created NZ series was in small amounts and without market success.
The Wehrmacht did not express any interest in the two-stroke engines. But the Wehrmacht's reconnaissance division needed to adopt a reliable machine to be used for scout and messenger purposes thus the DKW NZ 350 came along. The machine was soon produced to the Wehrmacht with almost no alterations, comparing to the civil version and became known as “Das Motorrad der Kradmelder” the dispatch rider's motorcycle.
1943: The standard NZ 350 received its first major facelift. Redesigned were the mudgards, a cyclone airfilter and a smaller headlamp. Officially this model was named NZ 350/1943.
Although the NZ350 and NZ350/1943 was appropriate for service in Western Europe, the machine was inadequate at the Balkans and in Russia, where the roads were bad, as well as for cross-country use. The weight of 170 kg. and the small clearance of 12 cm (the distance between the land and the lowest point of the bike) made it inappropriate for this type of terrain.
At this time the Wehrmacht noted the possibilities of using one of the smaller models from the company, the DKW RT 125. With a weight of only 90 kg. this small motorcycle (123cc) was used to a great extent and considered the best machine for the dispatch riders. In 1943 the RT 125 was revised for military use.
1944: The turnover of Auto-Union reaches its peak at 740 million Reichsmark. In the early month of 1944 another facelift was made, when the NZ 350/1943 received an engine block that was made from cast iron and number of other modifications. This model was named the NZ 350-1. From autumn onwards, 500-800 Jewish women from the concentration camp Auschwitz, were used as forced labourers in the factory.
1945: On 19. March allied bombing spared the factory, but hit the DKW-housing estate were 23 people died. On 14. April the 500 Jewish women are “evacuated” in open railcars. Not many survived this transport. The Auto-Union board of directors in Chemnitz take refuge in Zwickau, which was captured by American troops. Soviet troops captured Zschopau on 08. Mai 1945.
By order of the SMAD (Soviet Military Administration in Germany) the dismantling of the entire DKW factory started on July 3. All equipment is crated and shipped to the Soviet Union. The blasting of the buildings can be prevented only through the intervention of the workers and the cities major.
Hermann Weber, the chief engineer of DKW, who was working for the company since 1922, and group of DKW engineers was "transferred" to Izhevsk to set up the dismantled equipment in the IZh motorcyle factory, which was founded in 1929. Weber died in Izhevsk on 24. September 1948.
1946: Under the IZh-350 trademark the production of the NZ350 continues nearly unchanged. The most obvious change was the use of aluminium instead of cast iron for the engine block. The IZh-350 was produced until 1951, with an overall amount of 127,090 bikes made. It was succeeded by the IZh-49 model which used the same engine as before, but was now fitted with telescopic suspension front and rear.
When Germany was divided between the east and west, Zschopau remained in the Eastern part and the production ceased. In 1950 they built the first motorcycle in the newly established “Industrieverwaltung Fahrzeugbau” IFA the modernised version of DKW RT 125. In 1956 IFA was renamed MZ “Motorradwerk Zschopau” with its own part in the two-stroke history began. After the reunification of Germany was established the new trademark “MuZ”.
Auto Union GmbH, Ingolstadt
In the western part of Germany after the war in Ingolstadt was established “Zentraldepot fur Auto Union-Ersatzteile GmbH”. In 1949 the first projects were introduced and production of a car and a motorcycle were the RT 125, but under the name 125W (W for west), The design was so good that when the design was handed over as a part of Germany’s war reparations other manufacturers around the world copied it freely, companies such as Harley Davidson’s 125, BSA’s Bantam and the first Yamaha’s.
End of line
Until the middle 1950’s there was a boom in motorcycle production and sells, but that soon came to an end. In 1955 they had made just about 48,000 DKW motorcycles. With the “Hummel” model DKW tried to enter the market of smallest bikes, they achieved success but the end was near for DKW.
From 1958 there was never started a profitable motorcycle production. DKW merged in the “Zweirad-Union” with Victoria and Express, but in 1966 Fichtel&Sachs (“Hercules”) bought the Union and the DKW logo is appearing sporadically on single products of Zweirad-Union and later of Sachs Gruppe. Then in the 1960’s the DKW name was famous with the two-stroke cars, made in South America.