Part 2 of an intriguing story
The Typ 650 or 'Sokol': Through the iron curtain
- Jeroen Bruintjes, assisted by Holger Merten
- March 24, 2003
- The early Auto-Unions - From P-Wagen to A-type, by Leif Snellman
- Auto Union - The history of the AU racing department, a triptych of essays on the Saxonian marque's racing exploits, by Holger Merten
- Part 1: The small workshop that created motor racing history (1931-1935)
- Part 2: The comeback years (1936-1939)
- Part 3: The scars of war (1939 and beyond)
- Auto Union Type E - The stillborn 1.5-litre car: why it (almost) did exist, by Jeroen Bruintjes
- Sokol 650 - Post-war Auto Union in disguise or a socialist F2 effort? Secrets of Tom Wheatcroft's "Type E" unveiled, by Jeroen Bruintjes/Holger Merten
Click here to go back to part 1
Can cars be lucky? If yes, then the two Sokols were. They escaped the fate of their pre-war ancestors, the Auto Unions, by pure coincidence. After being sent back to Chemnitz, both cars were still in the hands of their developers when Stalin died on March 5th 1953. And his was the death of many things in the Soviet-Union. New party leader Nikita Chruchev wasn’t very fond of Stalin’s ‘accomplishments’ and started a vigourous destalinization campaign. Vasiliy Stalin (here seen in the front) must have used some strong Russian words when he heard of this, since it meant the end of a luxurious, trouble-free life. Things turned out for the worst. He was arrested and his imprisonment ended all hopes to a succesful Russian racing team. Later, Vasiliy was exiled and died a poor man in 1962. And as for the two Sokols: few people in the Soviet Union remembered them, if any at all.
There are quite a few period sources that give tantalising views into the GDR motor racing scene. Take a 1954 issue of East-German magazine Illustrierter Motorsport, for example. It published a picture taken at the EMW factories earlier that year. This picture shows the 1953 EMW Monoposto next to one of the Sokols, of which only the rear end can be seen. Obviously a Sokol had been handed over to the EMW/AWE-Rennkollektiv, but it remains guesswork as to what end. First thoughts are that the Sokols were used as design studies. After all, the torsion bar and the De Dion rear axle layout are remarkably similar to the later EMW cars. It is here that the difference to pre-war Auto Unions is striking. The torsion bar is mounted to the chassis by an A-bracket on both the Sokols and the EMW/AWEs. For comparison: note the radius arms on the Auto Union Typ D. Perhaps the experience with the Sokol’s roadholding generated valuable insights in this design and served as an inspiration for the further development of this configuration in the Monoposto.
Also, rumour has it that at least one car was stripped to supply parts for the EMW/AWE cars. Really? Seems unlikely, since they both appear in the movie Rivalen am Steuer ('Rivals behind the wheel'). The movie came out of the East-German state studios DEFA and was filmed in 1956 or 1957, around the time the government pulled the plug on the Rennkollektiv. It was first shown on April 26th, 1957, so both cars must have been in driving order until at least 1956. By the way, Audi historian Peter Kirchberg is convinced that both cars remained in Eisenach until the end of all racing activities, e.g. 1957.
Mike Lawrence’s Grand Prix Cars 1945-65 gives some input too. He claims that Paul Thiel (EMW driver since 1953) drove the Sokol on the unused autobahn near Eisenach. This highway crossed the border between east and west three times, leaving a piece of four-lane tarmac cut off in the Eastern occupation zone. It was several miles long, with steep hills and sharp curves and is now part of the A4. Anyway, getting back to Thiel: "The seating position was so restricted that the steering wheel touched my chest; and in sharp corners the back wheels liked to go first!" It seems plausible that the AWE-EMW Rennkollektiv thought about entering it in the 2-litre class and wanted to test its performance before doing so. Then there’s Lawrence’s statement that Thiel’s car was a Sokol fitted with BMW 328 engine. We could not find anything to back this up: EMW used its own monoposto chassis to test different engines. The same goes for his line “It was decided not to persevere and both cars were scrapped”: we know this is wrong, since the surviving Donington car was the thing that started this series in the first place...
In fact, a former AWE engineer and PR manager recently confirmed the fact that one Sokol made it back to Eisenach. According to him, it was tested a number of times, but never managed to convince the racing team. The car was very tailhappy to the point of becoming undriveable. Also, its engine was said to be prone to failure.
Why did the Sokol get in the hands of the Rennkollektiv? Well, the Eisenach factories and the Chemnitz R&D facilities were under Russian control until 1952, incorporated into the same SAG Awtowelo corporation and remained closely connected after that. So when the Sokols came back from Russia, the factory’s own racing department in Eisenach was the most logical place in the East-German motoring scene to look after them. And perhaps this had been the plan all along. Mind you, the very first design study of the Sokol is dated 1949. It’s a drawing with a BMW/EMW logo on it! Now, the Eisenacher Betriebssportgemeinschaft merged with the GDR state raceteam Rennkollektiv Johannistal in 1953 and became the EMW-Rennkollektiv. This left both cars in the Rennkollektiv’s hands. It only seems logical that they gave them a try. Still, the Sokols never saw a race. Thiel’s reported fishtailing might have had something to do with it and the V12 definitely suffered from lubrication problems. The Donington car made this clear when it confronted its restorers with severe wear marks and damage in its engine heads.
The interbellum: Schröder and Wegner
After 1958, there was no more Rennkollektiv. Such expensive endeavours were completely wasted on the East-German government. What happened to the Sokols in this period is largely unknown. Both cars remained in obscurity until one of the cars came to the collection of the British Donington Museum. Yet a brief, absolutely thrilling German finale precedes this UK epilogue.
It is the West-German magazine Automobil&Motorrad Chronik that publishes a story in 1976 on the Auto Union Typ E. Rumour amongst its editors has it that this car still exists in the GDR. Somewhere, someone across the border starts to realise what lies in his backyard - a man, later referred to as ‘Klaus Wegner’, which is a fake name given to him by the German press. Well then, one day, Mr. Wegner accidentally spots the remains of a mysterious monoposto at a Leipzig steel recycler. It is only minutes away from being melted. Quantity is everything in the GDR economy, so Wegner persuades the workers to melt his 1940s DKW instead of the 12-cylinder thing. Since the weight of both cars are more or less the same, bureaucracy has no problem with it and the DKW meets its blazing end. Wegner walkes home, returns with a Gaz jeep and tows the chassis to his backyard.
Now, Mr. Wegner wants to build a house and needs money. Money is useless in the GDR, unless it’s in western currency. He sends a postcard to a friend in the West, who hands it to Martin Schröder, publisher and collector of classic racecars. Schröder immediately smells something spectacular, but waits until October 1977, when the annual trade fair in Leipzig is held. It’s the only legitimate opportunity for West-German entrepeneurs to go snooping around in the GDR, and he meets Wegner there unobserved. Wegner takes him to his henhouse next to which he’s got the chassis stored. For almost an hour they chase the animals away. One can only imagine the sight of both gentlemen waving and shooing frantically over a tatty car covered with hens. Schröder is asthonished and immediately recognizes the AU style of the car. Both parties agree on a price of 80,000 Deutschmarks (320,000 Ostmarks in the official exchange rate of the time). They meet frequently on a bridge to exchange bags with notes of 50 Marks, in a true spy-like fashion. Wegner spends the money on tiles, bricks, central heating, you name it.
Schröder has his car, but it still sits behind the iron curtain, waiting patiently until both gentlemen find a way to smuggle it out of East-Germany. But they never do and they have got East-German government bureau Interport to thank for. The GDR official of this trading agency is a certain Mr. Gietl, his colleague and Western liaison is Helmut Niedermayr. Boastful types they are, ransacking the GDR and Czechoslovakia for valuable objects, driving around in big Mercedeses. They find out about Wegner’s car and visit him, asking for documents that prove he owns it. Of course he can’t! As his illegal transactions with a Western collector have to stay secret too, he can only observe the Sokol being impounded and taken away. Compensation is handed to him though. With the compliments of the people’s republic, Wegner receives the Soviet Union’s most prominent display of urban transportation: a brand-new Lada stationwagon.
As for Schröder: he loses both money and the car. But not his friendship. Shortly afterwards, Wegner offers him a genuine Auto Union V12. They smuggle it to the west in the back of a Renault. Schröder then offers it to Colin Crabbe, who needs it for the Typ D he restores.
Donington and No. 2
Do both cars still exist? Well, we do know of the Donington car, of course. After all, this was the car that started this investigation in the first place. You see, while Schröder was still weeping over the loss of his car, the Interport guys didn’t sit on their backs. Someone there must have known that British collector Tom Wheatcroft wanted an Auto Union real bad. One phone call later, the Sokol was sold to the UK. It arrived by boat (photo: The GP Library) only weeks later - the picture was taken by Doug Nye on its arrival at Tilbury Docks before he started on his investigation of the car and found a strong liking to pre-war Auto Union design practice. Rumour has it that Interport cashed several hundred thousand Marks for the ‘Auto Union’. Imagine Schröder’s disappointment when he learned of the sale through an article in Autoweek magazine.
Today, this very car sits in the Donington Museum and it is in excellent, driveable condition, probably even better than it was when new - as you can witness here with the consultant to the Wheatcroft Collection taking it out for a spin (photo: via The GP Library). Since the original bodywork was long gone, it has been given a new body, using magazine pictures as a source. The car had a badly damaged engine when it arrived in the UK, but the power plant has been rebuilt. Wheatcroft asked two former BRM mechanics to work on it and they did a superb job, bringing the car back to life. They had to renew many parts, including the flywheel, clutch, bearings. Also, they have chosen different pistons which made for better lubrication of the moving parts in the cylinder heads.
But if you’ve stayed with this story, there is still a nagging though left to answer. What happened to the second car? Does it still exist? It does. Sort of. Apparently, it was on display in the Dresden Technical University’s museum for years, when the GDR still existed. The museum still has it, but will deny this when asked. All that remains of this second car sits quietly in the depot and it’s in real bad shape. It might be no more than a pile of parts. Still, Audi has showed serious interest in buying it, but the museum is reluctant to let go of the car. And even if the factory does get its hands on it, it’s doubtful that this car will ever run again, because it is going to take a staggering amount of money to restore it.
What do we call it?
When we sat down to write this article, there was one question we wanted to have answered more than any other. Is this car a true Auto Union and if yes, is it all that remains from the Typ E project? We’ve touched the subject in part 1. The design owes very much to pre-war AU and it is not unlikely that parts from the scrapped Typ E project were used. How many parts is impossible to determine, since so little information is left on the E and no one seems to know just how much parts were made. But you only have to compare the chassis with existing Auto Unions to see the resemblance. Add to that the fact that the design came from the Chemnitz bureau that used to be Auto Union’s design office. Also, remember that its team largely consisted of former AU employees. With all this in mind, one might say it’s an Auto Union.
However, the rear axle is of a completely different design that owes much to BMW (EMW). The engine number on the V12 has a BMW-style arrangement. And the first drawing to come out of Chemnitz has a BMW logo on it. On top of that: the cars were built in Chemnitz, not in the former Rennabteilung at Zwickau. So you might as well claim it’s a BMW.
Further on, there’s the nickname Sokol, given by the Russians who ordered the cars to be built in the first place. And the factory itself talks about a Typ 650.
This isn’t getting us anywhere. Yet the arbitrary decision is handed to us by a famous counterpart called the Cisitalia 360. Like the cars from Chemnitz, the 360 was meant for post-war Formula racing. It too is based extensively on pre-war Auto Union designs, with Ferdinand Porsche’s son Ferry as chief designer and Robert Eberan von Eberhorst helping out in the project as a consultant. On top of that, it got its name from the factory that funded and constructed it. As did nearly all racing cars in history.
With this, we’ve finally come home. The Donington ‘Auto Union’, nicknamed Sokol, is officially an Awtowelo 650.
Click here to continue to part 3
- The Atlas F1 Nostalgia Forum
- Doug Nye, Classic & Sportscar, December 1985
- Motor Klassik magazine, April 1987
- Stefan Knittel: Auto Union Grand Prix Wagen, Schrader & Partner, München 1980
- Peter Kirchberg: Grand-Prix-Report Auto Union 1934-1939, VEB Verlag für Verkehrswesen, Berlin 1982
- Peter Vann: Neusilber, Motorbuch Verlag Stuttgart, 2001
- Bestand der Auto Union AG, Sächsisches Staatsarchiv Chemnitz
- The Yesterday forum