Porsche’s Long Lost 16-Cylinder Supercar From The 1930s - SUV VEHICLE

Porsche’s Long Lost 16-Cylinder Supercar From The 1930s


Summary

  • The Auto Union P52, a car designed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1932, could have been the world’s first supercar, representing innovation and ambition in the automotive industry.
  • The P52 was designed to optimize the placement of heavy components and maintain consistent driving characteristics throughout a race, with a layout that still defines modern race cars today.
  • Despite never reaching production, the P52’s legacy lives on through the team that designed it, as they went on to create the iconic Porsche 356, and its mid-engine layout continues to influence Porsche designs, such as the legendary 911 even today.


The pages of history are filled with drawings of cars that will never be made, and the Auto Union P52 is one of these cars. Although Auto Union went on to become Audi, the P52 was an obscure gem from the mind of Ferdinand Porsche, Audi’s stablemate under the Volkswagen Auto Group. In 1932, he designed the Type 52 for Auto Union, a vehicle that, had it seen the light of day, could have been the world’s first supercar. This is the tale of innovation, ambition, and what could have been. The story of a pioneering concept car that inadvertently set the template for fast cars decades after its creation.

It is common knowledge that Ferdinand Porsche was the founder of one of the most recognized automotive brands. But at that time, Porsche’s establishment was more of a design and engineering office than a car manufacturer. Known as “Hochleistungs Motor”, which means “high-performance engines” when translated, Dr. Porsche and his team designed the P52 using all of their experiences in racing so far, with help from his co-founder, Adolf Rosenberger, an ex-race car driver.

Updated January 7, 2024: The Porsche Taycan and Audi e-Tron GT isn’t the first time the two German brands have collaborated. And the story of their first joint effort has to be one of the most fascinating, yet lesser-known tales in automotive history. For this reason, we have updated this article to give more color to this transfixing piece of automotive engineering.

We have gathered information from trusted sources like the Audi Media Center to tell the story of the revolutionary, Porsche-designed Auto Union Type 52.

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Grand Prix Heritage: The Porsche Connection

Silver Auto Union Type C and D
Audi

In 1932, shortly after the introduction of the new Grand Prix racing regulations that required 1,654 pounds minimum dry weight, Porsche embarked on an ambitious project to design a Grand Prix race car, a concept similar to today’s Formula One.

The main principle of this project was its revolutionary packaging. It focused on optimizing the placement of heavy components set as close as possible to the car’s center of gravity while ensuring the fuel tank resided precisely in the car’s middle. This innovative approach aimed to maintain consistent driving characteristics throughout a race as the car burned fuel.

The packaging itself is thought to be influenced by Rosenberger, who previously raced in the Benz “Tropfenwagen” which came in 1923. It had a similar central-mounted engine, with the driver’s seat located just ahead of its engine, and was known to have had quite an impact on the racer.

The Porsche-designed Grand Prix cars became known as the Auto Union Types A, B, and C and were successful during the early days of the new Grand Prix regulations under the hands of racing drivers like Tazio Nuvolari and Hans Stuck bringing twenty-five victories between 1935 and 1937.

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The Beginnings: Racer To Road Car

Silver Auto Union Type-C
Audi

The Auto Union race cars’ layout included cooling in the front, followed by the driver’s seat, fuel tank, engine, and differential gearbox, a configuration that still defines modern race cars today. Only the radiators were later integrated into side pods. Porsche, who had previously worked on supercharged engines while he was at Mercedes-Benz and held a patent for torsion bars, incorporated these features into the Auto Union race cars.

At the core of the race car was a supercharged V-16 engine that displaced 4.4 liters, and produced 295 horsepower. It was solidified in early 1933, with a full year remaining until the new regulations took effect. Yet, Dr. Porsche and Chief Engineer Karl Rabe had more ambitious plans. Secretly, they began working on transforming this race car concept into a road car, which would later be known as the Auto Union P52.

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Innovation Takes Shape: The Birth Of The P52

It was drawn by Dr. Erwin Komenda, who was also responsible for the streamlined futuristic bodies of the Auto Union racers, and later on penned the Porsche 356. The P52 retained the race car’s fundamental design, including a double-tube frame chassis, a crank axle in the front, and a swing axle at the rear. The drivetrain remained largely unchanged, still with a 4.4-liter supercharged V-16 engine producing 200 horsepower. Although detuned from the race car’s 295 horsepower, 200 was still unheard of in the period for a road car. A time when the popular Ford Model A only made 24-horsepower.

The P52 road car also maintained the unique center seating position for the driver and general layout, but is now, flanked by two passenger seats slightly behind to ensure no shoulder contact. This forward-thinking packaging concept predated the 1966 Ferrari 365 P Berlinetta Speciale “Tre Posti” which was a three-seater concept car by the Italian carmaker. It was the car that inspired a certain Mr. Gordon Murray when he designed the iconic Mclaren F1 90s hypercar with a similar seating layout.

Breaking Boundaries

Interestingly, two versions of the P52 were envisioned: a coupé and a limousine. The limousine boasted a slightly longer wheelbase to make room for two additional back seats, and two rear doors, accommodating five passengers comfortably.

However, the limousine concept remained unrealized until its drawings were discovered in the 1990s. By 1934, the concept was officially given the project name “Typ 52” and was configured with equal-width wheels on all four corners compared to the staggered widths of the race cars. With this, it also gained external wheel hubs on either side to hold spare wheels and free up space for luggage in the rear.

The P52 was designed to have a curb weight of around 3,860 pounds, producing 200 horsepower at 3,650-RPM, and could theoretically achieve an impressive 0-to-62 MPH acceleration in just 8.5 seconds and was believed to be capable of a 125 MPH top speed. These figures were nothing short of remarkable, even by modern benchmarks, and were unparalleled in 1934.

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A Class Apart: The P52 Against Its Contemporaries

Black Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic
Johannes Maximilian via Wikimedia Commons

To put the P52 limousine into perspective, it’s essential to compare it to the cars that would be its rivals from the mid-1930s, the Mercedes-Benz 540K and Bugatti Type 57SC. Both were considered to be revolutionary in their own right, yet demonstrated the vast advancements that Auto Union would introduce to the world had they produced the aborted P52.

The Mercedes 540K was a true behemoth, weighing close to 6,000 pounds, while the proposed weight of the sporty Auto Union was a much more manageable 3,858 pounds. Even the limousine version of the P52 would have been considered lightweight compared to the Mercedes.

The engine propelling the 540K was a 5.4-liter straight-eight engine, which managed a rather modest 115 horsepower in normal mode and a relatively unremarkable 180 horsepower when the supercharger was engaged. With more power from its 16-cylinder engine and significantly lighter weight, the Mercedes 540K would simply have been no match for the Auto Union P52.

Another potential rival of the P52 would have been the Bugatti Type 57SC, which was a touring car with the same engine as the Type 59 Grand Prix car. In terms of performance, the Auto Union P52 and the Bugatti Type 57SC represented two contrasting yet equally impressive approaches. The P52, with its supercharged V-16 engine, offered remarkable power and acceleration for its time, setting new standards in speed and agility.

In contrast, the Bugatti Type 57SC, while not as potent in terms of horsepower, exuded a more refined and luxurious driving experience, focusing on delivering a smooth and elegant ride rather than sheer brute force. Both cars showcased excellence in their own right, catering to different preferences in the realm of automotive performance.

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Clarity Of Purpose

A group shot of several Porsche 911 Turbo generations
Porsche

When compared to its contemporaries, we reveal its extraordinary potential. The P52 offered a performance level beyond its competitors’ reach, setting it apart in the automotive landscape of its time. The body designed by Komenda tightly packaged its mechanical parts, and it could be said that the P52 was shaped by the engineering that its futuristic streamlined body hid underneath. Sadly, the Auto Union P52 never reached production, leaving us to ponder the road not taken.

However, the legacy of the P52 lives on through the team that designed it. This team would later create the iconic Porsche 356, marking the beginning of Porsche’s illustrious history in sports car manufacturing. The packaging concept pioneered by the P52 continues to influence Porsche’s designs, including the legendary 911.

Many have described these iconic Porsches to be shaped by the engineering behind them, just as the P52 was, and is what makes Porsche sports cars as highly revered as they are today. Although some have said the 911’s rear-engine layout is flawed, it’s undeniable that the P52 and Porsche sports cars share the same packaging concept, where engineering and mechanicals take precedence.

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Concept Inspires Concept: The Audi Rosemeyer

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The closest we came to a modern P52 was in 2000 when Audi showcased the Rosemeyer concept car. The Rosemeyer concept car was designed with a striking resemblance to the P52 but sadly, this concept was also never intended to go into production.

Audi made the car as a tribute to the legendary Grand Prix driver Bernd Rosemeyer, who drove the Auto Union Silver Arrow Grand Prix cars with much success and whom Dr. Ferdinand Porsche treated as his son. Regrettably, his illustrious career met a premature conclusion on January 28, 1938, during Auto Union’s audacious attempt to break speed records with their supercharged V-16 creations.

At that time, Mercedes held the coveted record, with driver Rudolf Caracciola achieving a remarkable speed of 268 MPH. For this ambitious endeavor, Auto Union chose the Type D 1938 race car, which was an evolution of their first three racers. Now boasting a smaller V-12 based on their formidable V-16 engine, the Type D delivered over 500 horsepower and equipped it with a cutting-edge, purpose-built aerodynamic body tailored explicitly for this momentous challenge.

Bernd Rosemeyer successfully reached a staggering speed of approximately 270 MPH, shattering the existing record. However, tragedy struck as his car was suddenly engulfed by treacherous crosswinds, propelling it into the air. Given the car’s remarkably lightweight, around 1000 kilograms (2,204 pounds), and its breakneck velocity, he found himself utterly powerless to regain control, resulting in a devastating crash along the roadside. The crash was a harrowing and fatal event, claiming the life of Rosemeyer instantly. He was a mere 29 years old at the time.

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Stillborn Legend: The Legacy Of The Auto Union P52

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The Auto Union P52, though consigned to the pages of history as a car that never was, remains a testament to the boundless creativity and engineering genius of Ferdinand Porsche and his team. In an era when the automotive world was still taking its first steps towards the modern supercar, Porsche dared to dream of a vehicle that would redefine performance and design.

A definition that still stands as the recipe for the greatest and fastest cars of today. The P52’s story is one of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, yet it serves as a timeless reminder of the innovative spirit that has driven the automotive industry forward.

While the P52 never graced the open road, its legacy endures through the team that brought it to life. This very team would later embark on a journey that birthed the iconic Porsche 356 and legendary 911 and marked the beginning of the Porsche name forever being associated with sports car manufacturing. Moreover, the P52’s pioneering mid-engine layout laid the groundwork for future innovations in the world of automobiles, influencing designs that would culminate in the legendary Porsche Carrera GT 918 supercars, and countless other high-performance vehicles.

Its spirit lives on as a beacon of innovation, an inspiration to dreamers and engineers alike. It prompts us to reflect on the road not taken and the tantalizing possibilities that could have unfolded. In doing so, the P52 remains a forgotten gem, forever etched in the annals of automotive history—a reminder of what might have been, and a testament to the enduring quest for automotive excellence.



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