The DKW German Steam-Powered Automobile

Greg Zyla
Q: This past week, you answered a question about the first front wheel drive automobile which you said was a DKW. Well, I owned a 1958 yellow station wagon DKW (which, by the way are my initials) and loved that car.

Throughout the early 1960s, we were able to go miles in neutral. The really fun part was asking for gas and watching the expression on the tender's face - "you do what!"

After many happy hours and miles it was time to say goodbye; we had quite a time getting a new car dealer to take us seriously when we tried to trade it in. My nephew, Phil, also owned a DKW while in the Army in Germany. My nephew's DKW had the original bill of sale in the glove compartment, and he made his into a dune buggy and was the fastest car on the beach!

When my wonderful little car was nearing its' end, I had parked in a grocery store parking lot with three hungry children and a large Lab pup. It wouldn't start. A very polite man asked if he could help (I was much younger then); I thanked him and said no. I then took out a hammer and hit the faulty part making the engine start immediately. Ah the fun we had in that car. Keep up the good columns. Dorothy K. Winkler, Pennsylvania.

A: Thanks for the great letter, Dorothy. For our readers’ info, the DKW was a German built car from 1928 through 1966. The word means "Dampf-Kraft-Wagen," or, translated into English the "steam powered vehicle."

The DKW Company started in 1916 when engineer Jorgen Skafte Rasmussen opened a steam fittings factory in Saxony, Germany. That same year, he failed in his attempt to build a steam-powered car called the DKW. Although unsuccessful, he did design and produce a two-stroke toy engine in 1919, called Des Knaben Wunsch — "a boy's desire".

Rasmussen then built a modified version of his new two-stroke engine into a motorcycle and called it Das Kleine Wunder — "a little marvel". This was the real beginning of the DKW transportation brand, and by the 1930s DKW was the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer.

From 1931 through 1942, they were the number one builder of front wheel drive cars, and the first to do so in volume. In 1932, DKW merged with Audi, Horch and Wanderer to form the Auto Union group. Auto Union came under Mercedes-Benz (Daimler-Benz) ownership in 1957, which then sold to Volkswagen in 1964. The last German built DKW car was the F102 model, which ceased production in 1966.

Next week, we’ll hear from Dorothy’s nephew, Phil, on his two-stroke (mix oil with gas) DKW, that he successfully converted into an off road mover! Stay tuned.

Thanks for your letter Dorothy and nice words!
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