David Wilkins traces the history of the car that led to 'Vorsprung durch Technik'

Every few years, one of the big car manufacturers decides to exhume an old brand from its past in the hope of adding a bit of lustre to tired existing models, or to give itself a new start.

Every few years, one of the big car manufacturers decides to exhume an old brand from its past in the hope of adding a bit of lustre to tired existing models, or to give itself a new start.

These initiatives generally invite contempt rather than admiration - just think of those European Chryslers that briefly became Talbots after the Peugeot takeover. At the top end of the scale, Mercedes' reborn Maybach is regarded sceptically, and Volkswagen is pouring money into the second Bugatti revival in the space of a few years.

So why do manufacturers persist with this transparent and apparently discredited tactic? The surprising answer is that sometimes it actually works. Think of the enviable market position Audi occupies today; it is a posh brand fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Mercedes and BMW, yet more modern and classless than either of them. But it is often forgotten that Audi too is a reinvented brand that has come from nowhere in just a few decades.

In 1949, Auto Union, originally formed in 1932 as a combination of Horch, Audi, DKW and Wanderer, was reconstituted in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt; its pre-war production facilities had been located in what was now East Germany. In the Fifties, the company relied on cars such as the F 91 Sonderklasse, which despite its modern appearance had actually been designed before the war for a planned introduction in 1940. Different models were sold with either DKW or Auto Union badges but all were fitted with two-stroke engines with capacities of less than one litre.

In 1958, Daimler-Benz bought 87.8 per cent of Auto Union. It was later to sell the company to Volkswagen in two stages in 1965 and 1966 but Daimler-Benz's short period of ownership was decisive. Development effort was stepped up, bearing fruit with the introduction of the new DKW F102 in March 1964.

The F102's styling was bang up-to-date and the car incorporated a number of advanced technical features such as inboard front disc brakes. But the F 102 was a new car that was initially available only with an old-fashioned engine - a three cylinder two-stroke unit, this time with a capacity of 1.2 litres. Sales suffered as a result. But Auto Union's departing owners, Daimler-Benz, had also funded the development of a new 1.7 litre four-stroke engine that would do a much more convincing job of shifting the F102 down the Autobahn; it had a notably high compression ratio (11.2 to 1) and displayed a distinctly sporty character. At the same time as this engine was introduced in September 1965, the frontal styling was updated, with the existing round headlamps being replaced by rectangular units.

Internally, the modified car was known as the F103, but clearly, a way had to be found to communicate the fact that the F102 had seen some fundamental improvements. The obvious way to do that was with a new name; Audi, last used in 1939, was chosen.

At first, there was some confusion; the car was initially known simply as 'Audi', although as variants on the original 72 horsepower version were introduced, they were labelled Audi 60, Audi 80 and Audi 75, depending on power output. The top model was named Audi Super 90.

Gradually, Audi became established as the company's brand, rather than as a model name, and all doubt was removed with the introduction of the new Audi 100 in 1969, which as its name suggested had a 100bhp engine - its styling was similar to that of the F 102, but stretched in length, so the effect was sleeker and sportier.

The F102 was quietly dropped in 1966, and its Audi derivative continued until 1972.

A blizzard of Audi innovations followed; five cylinder engines in 1976, Quattro four-wheel drive in 1980 and aerodynamic bodywork on the third generation 100 of 1982.

Aluminium bodies came later. 'Vorsprung durch Technik' indeed. Combined with the company's quest to build a better dashboard these advances propelled the brand to the exalted position it enjoys today.

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