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Audi 100: Celebrating fifty years of Ingolstadt’s first postwar flagship

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Images are courtesy of Audi Tradition, print ad courtesy Production

With the hurt that Audi is putting on Mercedes-Benz sales in today’s luxury car market, one has to wonder if any Mercedes-Benz executives with long memories don’t rue setting their future competitor on the road to success. It was 60 years ago — 1958 — when Daimler-Benz took over Auto Union; the marriage of the two German firms would be a short one, but would lead to the creation of Audi as we know it today, and the 1968 introduction of its first flagship sedan — the 100.

Audiwerke AG was founded in 1909 by August Horch, and was rolled into the Auto Union corporation in 1932, eventually going dormant in the 1940s and 1950s. The Audi namplate would be dusted off in 1965, when it was applied to a DKW-developed front-wheel-drive, two-door sedan that was powered by a new four-stroke, four-cylinder engine, instead of the three-cylinder, two-stroke that DKW was long known for.

That four-stroke engine — a 1.7-liter, mitteldruckmotor (medium pressure/compression engine: its 11.5:1 compression ratio was between that of typical gasoline and diesel engines) four-cylinder originally drafted to power a military project — was a development of Daimler-Benz, and it was brought to Auto Union by technical director Dr. Ludwig Kraus, who’d been transferred from leading Daimler’s passenger car pre-development department. Volkswagen had purchased half of Auto Union from Daimler-Benz in 1964, and, by 1966, owned all of the Ingolstadt automaker.

Volkswagen CEO Heinrich Nordhoff wanted this company for its production capacity, in the years when its Type 1 Sedan was selling at record-setting rates. While the DKW F 102-derived Audi sedan (soon called the 72, and derivatives like the 60, 80, and Super 90) entered production, Wolfsburg executives famously instructed Kraus not to develop a new, non DKW-based Audi — a directive he covertly disobeyed.

This “upper-midsize” model would be Audi’s first C-platform car — the direct ancestor of today’s C8-platform A6 — and it would be dubbed the 100.

As explained in the excellent Four Rings: The Audi Story,

Disregarding the directives from Wolfsburg and with Volkswagen’s management kept in the dark, work began in secret on this upper-midsize model. [VW board member overseeing Auto Union, Rudolf] Leiding’s first inkling of the project was when he saw a clay model in the Ingolstadt styling department. He was delighted with it, but Nordhoff’s agreement was essential. This was obtained by a tactical masterstroke. Leiding arranged for Wolfsburg to issue a development order under the heading of ‘Body modifications,’ and suggested that the Group’s Board of Management might care to inspect the results. The car pleased the Board members — Nordhoff in particular — so much that they decided to build it as a Volkswagen model. This called for another round of diplomatic negotiation before the Group managers could be dissuaded. In the end, the Ingolstadt team’s missionary work bore fruit, and development of the Audi 100 went ahead as the Type 104 project.”

The 100’s shape would be developed by chief designer Rupert Neuner and a small group of stylists, including Jupp Dienst (exterior), Erich Angerhöfer (interior), Helga Wetzel (colors and trim), and Hartmut Warkuss, the latter soon to be the head of design for Audi, and, in the 1990s, of the entire Volkswagen group. This car’s lines reflected a similar school of thought as did Mercedes-Benz’s concurrent W108-chassis sedans and, to an extent, BMW’s competing E3-chassis sedan, the Audi appeared lighter, more athletic and lithe, with slender pillars, an airy greenhouse, and bright metal detailing that could be called delicate- perhaps more Italianate than Germanic. And, establishing a trend for this advanced technology-focused marque, Audi’s new sedan would prove quite aerodynamically efficient, its coefficient of drag measuring 0.369.

The 100 made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in the fall of 1968, in two-door and four-door sedan body styles. A unique fastback variant riding on a shortened wheelbase, dubbed the 100 Coupé S (above) would be shown the following year, and join the sedans in showrooms in 1970, the year that the two- and four-door Audi 100 LS and 100 GL (accompanied by the Super 90, but sadly, not the Warkuss-penned Coupé S) was introduced to the American market. Another sporty 100 debuting at the 1969 Frankfurt show was a prototype 100 LS Cabriolet, created by longtime Volkswagen collaborator Karmann of Osnabrück out of a two-door sedan; although it was attractive, this four-seat convertible would prove a one-off, and remains in the Audi Tradition collection today.

This mechanical package of the front-wheel-drive 100 family was built around the Daimler-derived five main-bearing four-cylinder, which displaced 1,760 cc (; with a Solex carburetor and 10.2:1 compression ratio, it made 115 hp and 119 lb-ft of torque in U.S.-spec. A two-barrel-carbureted 1,872-cc ( version, with 8.2 compression, came in 1972, bringing 91 hp and 111 lb-ft of torque; adding Bosch CIS fuel injection resulted in 95 hp and 104 lb-ft of torque for 1975. A layout common to Audis into the 1980s, this car mounted its engine longitudinally, forward of the front axle, with the radiator offset to the right. A four-speed manual was standard, with a three-speed automatic optional, and wishbone-coil spring front/torsion crank-coil spring rear suspensions. Front disc brakes would be mounted inboard until the 1976 model year, by which time the car had received a subtle, more angular facelift and larger impact bumpers.

Over here, Volkswagen marketed this star of its “new” brand as a car with heritage older than Ford’s Model T, and in a bid to create familiarity, compared it to many better-established makes.

Leiding had forecasted Audi might sell 300,000 of these C1 100s, when indeed, nearly 800,000 (796,790 according to company records) were built through the end of production in August, 1976. The 100 would sell fairly well in the U.S., with Audi’s total U.S. imports starting below 10,000 units in 1970, but increasing to more than 50,000 in 1974-’75, ending up a bit under 36,000 in 1977, the last model year for the C1-platform 100 LS.

If you’ll be in Ingolstadt this spring, Audi’s museum mobile is celebrating this golden anniversary of the 100 with a special exhibit, “From 0 to 100.” Running through June 24, it will contain 15 special variants that illustrate the C1’s lasting legacy of the postwar Audi’s first premium product.