What are the defining characteristics of the modern mini-van? Front wheel drive? Transverse engine? Front wheels set forward of the passenger cabin? A one-box design with a short and sloping aerodynamic hood? A flat floor throughout, and flexible seating and transport accommodations? And which one was the first? Renault Espace or Dodge Caravan? How about the DKW Schnellaster (Rapid Transporter)? It had them all, in 1949. Time to give it a little overdue recognition.
In light of the endless arguments about the origins of the modern minivan, the truth is it’s essentially impossible to say who truly came first. But in terms of the qualities that define the modern space-maximizing van, especially with the engine, transmission and front wheels set ahead of the passenger compartment, the DKW makes a very compelling run for the title. If there’s any better challengers for the title, please step forward now.
It shouldn’t be surprising that DKW would pioneer this remarkably space-efficient design, since DKW can rightfully also be called the pioneer of mass-production FWD cars, period. Beginning in the late twenties, DKW developed a series of highly successful cars, using transverse-mounted two-stroke engines. They were some of the best selling cars in Germany during the thirties, and DKW continued building later three-cylinder two-strokes into the mid sixties until Auto-Union was sold to Mercedes, and a modern four stroke engine was substituted in the seminal Audi 90.
In 1949, DKW put its compact two-cylinder drive train to good use in the roomy Schnellaster series, which also comprised panel vans, Kombi, pickups, and other specialized bodies. The Schnellaster preceded the VW Bulli Transporter into production, albeit briefly. Obviously, the two competed for the same turf, as did their automobiles. Needless to say, the VW outsold the DKW, and eventually Auto Union exited the commercial market, especially since it wouldn’t have fit with Mercedes’ own portfolio of similar vehicles, which included the FWD Hanomag.
The two-stroke’s heyday was the thirties, and even though it survived into the early sixties, its limitations were becoming increasingly obvious in the fifties. That, among other reasons, probably best explains why the VW Bus came to dominate this market, despite the intrusion of its rear engine into the passneger compartment, making a flat load space impossible.
One thing is clear: the Schnellaster was obviously named with tongue firmly planted in DKW’s cheek. The first series had a 700cc two cylinder that produced 20 hp, had a three speed transmission, and a top speed of 70 kmh! That’s 43 mph; not exactly schnell by any stretch of the word. But then the VW Bus started out with 25 hp, so it’s not like it was exactly a rocket in comparison.
Later models enjoyed a steady increase in power (30 hp), and in 1955 the 3=6 version feature the 900cc three-cylinder 32 hp engine from the respective DKW/Auto Union cars, whose slogan indicated that three two-stroke cylinders had the same power pulses ans smoothness as a four-stroke six cylinder engine. Eventually, the original design was replaced by the more typical engine-between seats Donau and its later evolution, the boxier Imosa, as seen in this ad from Spain, which also shows the older van as still available.
The DKW’s FWD layout made an ideal platform for campers, too. Even an American company made an this early RV, the Flintridge Caravan, but it challenges the mind to imagine what its 22 – 33 hp could do, especially on on mountainous terrain. Definitely “a new concept” in patience. But then I have a vivid memories of riding in a fully loaded (nine adults and a few kids) 30hp VW Bus through the Alps to Switzerland. The magic of low gearing and spectacular scenery made it doable and bearable. But the wide open roads of the US might be a bit more challenging.
This is the German RV version, by Westfalia. With a little VW three-pot TDI swapped in, this would be awesome, and probably get 30-35 mpg. I want! Schnelllaster lovers, head to schnellaster.de. (Pictures courtesy of that site)
So what made me think of the little Schnellaster this rainy morning? Well, this is what started my train of thought. And then I remembered the wurst-wagen! There was a DKW Schnellaster that was always parked on the main street in Innsbruck that the proprietor sold the best hot dogs out of its side window. I loved that van as much or more than the hot crunchy würstel. Sometimes I would hear him coming or going; I still associate the sound and smell of a two-stroke with hot dogs. And its distinctive shape, and roomy body thanks to its one-box FWD layout left a lasting impression on me. Perhaps Fergus Pollock took a trip to Innsbruck in his youth too.