By on March 29, 2010

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 (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.

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39 Comments on “The Mother Of All Modern Minivans: 1949 DKW Schnellaster...”

  • avatar

    I was more one who headed for the schnitzel stand. Though a red wurst sounds good right now. There are a few other contendors for the title of mini-van progenitor, but I’d say the little DKW fits the bill the best because it is a complete package that was in production. Schnellaster is indeed an interesting apellation for this sort of vehicle, I wonder if there’s a story behind it.

  • avatar

    A good find indeed, but I’m not going argue with the French if they claim to have invented the mini-van in 1984.

    Three cheers for the DKW-Bus!

  • avatar

    Fascinating vehicle, with more charm than a VW bus for my money, but that gas tank up front is a little scary.

    Do 2 stroke automotive engines require mixing oil into the gas like mower engines, or is there some sort of automated feed/mix?

  • avatar

    Definetly the DKW wins!
    It was until 10 years later when Renault made another van, the Estafette 800, it was more VW bus like, but it has not exactly the “Must have” as to be considered a true modern mini van, it was front wheel drive, 840 or so cc, but the front axle was behind the driver seat, not in fron of like on the modern minivans or the DKW.
    That model was moderately succesful in Mexico because of its size and fuel economy.
    Best Regards.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    The mother or all modern minivans? How about the crazy eccentric grand-uncle?

    It is hard for me to take the Schnelllaster, or for example the original Fiat Multipla seriously, because they were automotive dead ends. They were odd, underdeveloped niche products for niche markets.

    The modern Minivan is a vehicle that drives like a car, but has space like a truck, and is thus suddenly desirable for millions of families. Neither the Schnelllaster, nor the VW Bus, nor the Multipla, nor the Transit, nor dozens of other vehicles fit this description, even if you wanted to be charitable.

    In contrast, the Espace did fit the modern minivan definition, just like the Chrysler minivans that followed.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed, However, where is the sliding door? No sliding door not a mini van.

    • 0 avatar

      The Estafette 800 had a version with a sliding door…
      I didn’t notice then!!!

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I didn’t say the Schnellaster WAS the first modern minivan, but that as the mother of them, it gave its basic design/layout DNA to the modern minvans.
      You’re saying that the (recent) VW bus is not a mini-van? How exactly is it not? It has fwd, handles like a car (reviews always praise it for its excellent handling), and in all its dimensions, it’s actually smaller than the Honda Odyssey, except for being a few inches taller: VW length: 193″; Odyssey: 202″   VW width: 75″; Odyssey: 77″;  VW wheelbase: 118.5″; Odyssey 118″.
      To my understanding, the VW Caravelle is perpetually a strong seller for large families in Germany and the like, who can afford it.  At what point in it’s evolution did the VW bus change from not being a mini van to being a minivan(by US standards)?
      The Schnelleister was hardly a niche product for a niche market: it competed head on in the biggest sector of the light commercial market, with the VW Bus/Transporter. And as I just showed above, the VW bus may not fit the European description of a minivan, but it’s actually smaller than the American ones.
      In terms of performance (“underdeveloped”) the 84hp of the original Caravan looks ridiculous compared to the almost 300 hp of the popular Honda and Toyota minivans, so obviously, one has to see that in the context of each car’s time.
      Ultimately, my point was to point out that certain basic design concepts that are taken for granted now, and are being claimed to be innovative in 1981, are not really new. If DKW had kept building and evolving the Schnellaster like VW did with their Bus, it would certainly have ended up in the same place as the VW is today, no? And then my argument would really be hard to refute, although I always welcome the efforts :)

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not sure that the sliding door is a requirement for “minivan” status. The Honda Odyssey, a self-professed minivan, did not have one. And there are plenty of so-called CUVs that are little more than minivans with conventional doors.

  • avatar

    It looks a lot more serviceable than my 98 Caravan. But I’m with ClutchCarGo – that gas tank in between the “cruncher” and the “crunchee” looks bad.

  • avatar

    I think some people are getting nit-picky. The Schnellaster definitely rocks!

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Thanks for your response Paul. Small misunderstandings though. I meant the original 1960s VW bus which some people say was the first minivan, but wasn’t according to how I’d define it. Likewise, it doesn’t matter who first had FWD, unibody construction, a flat floor: these things are of major interest to engineers, but not to those millions who bought the Espace and Chryslers and their heirs, and ignored the likes of the Schnellaster in droves.

    Sure one might say this is only of interest to the picky but I say it snot. VW et al ignored the potential of the Espace with the engineerese argument: “it’s nothing new, in fact it’s been around since the Schnellaster, and nobody wants one”. When you concentrate on the Schnelllaster, you ignore the significance of the true minivan, which started with the Espace.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I hear you; but don’t forget one important fact: it was the growing income level that made more expensive car off-shoots like minivans and SUVs affordable and marketable. If minivans had been affordable, builders would likely have made them; i.e.: more powerful and comfortable variants of their vans/cars. A 70km/h Schnellaster may have been the cat’s meow for the hot dog vendor, but a family wanting to travel to Italy and Spain that could afford a much faster car chose that instead. And then there was the image problem: in the fifties, even if these vans had been faster, I doubt they would have been acceptable due to their lack of prestige.
      The “new” minivans of the eighties were seen as something new and cool; look how their sales and “coolness” have drooped in favor of SUVs and CUVs, in Europe too. The Vanwelle is long over, no?

    • 0 avatar

      The first VW Type 2 vans and buses entered production in late 1949.

      In Germany the DKW-Bus and VW Bus shared the same stage during the 1950s.

      Most North Americans wouldn’t know about the DKW-Bus, because it wasn’t sold here. This is only the second time I’ve seen the DKW.

      The old 1950s VW Type 1 engine that folks in the US call a 36 hp engine actually only made 30 brake or net horsepower. So, the earliest VW Buses also had a top speed of 45 to 50 mph. You could go faster downhill, but the crankshafts were a bit wobbly above 4000 rpm and the Buses were geared low.

      To me it looks like both DKW and VW used what were essentially large motorcycle engines to propel these vans.

    • 0 avatar
      Mirko Reinhardt

      The “new” minivans of the eighties were seen as something new and cool; look how their sales and “coolness” have drooped in favor of SUVs and CUVs, in Europe too. The Vanwelle is long over, no?
      Some sales numbers from Germany: (Sales in February 2010, only had the Top 100 list, so I don’t have numbers on crappy sellers like RAV4, Cayenne, or the Dodge Journey, which is marketed as a “family van” by Dodge)
      VW Touran: 4451 (#7 in the list of best selling cars)
      VW T5: 2527 (#19)
      Renault Scenic: 1425 (#38)
      Opel Zafira: 1361 (#43)
      Opel Meriva: 1283 (#45)
      VW Caddy: 1141 (#46)
      Citroen Berlingo: 996 (#54)
      Ford C-Max: 868 (#58)
      Skoda Roomster: 770 (#62)
      Mercedes Viano: 665 (#68)
      VW Sharan: 587 (#73)
      Peugeot 5008: 568 (#76)
      Fiat Doblo: 512 (#80)
      Renault Kangoo: 511 (#82)
      Ford S-Max: 509 (#83)
      Peugeot 3008: 465 (#89)
      Toyota Verso: 431: (#95)
      Total: 19070

      VW Tiguan: 2205 (#23)
      BMW X1: 1543 (#35)
      Nissan Qashqai: 1386 (#40)
      Ford Kuga: 956 (#55)
      Skoda Yeti: 883 (#57)
      Mercedes GLK: 757 (#64)
      BMW X3: 754 (#65)
      Mitsubishi Outlander: 659 (#69)
      BMW X5: 556 (#77)
      Volvo XC60: 507 (#84)
      Mercedes ML: 433 (#94)
      Total: 10649

      So, to sum it um, I’m not seeing the CUV trend – I think people buy wagons instead.

  • avatar

    Isn’t it about the cutest thing that you ever did see? I’m sure that it would go over great with the VW Bug crowd.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Thank you for the history lesson , Paul. A perfect light commercial vehicle for the times.

  • avatar

    Back in the day we made several trips per year from Ohio to Tenn in our family station wagon.
    I remember seeing quite a few overloaded VW vans with families traveling in them. They would often have the roofrack loaded to the max, and full of passengers, barely crawling up those steep grades down south. That had to be torture on the driver and passengers. I wonder how many of them spilled their guts along the highway from being overstressed.

    • 0 avatar

      @moparman: Back in the 60’s there was a Corvair engine swap kit for the VW vans, but I was a wee little kid when those were being advertised. I’ve never seen an actual VW van with the Corvair swap. It would be interesting to see, tho…

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry I’m so late finding this thread. Had to ask Paul how to find it.

        I remember when a corvair in a vw bug was the hottest thing in my town of 25,000. Finally a corvette showed up that was faster.

        Nader should have unmentionable things done to him for killing that car.

    • 0 avatar

      @moparman: I just googled VW conversions, and I guess the hot ticket now are the Subaru boxer motors.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      geozinger: I knew a guy in CA with a Corvair engine in his ’69 bus, which was a much better way to go than the older ones, because of the much improved suspension. It ran very nicely; lots of torque. A bit tail heavy, but with wider wheels and heavier springs, it worked reasonably ok. He regularly drove up into the Sierras and was getting tired of the slowness.

    • 0 avatar

      I think the Vair-into-VW swap made sense in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when there were lots of Corvairs succumbing to rust in the Northeast that still had good engines. Today, by the time I acquired a solid VW bus, and a good Corvair engine, and did the swap, I might as well just buy a good Greenbrier, and have a better looking and driving package overall.

    • 0 avatar

      I have a 1978 VW Westy that I am completing a Corvair “implant”. You could bolt the Corvair the VW transaxle BUT the Corvair rotates in the opposite direction. You could swap in a special reverse rotation cam and distributor drive, flip the pistons (offset wrist pin), and so forth but it’s alot of trouble and expense. And the VW transaxle is geared pretty low for the flat six.

      Instead with some simple axle adapters you can swap in the whole Corvair transaxle, hook up the VW shifter and clutch and be ready to go much faster and easier. I did have to fab (cut, weld) a front tranny mount to bolt to the stock VW mount to keep it all rubber isolated.

      It takes the stock VW van from nearly 2 tons and 67 HP to something closer to 95-100 HP. Gas mileage is about the same and the engine lopes along compared to the smaller VW engines.

      I’m replacing a stock 2.0L VW Type IV engine with a stock 1965 Corvair 110HP engine with a 3.55 four speed manual gearbox (no 2 speed Powerglide for me thanks).

      The Corvair works but needs a little cleaning up b/c the GM castings were really poor. Bearing saddles that were not right, head fins that were sloppy and even closed off by aluminum flash or incomplete fins. Really sloppy compared to the VW castings. Fortunately the GM machinists corrected alot of problems during their work. I’m not altering the VW van in anyway. It is a bolt in alteration with custom motor mounts and adapters. I started with an NOS Clark’s Corvair Transvair kit and adapting it to my ideas (better brackets for example).

      I’ll be keeping all of the VW parts in case I dislike the conversion for some reason. Ultimately I intend to do a MegaSquirt and MegaJolt conversion.

      Plenty of Corvair parts new and used out there. You just need to get “plugged in” with the enthusiast network. I bought my ’65 from a four door sedan with about 67K miles on it. The car was parked for a long, long time. Inside of the engine looked good. Cost me about $150 for the engine, $100 for parts, $150 for the NOS Transvair kit, and I’ve done the rest for myself. The old opinion that the Transvair conversion was cheaper than rebuilding a VW engine properly still stands true for me at least.

  • avatar

    How cool is that?!?! Move over, Fiat 600 Multipla!

  • avatar

    So, if the standard Schnellaster had bad acceleration, and the camper Schnellaster had really bad acceleration, would that mean that the kitchen-equipped Schnellaster had the wurst acceleration?

  • avatar

    Has anyone else noticed that there are suicide doors up front?

  • avatar

    Despite the high quality of your informative text I have to say that each picture that accompanies this article is worth at least one thousand transverse mounted words. Way to go!

  • avatar

    Paul, you’ve done it again. Absolutely blown my mind with another treasure from your childhood over in the old country. Although the sentence about how two strokes would remind you of wursties made me laugh. When I smell two stroke, I think of… snowblower!

    One question: do either of the Flintridge or the Westfalia caravans actually move, or does the earth move underneath them? ;)

    Viel Späss!

  • avatar

    Goezinger, i can see it being an easy swap. Aren’t all sube engines horizontally opposed? Not a sube fan so I wouldn’t know. I know the older ones were tho.

  • avatar

    Great history lesson Paul. I never knew these existed. I love this site……..!

  • avatar

    Those posters who point out the less-than-ducky position of the fuel tank: just consider where it is in a VW Beetle.

  • avatar

    Well, at least in the beetle, the battery is under the back seat. Look where they placed the battery in the Schnellaster.

    • 0 avatar

      As for the gas tank location consider these vans in context. Most probably weren’t driven very quickly. People knew of the dangers. They shared the roads with tiny cars and some trucks. They didn’t share the road with modern vehicles with crumple zones and disconnected drivers fiddling with the radio or their cellphones.

      When I lived in Italy my aircooled Beetle was still one of the larger cars on the road and safer than some (think tiny Fiats and 2CVs) despite it’s gas tank being right up front behind the stout VW axle beam.

  • avatar

    Fascinating vehicle, with more charm than a VW bus for my money, but that gas tank up front is a little scary.

    gas tank up front, nothing can be more of a recipe for disaster, but back then cars were no designed to go at lightning speed.

    Do 2 stroke automotive engines require mixing oil into the gas like mower engines, or is there some sort of automated feed/mix?

    Auto fuel oil mix didnt came in until the Jap bikes during the 60’s.
    One bloke told me should the pump fail your engine will be toast.

    These 2 srokes are kind of fun except need to enjoy the fresh burning smell of oel.

    • 0 avatar

      As recently as the mid-90s in southern Italy you could buy 2 cycle fuel that was already mixed right out of the gas pump. There was a gas pump for leaded gasoline, one for diesel, one for unleaded gasoline and one for two cycle mix. I think I recall that the gas station fellow could adjust the gas/oil ratio right at the pump. The gas was leaded of course.

  • avatar
    Eric P.

    Hello all, I am in the midst of a full, proper and photo documented body off the frame restoration of a 1957 DKW Schnellaster “Kastenwagen” (Panel Van). I do all of my own work with the exception of body, paint and upholstery. That basically translates to all my own disassembling, research, parts location and re-assembly. I get my hands dirty and am not a check writer restorer… Lots of sweat equity involved. Upon completion of this project I will begin the full restoration of my 1955 DKW Schnellaster “Tieflader Metzgerwagen” (livestock transport pickup truck) which is the only one currently known to exist in North America. I also have a ’56 Flintridge Kombi Camper which I am going to use as a parts donor as the Camper was too far gone when I found it. Needless to say, but I will anyway… parts are difficult to source for these trucks now that it’s 2011. I am in search of various parts for this project. I am currently looking for a set of four (preferably NOS, or excellent used condition) correct center caps (hubcaps), front and rear fenders, commercial cylinder head with commercial cooling fan set-up, outer door handles, tail lights, etc. etc. Any and all info or leads would certainly be appreciated as I am truly striving to do this truck right without cutting any corners… I am located in Los Angeles, California. As an example of how I like to work, please refer to the following link to view one of my more recent restorations: By the way, the 6-volt battery in the Schnellaster is located directly below the driver’s seat, not in the engine compartment as some have eluded to, and it is topped with a bakelite cover for ground protection. This bakelite cover is another part I am in search of, come to think of it…Thank you for your time and take care, Eric email: [email protected]

  • avatar

    One clarification. The DKW van didn’t die. In Spain it was built initially wiht the 2 stroke engine, but later a Mercedes diesel engine was installed becoming the DKW F1000L. After that, Mercedes Benz absorbed the facility and evolved the DKW further into the MB100 and derivatives. And I would say it was the base for the previous generation Mercedes Vito / V class, which still retained FWD.

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