The Mother Of All Modern Minivans: 1949 DKW Schnellaster

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

Comments
Join the conversation
2 of 39 comments
  • Eric P. Eric P. on Sep 20, 2011

    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: www.oldbug.com/tempo.htm 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: wyatterp58@sbcglobal.net

  • Txabi Txabi on Jan 01, 2012

    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.

  • 3-On-The-Tree I don’t think Toyotas going down.
  • ToolGuy Random thoughts (bulleted list because it should work on this page):• Carlos Tavares is a very smart individual.• I get the sense that the western hemisphere portion of Stellantis was even more messed up than he originally believed (I have no data), which is why the plan (old plan, original plan) has taken longer than expected (longer than I expected).• All the OEMs who have taken a serious look at what is happening with EVs in China have had to take a step back and reassess (oversimplification: they were thinking mostly business-as-usual with some tweaks here and there, and now realize they have bigger issues, much bigger, really big).• You (dear TTAC reader) aren't ready to hear this yet, but the EV thing is a tsunami (the thing has already done the thing, just hasn't reached you yet). I hesitate to even tell you, but it is the truth.
  • ToolGuy ¶ I have kicked around doing an engine rebuild at some point (I never have on an automobile); right now my interest level in that is pretty low, say 2/5.¶ It could be interesting to do an engine swap at some point (also haven't done that), call that 2/5 as well.¶ Building a kit car would be interesting but a big commitment, let's say 1/5 realistically.¶ Frame-up restoration, very little interest, 1/5.¶ I have repainted a vehicle (down to bare metal) and that was interesting/engaging (didn't have the right facilities, but made it work, sort of lol).¶ Taking a vehicle which I like where the ICE has given out and converting it to EV sounds engaging and appealing. Would not do it anytime soon, maybe 3 to 5 years out. Current interest level 4/5.¶ Building my own car (from scratch) would have some significant hurdles. Unless I started my own car company, which might involve other hurdles. 😉
  • Rover Sig "Value" is what people perceive as its worth. What is the worth or value of an EV somebody creates out of a used car? People value different things, but for a vehicle, people generally ascribe worth in terms of reliability, maintainability, safety, appearance and style, utility (payload, range, etc.), convenience, operating cost, projected life, support network, etc. "Value for money" means how much worth would people think it had compared to competing vehicles on the market, in other words, would it be a good deal to buy one, compared to other vehicles one could get? Consider what price you would have to ask for it, including the parts and labor you put into it, because that would affect the “for the money” part of the “value for money” calculation. An indicator of whether people think an EV-built-in-a-used-car would provide "value for money" is the current level of demand for used cars turned into EVs. Are there a lot of people looking for these on the market? Or would building one just be a hobby? Repairing an existing EV, bringing it back into spec, might create better value for the money. Although demand for EVs is reportedly down recently.
  • ToolGuy Those of you who aren't listening to the TTAC Podcast, you really don't know what you are missing.
Next