1938 Horch 853 Special Roadster

Though the 853 bears an uncanny resemblance to the legendary Mercedes 540K, and has a similar output, values lag behind the better-known car

Horch is one of the four companies that merged to form Auto Union, from which the present-day Audi descends. After training as a blacksmith and qualifying as an engineer, August Horch set up in the motor trade in 1899 in Cologne, where his fledgling company started off repairing vehicles.

His first car was completed in 1901 and featured a number of innovative ideas that had spurred him to leave Benz earlier. These advances included a carburetor with spray jets and a constant-mesh sliding gear transmission. By 1904, the company was doing well and on May 10 went public, renamed Horch & Cie Motorenwagen-Werke AG.

At his new plant in Zwickau, Horch designed three models, the 14/17, 18/22, and 22/25 horsepower cars. But his desire to take his cars racing was seen as profligate by the rest of the management, and Horch's contract with the company that he had started was terminated on June 19, 1909.

He immediately set up a new company more or less across the road from his old one. His first car was also called a Horch and legal proceedings ensued. Horch therefore renamed his new car with the same verb in Latin—Audi—which also means "to hear." Horch retired from active management of Audi in 1920 but remained a member of the supervisory board.

The Horch company continued to prosper after August Horch was ousted. However, it was not to last, as the Wall Street crash of October 1929 resulted in postwar loans to Germany being called in, and the country was effectively bankrupted. Negotiations to amalgamate the four leading car companies—Audi, DKW, Horch and Wanderer—took nine months and Auto Union AG was formed at the conclusion of the Saxony Auto Trust agreement. Four rings, representing the four different marques, became the new emblem of Auto Union.

In 1933, Horch launched the Type 830, followed by the 850 in 1934. These top models pinnacled between 1937 and 1940 with the types 853 and 951. Their 4,944-cc straight-8 engines gave 120 hp and drove through 4-speed transmissions with a lever-actuated overdrive usable on all forward ratios. The rest of the running gear was sophisticated for the time, using DeDion rear suspension and a proper independent set-up up front, using upper wishbones and paired lower transverse leaf springs, a typical German layout. Vacuum-assisted hydraulic brakes were standard, and there's a centrally controlled four-wheel hydraulic jacking system.

In early 1936, Horch decided to take on the sporting cars offered by rival Mercedes-Benz, and devised the long, low, and swoopy Special roadster. Two first-series cars were built and both survive in long-term ownership, one in Texas and one in Germany.

Five second series cars were built, having more modern coachwork, with elegant flowing lines and pontoon-shaped wings. Three are known to survive, including this car, commission number 3163, and each is different. 3163's chassis number remains clearly legible, and matches the original commission tag confirming that it is one of the four original Special Roadsters—the first of the five was broken up and its parts used in the other cars. It comes with a history file and Latvian title.

This car sold for $1,808,510 at RM's Automobiles of London sale at Battersea Evolution on October 29, 2008. It had been owned by a collector in Latvia and displayed in the Riga Motor Museum, having been restored during its stay.

Not up to concours standards

It's rare, certainly, elegant in its Erdmann & Rossi coachwork, and imposing, being the only serious rival to the Mercedes-Benz 540K Special roadster. This one features a single rumble seat and louvered rear fender skirts. What hurts this car is its rather rushed—and rough—restoration, and RM was more than happy to admit the job is not up to usual concours standards.

The front and rear fenders are rippled and creased, and the lightly orange-peeled paint looks to have been blown over an imperfect prep job with one of those vacuum-cleaner-powered spray guns. Dust marks in the blue metallic were almost guaranteed.

The brightwork is all present and scuttle lamps are fitted, though the radiator surround is lightly dinged on both sides and some of the badge plating is polished through. The seats are retrimmed in vinyl and are lumpy, and some of the instruments are incorrect, though the dash is in good shape.

One window winder had fallen off and a large adjustable wrench lying on the floor of the car did no wonders for confidence. More seriously, some of the body structure is no longer original, having been made good with steel framing underneath new paneling at some point, rather than the timber frame as original.

On the plus side, the car is complete and the doors fit and shut well. The engine appears to be quite serviceable and running well, and is of the correct type, although its number does not match the commission tag, indicating that it may have been replaced at some point. Though the Horch is said to drive well and could be enjoyed as-is, it should be viewed as the raw material for a proper restoration.

Values lag behind the 540K

hough the 853 Special roadster bears an uncanny resemblance to the legendary 540K, and has a similar power output, values lag behind the better-known car. The best of these, Bernie Ecclestone's 540K, was sold by RM at the same auction last year for $8 million.

This car was expected to fetch up to $3 million on the night, and though RM had made a super effort with studio photography and a pull-out gatefold to promote it in the impressive catalog (and placed the car in a leading British classic magazine before the sale), once buyers had a chance to properly assess its condition, it made about half that. In its present state, and with the likely cost of a proper restoration between $500,000 and $1 million, I'd chalk this one up in the "correctly bought" column.

The SCM Analysis


Years Produced 1936-38Number Produced 7 (5 second series)Original List Price 15,250 RM ($3,812 approx.)SCM Valuation $2m-$2.5mTune-up Cost $500Distributor Caps $20–$30Chassis # Location Right-hand scuttle support under hoodEngine # Location On firewall under hoodClub Info Dr. Peter Kirchberg, extern.peter.kirchberg@audi.deWebsite click to visitAlternatives 1934-1939 Lancia Astura, 1936-39 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, 1934-39 Mercedes-Benz 500/540K Special RoadsterInvestment Grade A

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