Dampf Kraff Wagen (DKW) has roots that go back to 1906 in Zschopau, Germany where its founder Jorgen Rassmussen had moved from his native Denmark. Their early years were spent making engines, and were particularly successful with their 2 stroke 118cc motor that attached to rear bicycle wheels. That became known as Das Kleine Wunder (The Little Wonder), creatively using a play on the company’s initials. It was not until 1921 that they began to produce their own motorcycles. However, they progressed quickly and by 1929 were the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. Also like many others, they produced cars and we have previously touched on the DKW 1000 in an earlier post. Following the war, DKW was already part of the Auto Union empire (one of the four rings that make up the Audi logo today), but continued to produce motorcycles under its own identity. 125Cc machines begat 250cc machines which begat the 350cc machines, and DKW went racing with all of them. They enjoyed some success in Germany where the supercharging that they had developed as far back as the late 1920s was not illegal. They competed heavily with BMW and NSU on the track and in the showroom.
The most celebrated of the DKWs was the 350cc. The 350 had been produced pre-war, and had enjoyed good success. Most notably, the 350SS which was a supercharged water-cooled DKW from the 1930s !! Success continued after the war as a streetbike in the form of the RT350, and as a formidable competitor in race trim. The RT350 was a very handsome bike from the early to mid 1950s. Black with white pinstiping seemed to be the uniform of that time, but the DKW also sported some chrome, unique engine covers, and red accents which made it appear much more stylish. The bike was a relatively square parallel twin (58X62) with Bing carburettors, producing horsepower in the mid 30s. It featured a telescoping fork, a swingarm in the rear with twin shocks, and hydraulic rear brakes. Overall it was a very nice package and initially sold very well. DKW also produced 125, 175, and 250 models that also did well in the frugal climate of the time.
On the competition front, the 350 triple became the area of focus after a reorganization of the racing effort put Helmut Gorg in charge. Essentially the triple was the twin with a horizontal cylinder in front. It initially suffered problems producing power from the third cylinder, and a series of refinements ensued during 1954 and 1955. The racing effort was responsible for the hydraulic brakes at both ends, and a number of other features that moved rapidly to the production bikes. The development of the 350 presented one of the few instances in history where increasing weight helped performance !! The fairing, plus beefing up the crankcase, a bulbous gas tank reminiscent of the AJS Porcupine, hydraulic brakes, etc resulted in a more competitive motorcycle even though it weighed more than the lighter earlier versions, and more than the competitors. Surtees on a DKW350The result though was a 350cc motorcycle producing just 46hp, but reliably exceeding 140MPH by 1956. The same techniques were applied to the 125cc version, and DKW gained wins in Germany, and a 3rd place in the world championship. Just as the triple was finally reliable and fast, DKW fell victim to the same malaise that attacked all of the German marques in the late 1950s and the 350 production ceased in the late 1950s.
A thriving club scene exists today, and motorcycles along with parts can be found with patience. DKW did not go away however and interesting DKW motorcycles were produced in the 1960s and beyond (see Herculean Effort post). Elements of the DKW machines and the 350 in particular went on to influence remaining pieces of the Auto Union empire and beyond.