Recently Rare Rides featured a very clean example of the DKW Schnellaster van from 1956. The front-drive and transverse-engine layout of the Schnellaster previewed in the Forties the basic format of the family minivan that would arrive over three decades later.
Among the standard Schnellasters produced, there was an even rarer variant: An electric version, as DKW experimented with the possibilities of early EV tech.
The Schnellaster debuted in 1949, and remained in production through 1962 before complicated manufacturing and ownership issues occurred between Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz that ultimately ended the Schnellaster. But in the latter part of its production, Auto Union had some ideas about alternative propulsion methods for its very small van.
Though EVs were first created around the turn of the twentieth century (like by Detroit Electric), their general lack of power and considerable range issues kept them from becoming daily drivers for most consumers. But Auto Union thought there might be a different use case for use as municipal and delivery vehicles.
Said uses meant a vehicle didn’t need to travel far or very fast, details much more suited to then-current EV tech. In the latter part of 1955, Auto Union partnered with German battery maker VARTA (now a part of Rayovac and Johnson Controls) to develop an EV van. A 4.8-kilowat electric motor was installed at the front instead of the transverse two-stroke engine, and was attached to two lead-acid batteries good for a total of 80 volts and 200 ampere-hours. Top speed was just under 25 miles per hour, with a stated range of 50 to 62 miles – perfect for a day’s delivery work around town.
The first Schnellaster Elektro-Wagen was ready by spring of 1956, and debuted at the Hanover city fair. Auto Union found buyers for its special use EV vans, and built 100 in total through 1962. Most examples were used for delivery service, and purchased by power companies. The vans were largely used up and lost to time, and of the 100 produced just two remain in modern times.
One of them was located on an island along Germany’s north coast, Wangerooge. The island banned internal combustion cars long ago, so the Schnellaster EV found a long-term home there. Audi Tradition purchased and restored the van over several years, and debuted it back in 2015 as part of their heritage collection.
H/t to Jacob Brown at Audi PR for reaching out to offer materials and info on the Schnellaster EV.