Sale of 'world's most valuable car' postponed

More research needed in sale of Hitler-era German race car, Christie's says.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- The auction of a rare 1939 German race car, which had been expected to command the highest price ever paid for any automobile at auction, has been postponed, the Christie's auction house said Friday.

The auction had been scheduled to take place in Paris on Feb. 17, and the car was expected to sell for as much as $12 million. A statement by Christie's said there would be further exploration into the car's race history, in collaboration with Audi Tradition.

1939 Auto Union D-type
1939 Auto Union D-type

The car, an Auto Union-Grand Prix V12, is one of five remaining "Auto Union D-Types." Christie's was not available to comment further on the postponement.

Audi Tradition is a branch of Audi that researches the brand's history and heritage. In the 1930s, Audi was one of four brands that made up Germany's Auto Union car company. Later, after that firm was reconstituted in West Germany following World War II, the company was named Audi but retained the four-ring emblem that symbolized the combination of four companies.

In 1933, after becoming chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler offered 500,000 reichmarks for a company to design a race car to show off the nation's technological prowess. (At the time, 500,000 reichmarks was equal to about $150,000, or $2.3 million in modern terms, according to the Economic History Services Web site of Miami University of Ohio.)

Originally, Mercedes-Benz got the nod. But Ferdinand Porsche, then an engineer working with Auto Union, was able to secure some of that financing to build a revolutionary car he had designed.

That basic design was modified over the next few years to become the 1939 Auto Union D-Type, the last of the line.

The D-type had a number of features that were extremely advanced for its day, including an engine mounted behind the driver and four-wheel independent suspension. Its twin-supercharged 3-liter V12 engine can produce 485 horsepower, giving the car a top speed of 185 miles per hour.

In many ways, the D-type offered a glimpse into what would become the future of racing. It's fundamentally very similar to Formula 1 and Indy race cars of today. "It's the same as a modern day race car, just without fins," said Rupert Banner, head of Christie's motor cars department, in an interview with prior to Friday's postponement.

One thing it doesn't have, of course, is modern safety technology. Race cars in those days didn't even have seatbelts. It was seen as preferable to be thrown from the car in a crash. One safety advance the D-type did have was a removable steering wheel, allowing the driver to be more easily removed in the event of a fire.

Photo Gallery: Big sales from Arizona auctions

D-type cars won several Grand Prix races throughout Europe. Two days after Germany invaded Poland, the same day that Great Britain declared war on Germany, the car in question won a Grand Prix race in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, Banner said. It was the last race held in Europe until after the war. "This was a legendary period in racing," Banner said of the prewar years.

The car was one of 18 that were hidden in a mineshaft in eastern Germany during the war. They were discovered by invading Russian troops at the war's end. A number of the cars were subsequently lost or destroyed, according to Christie's.

The car to be auctioned was taken to Russia after the war, where it was disassembled to study its technology.

The car was rediscovered in Ukraine in the late 1980s. It was still in pieces but was otherwise undamaged. Another car discovered nearby had had its chassis sawed in half, Banner said.

The current record for a car sold at auction, according to Christie's, is £5.5 million, or almost $11 million. That was paid for a 1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale Sports Coupe sold by Christie's in 1987.

Ferdinand Porsche also designed another car for Hitler but for a very different purpose. That car, inspired by the success of the inexpensive Ford Model T in the United States, ultimately became known as the Volkswagen Beetle. It also had a rear-mounted engine, as do today's Porsche sports cars.

Photo Gallery: Alt-power cars

Gallery: Best from Chicago Auto Show

Feedback Top of page