Stoewer the missing German link
Drives-Today takes a tour of a Polish city in what was once Germany, and uncovers the history of the forgotten marque of Stoewer that called it home. Words Piotr R Frankowski. Photography Filip Blank.
THE MISSING GERMAN LINK
In the aftermath of World War Two, many German car manufacturers lost their production facilities in the Soviet occupation zone. Among those was Stoewer, the old family company from Pomerania, perhaps best known for its elegantly over-engineered cars.
Szczecin is a city in north-west Poland, a harbour town linked to the cold Baltic via the Odra river. From 1713 onward, Stettin (as it was called) had belonged to Prussia, and was a major trading port and industrial centre. It suffered under Allied bombing from ordnance dropped before the planes reached the synthetic gasoline factory in nearby Pölitz, and in 1945 it became a part of Poland, as the country’s border was shifted west while land in the east was made part of the USSR. Now, here I am, riding in a Stoewer, cruising the streets of Szczecin for the first time since the world’s most significant Stoewer collection was bought by the local transport museum.
‘Like many cars today, the Sedina and Arkona share a large number of components’
Muzeum Transportu i Komunikacji, financed by the local government, managed to acquire a collection amassed over several decades by a Stettin-born German, Manfried Bauer, who had devoted his whole life to the preservation of the memory of this extinct car marque. Among more than 1000 exhibits are unique cars and artefacts. And before we go inside, there’s time to consider Stoewer’s history.
The company began with sewing machines in the middle of the 19th Century. At that time sewing machines were extremely expensive and brought huge profits. Bernhard Stoewer’s factory in Stettin grew rapidly, and by 1879 his products were winning trophies in Australia and Brazil. Later he began to produce bicycles and typewriters of excellent quality. Just before World War One, Stoewer typewriters were extremely popular in Great Britain.
It was natural for Stoewer to diversify into cars. It actually happened because his two sons, Emil and Bernhard Jr, were bored with the production of bicycles and with running their dad’s steel works. In 1897 they built a tricycle with a De Dion-Bouton engine, and a year later put it into production. Thus Stoewer became only the third car manufacturer to appear in Germany, after Benz and Daimler. The brothers, to whom their father had transferred the factory, started to build vehicles with single-cylinder petrol engines and also electric motors: battery-powered cars with a range of 50-60km were produced during 1899-1905.
The Stoewers abandoned electric cars when they developed a smooth six-cylinder motor in 1906, and maintained a reputation for impeccable quality. The company was strong in export markets, too, selling its products to Denmark, Russia, Austro-Hungary, Australia, South America and England. Stoewer buses even ran in the streets of London: 200 chassis were sold in 1906 for use as double-deckers.
The company raced as well, in events around the world, including Brooklands, where in 1912 a Stoewer C1 race car with a streamlined body won a ten-lap race, and established a new record during the Class A Speed Trials (67.7mph). Before World War One, Stoewer cars competed in Britain in the Lancaster Reliability Trial, the Lancaster Hillclimb (first), the Manchester Reliability Trial, the Aston Clinton Hillclimb (first and third) and the Economy Trial of the Lancashire Automobile Club (first), thus building a reputation for sterling quality and reliability. Indeed, the British Stoewer agent, W Turner Smith of Brompton Road, London, decided that a demonstration of the car’s capability on snow was in order, and persuaded the Brooklands Club to allow him to stage a stunt to prove it. He brought a 9/22hp car that proved perfectly capable of ascending the famous Test Hill, on snow, with seven passengers and the driver on board, stopping and restarting three times en route.
Stoewer built Germany’s first front-wheel-drive passenger car (four years before Citroën’s Traction Avant) in 1930, but then fell victim to the opinion of Nazi Party official Adolf Hühnlein that front-wheel drive was unsuitable for military applications, therefore all car manufacturers in the Third Reich should relinquish it. The Stoewer V5 preceded the next German FWD cars from DKW and Adler, and was accomplished technically, but the Great Depression contributed to a weakening of the company’s economic situation.
Stoewer’s creation of an eight-cylinder front-wheel- drive car, with a 55bhp 2.5-litre engine, innovative rear suspension and four-wheel hydraulic brakes, did not help. A licence for a cheap car with an air-cooled engine was acquired from Tatra, and an unsuccessful attempt made to merge with Ford, while the new government promised Stoewer a large order for aviation engines. That unfortunately came to nothing, though the company developed a military truck that was also constructed by BMW and Hanomag. One of the last competitive outings for Stoewer cars was the forgotten 1939 Belgrade Grand Prix, with first, second, third and fifth-place finishes in a support race.
Come the end of World War Two and the redrawing of Poland’s borders, the Soviet regime cleared all the machinery from the Stettin works and removed the sole existing 1899 Stoewer car, which has since resurfaced in a display at the Moscow Polytechnic. An attempt was made by Walter Trefz, the former factory-manager, to revive the company in West Germany after the war, the same way that BMW or Audi were resurrected, but he died in 1947 and the marque’s prospects died with him. The factory buildings in Szczecin were later repurposed for the production of the indigenous Polish Junak motorcycle and a short series of the Smyk microcar – but that is another story.
This is the world’s largest collection of Stoewer survivors: ten cars; innumerable artefacts, typewriters, bicycles, sewing machines and tools. Just over 200 cars are believed to survive worldwide, including several at a private museum in Australia. The oldest vehicle at the Polish museum also has the strongest British connections: it is a 1913 C-2 chassis with a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine, capable of 47mph, sent to England for the sum of £351. There it received a body by the London Improved Motor Coachbuilders (Belgravia) Ltd, a small and shortlived company that traded from Lupus Street, Westminster, until 1927. The car received acetylene and kerosene lamps, a klaxon and an acetylene generator, all made in England, plus Michelin tyres. It served in the Royal Navy during World War One, after which a farmer bought it and drove it until 1956. It is believed to have appeared in several British films.
The next car is slightly younger but no less impressive: the 1928 S 8 was fast and refined for its time, with a 2.0-litre straight-eight married to a four-speed gearbox. It survived World War Two in the hands of a vegetable merchant from Leipzig and ended up in Communist East Germany, where it surfaced in 1980. For its time it was advanced, with hydraulic brakes, a 12V electrical system, an oil filter and a steering wheel lock. It was one of the first German cars with an eight-cylinder engine, alongside the Horch Typ 303 and Stoewer G 14.
The Szczecin museum has two examples of the humble V5, the first German car with Vorderradantrieb (front-wheel drive), designed by Bernhard Stoewer. The first has been left unrestored; the second is in showroom condition. In period, its 25bhp 1.2-litre engine could accelerate it to 80km/h, which was a big deal in 1931 for a low-priced, basic car.
The handling of the little V5 was so good that a considerable number of sports bodies were built and sold on the same chassis, and the museum owns a magnificent blue V5 Sport- Roadster, the sole example in the world. It was a bespoke creation for Anny Minartz, daughter of the Stoewer distributor in Nuremberg. Its asymmetric cockpit, with the driving seat moved forward, was necessary because Ms Minartz was short. The intrepid lady competed only in Stoewer cars, and preferred hillclimbs.
In 1930 she confronted her father in the Klausenrennen; he finished fifth in his Ford, she was ninth in a Stoewer. Later she entered the blue V5 Roadster for the infamous Kesselberg hillclimb and also on the Brandenburg Endurance Trial in 1933 (it’s likely she came third), before selling the little car to a student from Berlin in 1936. After World War Two it was used by the Red Army in East Germany for target practice, but all the pieces were collected by an enthusiast and the car was resurrected. It runs and is in perfect shape, but the pandemic has meant that the museum couldn’t make it road-legal.
The other two cars have been rolled out of The museum into the morning mist. The Sedina and Arkona, both introduced in 1937, are idling strongly by the glass-fronted former tram terminus. In convoy, we will be passing several Szczecin landmarks, driving the cars through the areas in which they came to life. Just out of the gate and downhill, we turn right in front of the only complete Stoewer industrial building in existence in Szczecin today, the original sewing machine factory.
This Sedina, one of only 980 made, was built in 1939 and is surprisingly modern. Its 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine develops 60bhp and propels the stylish car easily at speeds of up to 120km/h (75mph). The clutch is sticking a bit, but otherwise the car is entirely capable of keeping up with modern traffic, with so much torque available that the engine forgives slogging in a high gear. Every little fitting and bracket is beautifully shaped, and the attention to detail would putmany contemporary cars to shame. Even after Sedina production officially ceased in 1939, some individual cars were built until 1942 for Nazi officials, as the Stoewer product was held in very high esteem.
We drive to a picturesque park, full of magnificent, towering plane trees, which today is called Plac Jasne Błonia but was once known as Quistorp-Aue and used as a parade ground. A picture exists in which Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess is driven through during a Nazi Party parade in an open-top Sedina.
Our other mount is a Stoewer Arkona, the only one in existence with a phaeton body. It is a substantial and graceful automobile, and purrs elegantly at idle. Like so many cars today, the Sedina and Arkona – launched together at the Berlin motor show – share a large number of components. The Arkona is powered by a smooth six-cylinder engine with the same bore and stroke as the Sedina’s four, for a capacity of 3.6 litres and a power output of 90bhp. The car was capable of 130km/h (81mph) and could run on the Autobahn at sustained high speeds. Synchromesh gears and effective brakes make driving a pleasure.
This particular Arkona was displayed at the Berlin motor show in 1939, and a picture exists of Hitler standing next to it, talking to Walter Trefz, Stoewer’s managing director, with Hermann Göring standing behind him and Joseph Goebbels at the wheel; some sources maintain that Göring actually purchased the car. At the end of World War Two it was shipped to the USA, where it was found in dilapidated condition at a used car dealership in New Jersey in 1998. There is an extra twist to this story: it is said that when President Harry S Truman visited war-ravaged Germany in 1945, he was chauffeured in a Stoewer Arkona – and it was probably this one.
Sitting in the back seat of the car, with sunlight lending Szczecin a warm, amber hue, I enjoy looking at the city, which has endured so much pain in its history. So often we forget how lucky our generations are. And how lucky is the Stoewer marque to be remembered after all these years.
THANKS TO, Muzeum Transportu i Komunikacji, en.muzeumtechniki.eu.
Left, above and below Sedina saloon (seen on the left) and its more luxurious Arkona sibling; Sedina’s refined interior is indicative of Stoewer’s place at the quality end of the market.
‘The museum features cars, innumerable artefacts, typewriters, bicycles, sewing machines and tools’
Clockwise, from top right Stoewer V5 is displayed amid post-war motorbikes; heading out into Szczecin; the company began by making sewing machines, and then typewriters; an early trade show stand; the museum goes well beyond cars.
Right, from top Period shot of the Stoewer car production hall in Stettin; museum’s unique V5 Sport- Roadster belonged to the daughter of the Nuremberg Stoewer distributor and has period competition history.
‘Stoewer was only the third car manufacturer to appear in Germany, after Benz and Daimler’