This is an Auto Union 1000 SP from 1959, it’s been called the “German Thunderbird” due to the obvious styling similarities, and just 5,000 coupe examples were ever made – making it far rarer than its American counterpart.

Unlike the Thunderbird which weighed well over 3,000 lbs, the 1000 SP tipped the scales at just 2,094 lbs and is said to offer better handling to boot. The Auto Union is powered by a three-cylinder two-stroke engine, unlike the large V8 of its American doppelgänger, and it would remain in production until 1965, well after the first generation Thunderbird, which had exited stage in 1957.

Fast Facts – The Auto Union 1000 SP

  • The Auto Union 1000 SP was introduced in 1958 as a sports coupe designed to evoke the grandeur and performance of the first generation Ford Thunderbird, using the same running gear as the Auto Union 1000 sedan.
  • The 1000 SP would remain in production from 1958 until 1965, far longer than the 1955 to 1957 (model year) run of the original Thunderbird across the Atlantic. The 1000 SP was far lighter than its American counterpart, but it was also considerably less powerful.
  • Power was provided by an Auto Union 981cc two-stroke inline-three cylinder 55 bhp engine which was mounted in the front and powered the front wheels via a 4-speed manual transmission. The car was said to be capable of a top speed of 140 km/h (87 mph).
  • Initially the Auto Union 1000 SP was offered as a hardtop coupe, a convertible version debuted in 1961, and both were sold side-by-side until they left production in the mid-1960s. 5,000 coupes and 1,640 convertibles are said to have been made, and there were 50 rare examples made with a more powerful 1.3 liter two-stroke V6 engine.

The “Other” Thunderbirds

The Ford Thunderbird would prove to be an enduringly influential design, at least two other cars were built in period that were starkly similar – the Auto Union 1000 SP and the pint-sized Sunbeam Alpine (and the closely-related Sunbeam Tiger).

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Image DescriptionThe Auto Union 1000 SP is regularly mistaken for the Thunderbird, particularly from a distance, and it’s not hard to see why.

Funnily enough the one manufacturer who seemed the least interested in the Thunderbird was Ford, who quickly began to change the very essence of the model – turning it from a sporty two seater designed to compete with cars like the Jaguar XK120 into a luxury car that was far bigger, heavier, and more spacious.

How The “German Thunderbird” Came To Be

The origins of the Auto Union 1000 SP lay in a trip to the USA in 1955 by Auto Union director William Werner. The Ford Thunderbird debuted a few months earlier in 1954 and it had taken the American market by storm, selling in droves and becoming a new high-water mark in the world of Jet Age automobile styling.

It’s clear that the Thunderbird had affected Werner, and impressed him more than anything else on his trip, and when he returned to Germany he instructed Auto Union chief stylist Josef Dienst to “go in that direction” with the styling of the company’s new sporty two-seat coupe.

Dienst took these words to heart, and while the new design he was working on still carried clear Auto Union design language, it was very much a German homage to the American design. The similarities between the two cars are really only skin-deep however, they have almost nothing in common other than the fact they look related and they both have two doors.

The Auto Union 1000 SP

The Auto Union 1000 SP was developed on the platform of the Auto Union 1000. A German sedan that was built in a number of versions, including examples with either two or four doors.

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Image DescriptionPower is provided by an Auto Union 981cc two-stroke inline-three cylinder 55 bhp engine with a two-barrel carburetor.

The model name came from the fact that the car was powered by a 1000cc (actually 981cc) two-stroke inline-three cylinder 55 bhp engine with a two-barrel carburetor which was mounted up front, and powered the front wheels via a 4-speed manual transmission. Auto Union advertising used to proclaim that the engine had “only seven moving parts!” – three pistons, three connecting rods, and a crankshaft.

The Auto Union 1000 SP would get an all-new body but would share the same underpinnings as the 1000, and the weight of the two cars was almost identical depending on the version, as close as just a 1 lb difference.

The vehicle rides on a transverse leaf-spring with a lower A-arm up front, and a rear transverse leaf spring with a solid-axle in the rear, and drum brakes were used front and back. Although the suspension may not sound cutting-edge even by the standards of the 1950s, it was known to be a nimble handling car that could cheerfully cruise on the highway for hours on end with no issues.

Despite the relatively high cost of slightly over $4,000 USD, the Auto Union 1000 SP sold quite well, with over 6,650 examples made during the 1958 to 1965 production run. It was never meant to be a major money earner for Auto Union, more of a halo car to improve the brand’s staid image and get people into dealership showrooms.

The examples of the 1000 SP that managed to survive from production to the modern day, without rusting into a pile of dust, being crashed, or being scrapped, are now worth a pretty penny. Particularly among those who remember the model from their childhood.

The 1959 Auto Union 1000 SP Shown Here

The car you see here is a 1959 model that spent at least part of its long life in South Africa. It was imported to Wiltshire in the United Kingdom in 2021 after a comprehensive engine and gearbox rebuild in 2017.

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Image DescriptionThe interior is beautifully appointed, with seating for four, trunk space, and the car has the ability to cruise on the highway with modern traffic with no issues.

It is finished in orange with a white roof and a white leather interior, it rides on steel wheels with chrome hubcaps, and it’s said to present in overall good condition with some indications of its age.

If you’d like to read more about it or register to bid you can visit the listing here on Car & Classic. It’s now being offered for sale with all import paperwork, maintenance invoices, a present and correct V5, and it’s both MOT and tax exempt.

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Images courtesy of Car & Classic

Published by Ben Branch -