Notes From The Archives – The Denzel
May 10th, 2018 by James Chartres
Words by: Gary Horstkorta
One of the more interesting cars to race in the San Francisco Region was the Denzel which also had a very interesting back story. This little rear engine sports car was designed and built in Austria by garage owner, Wolfgang Denzel. As a young boy Denzel built racing bikes and by the time he turned twenty-two years old, he had built his own motorcycle and eventually raced for the BMW factory.
After World War II, Denzel decided to try his hand at building a car and with the availability of VW parts and surplus Kubelwagens (the German Armies equivalent to the Jeep), he had the basis for his first project. From his shop in Vienna in 1948, Denzel built a small sports car using the Kubelwagens chassis, a VW engine and a body which looked very much like a 356 Porsche. After some racing success, he built a few cars for customers but they complained the VW engines lack of power so Denzel switched to Porsche engines.
With its lightweight construction and improved power, Denzel entered and won the 1949 Alpine Rally. The resulting publicity created interest in his car so Denzel decided to go into production. By 1952, Denzel (official name was WD for Wolfgang Denzel) was manufacturing his own box and tubular-steel chassis which was lighter than both the VW and Porsche counterparts.
Unfortunately for Denzel, it was difficult to compete with the large scale production by Porsche and other sports car manufacturers so sales were slow and costs were high. Another factor was the cars price which by 1954 was equal to a Jaguar XK-120 and fifty percent higher than a Porsche Speedster. It is not surprising that these factors resulted in a limited production run of approximately sixty-five cars during the decade of the companies existence.
One of the first Denzel’s to arrive in America was purchased by east coast racer Richard Toland from Porsche/Mercedes/BMW dealer Otto Linton in 1954. Toland drove from Ohio to Florida (to break it in) and then competed in the 1954 Sebring 12-hour endurance race finishing a respectable twelfth overall. He then drove the car home again.
After Sebring, Toland and the Denzel ran at Cumberland, Beverly, Brynfan, Tyddn, and Allentown during the 1954 season. Year 1955 was another full calendar, starting again with Sebring and ending at the SCCA nationals on the Fairchild Air Force base in Hagerstown. Toland drove one more race in 1956 at Cumberland before switching to a 356 Porsche.
On the west coast, several drivers tried out the Denzel at the 1957 race at the Pomona Fairgrounds. The car was entered by racer and Monterey car dealer, John Pierre Kunstle and driven by Louise Cano (from Pebble Beach). Cano ran the car again at Cotati in both May 1957 and again in August. Elliot Forbes Robinson raced another Denzel at Pomona in 1958. Aside from these appearances, it appears the Denzel’s last races in California was in 1960 when Katharine Bliss race her car at Pomona and Santa Barbara.
Despite the short life of the WD, the car made a favorable impression on Road & Track testers as they commented in the November 1957 issue, “The WD is a little jewel to the enthusiast who wants to have a reasonable chance of success in 1300cc sports car racing. The car is extremely easy to drive and control, whether it be in competition or on city streets. Summed up, the WD is one of the best all-round dual purpose machines we have ever found.”
In 1958, Sports Car Illustrated put a Denzel through its paces, doing a few runs on the drag strip, with a top speed of 77.78mph. A XK120 ran the same day with a fast run of 77.00mph; a 1500 Speedster did the distance with a speed of 71.65mph.
Even thought the Denzel passed into racing history several decades ago, a few of these cars survive today in the U.S. including one that regularly competes in vintage races. The car, owned by Bay Area vintage racer Terry Sullivan, can be seen racing around local tracks and since it is street legal, Sullivan often drives the car around town. There is some information that this car may be the one Louise Cano raced and many have never left California since it was new.