Wolfgang Denzel grew up in Vienna, Austria building racing bicycles, motorcycles, and finally sports cars. Between 1953 and 1960 he is estimated to have built 65 Denzel WD (his initials) roadsters of which perhaps 30 survive today, often as vintage racers.
Denzel began by converting Volkswagen’s Kübelwagen chassis (think VW Thing) into sports cars in 1948 and his prototype won its class in the 1949 Austrian Alpine Rally. Denzel’s ability as a tuner and constructor meant he was a legitimate competitor to the early Porsches, although when he started serious production in 1950, Volkswagen refused to sell him parts.
Undeterred, he designed his own spaceframe and his roadster bodywork evolved throughout the 1950s – from 100 percent steel to 100 percent aluminum panels, with significant weight savings.
Although he was using Volkswagen engines, Denzel significantly improved the internals, fitting Mahle cylinder heads and pistons, and improved intake manifolds, valves, rocker arms and connecting rods. He installed twin carburetors, developed a counter-balanced crankshaft (before Porsche did) and fitted full-flow oil filters. Some engines even had aluminum connecting rods. As a result, Denzel extracted 61hp at 5400 rpm from a 1285cc Beetle engine and 86hp from the later 1488cc unit, at which point the Denzel WD’s top speed approached 110 mph.
The Denzel WD looked a lot like a Porsche 356 Speedster but experienced Porsche racers reported it was better balanced, with the driver further forward more like a 550 Spyder. Handling was described as slight oversteer up to the point of a slide, when the car changed to almost perfectly neutral steering. Road & Track was effusive, called the WD “one of the best dual-purpose machines we have found.”
However, Denzel’s low production meant he was hard-pressed to keep his prices competitive. In the mid-1950s a Porsche Speedster cost $2999 in the U.S., while a Denzel WD 1300 would set you back $4500 – more than a Jaguar XK 140.
Denzel campaigned his cars energetically. His best result was an outright win in the 1954 Coupe des Alpes Rally in a WD 1300, with co-driver Hubert Stroinigg. The rally started and finished in Marseilles, snaking through mountain passes in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Only 37 of the 87 starters finished, and Stirling Moss could only manage 10th in a Sunbeam Alpine. In March 1954 Richard Toland and Charles Devaney placed 12th overall driving a Denzel WD 1300 in Florida’s Sebring 12 Hours race.
Meanwhile, Denzel was also BMW’s distributor in Austria, and he hired Italian designer Giovanni Michelotti to stretch the BMW Isetta 600’s chassis into a handsome rear-engine unibody coupe with better front suspension and swing axle rear. The engine was bumped up to 700cc, a 4-place sedan was added, and the new BMW 700 debuted at the 1959 Frankfurt Motor Show. The 700 was a huge success and 25,000 orders were placed. Coupe production began in July 1959 and the sedan followed in December. Perhaps because he had his hands full, Denzel discontinued the production of the WD around this time. His instincts must have been correct. Hans Stuck won the 1960 German Hillclimb Championship in a 700 and Walter Schneider the 1961 German Saloon Car Championship.