Zündapp at zero hour
After the Second World War, a decree by the allied occupation forces prohibited German motorcycle manufacturers from making motorcycles with engines larger then 60 cc. This ban was gradually lifted only after 1947, and many companies that had kept their heads above water in between times by manufacturing general products like sewing machines were able to return to their main line of business.
One of the manufacturers affected by this situation was Zündapp, a Nuremberg-based company with a long history, which was able to make a few dozen examples of its successful pre-war KS 600 for the German authorities during the next two years. But this 1937 model, with its proven history – during the war it was built in large numbers for the Wehrmacht, for instance – soon fell short of the aspirations of Zündapp's engineers. Although its boxer engine was reliable, the pressed steel chassis dated from 1932 and felt outdated and obsolete. A new model was needed.
From the old to the new
Like so many good ideas, the concept underlying Zündapp's first new post-war development, the KS 601, was the result of tossing possibilities around. A Zündapp employee, whose name is unfortunately lost to history, took scissors and glue to some old brochures and added the image of a KS engine to a draft of a tubular frame with front and rear telescopic suspension. Zündapp's senior design engineer Ernst Schmidt liked this not entirely intentional design and had it implemented immediately.
Following extensive tests with a prototype, the first market-ready version of the KS 601 rolled off the conveyor belt in 1951 and became an immediate success. Carl Hertweck, senior editor of motorcycle magazine "Das Motorrad," was full of praise for the new model, and was responsible for its legendary nickname: Because of its lime-green paint job and its tremendous torque, he christened it "the Green Elephant."
The beginning of the end
Between 1951 and 1958, 5,680 "Elephants" left the Zündapp factory. The motorcycle-and-sidecar combination was used widely by the authorities, and its excellent performance ensured its great popularity in the racing scene. This was no coincidence, since the engine used in the new model was a refinement of the powerful pre-war 28 hp KS 600 engine, and a 34 hp sports version joined the range later. The "Green Elephant" reached peak popularity with the Elephant Rally, held at the Solitude racetrack in Stuttgart in 1956. This winter meeting quickly became an established tradition, and is still held in Bavaria every year.
Sadly, the "Green Elephant" was Zündapp's last major success. As the 1950s drew to a close, the company totally overlooked the transformation of the motorbike from a means of transport to a leisure and sports machine. The KS 601 Elastic, a swing-arm version developed for the US market, was a case of too little, too late, as Nuremberg faced the end of a glorious era of motorcycle racing.
Zündapp's foray into micro-cars with its "Janus" model in 1957-58 ultimately took the company to the brink of ruin. The Nuremberg plant closed and production was transferred to the branch factory in Munich. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1984.
The "Green Elephant" in motor racing
There can be no doubt that the successes of the KS 601 in motor sports were an important factor in the model's popularity. The reliability trials that were extremely popular at the time were often dominated by Zündapp's factory riders. Unlike road races, these events involved vehicles that were close to series-produced – and not infrequently went straight into the company’s advertising afterwards. Motorbikes of all engine capacities competed, from lightweight 50 cc solo models to the 600 cc "Elephant" sidecar combination ridden by the elite Zündapp factory team. The entire point was to push the limits of performance and endurance for both rider and machine – top speeds were not of interest.
Long list of sporting successes for the KS 601
1951. The "Green Elephant" took the best country ranking at the international Austrian Alpine Rally with KS 601 riders Hans Ernst, Gustav Keitel, and Georg Weiss, and Ernst and Weiss won two gold medals at the tough Six-Day Trials in Varese.
1952. Three gold medals for Ernst, Keitel, and Weiss at the Six Days, this time in Austria.
1953. International Austrian Alpine Rally: A gold medal for Werner Kritter and the coveted "Edelweiss" for Georg Weiss.
1954. At the Alpine Rally once again, three gold medals for Ernst, Keitel, and Weiss, who now entered German motorcycle racing history as "The Elephant Team."
1955 to 1960. Six-time winners of the German Off-Road Championship with Kritter/Opel or Kreuzer in 1955 and 1956, Käser/Maurer in 1957, Kritter/Kreuzer in 1958, and Volker/Schach in 1959 and 1960.
Although these races didn’t have a hundred thousand spectators lining the route, and you could easily have overlooked the reports in the daily papers, the specialist motorbike magazines were full of praise for the heroes on the "Green Elephants." Ultimately, this model more than any other was behind the slogan “Zündapp Reliability.”
Back in the spotlight
Now, after an extended and extensive restoration, as well as a partial reconstruction, a rare "Elephant" all-terrain motorcycle and sidecar has joined the permanent collection at the Museum for Industrial Culture. Zündapp never raced motorcycles developed specifically for competition. Instead, it took regular series-production machines and modified them specifically for their task. A "normal" KS 601 motorcycle and sidecar pairing was therefore used for the restoration. Many of the historical modifications – an elevated exhaust pipe, for example, enabled the machine to drive through water; armoring on the underside of the frame kept the oil pan from being punctured; a larger gas tank made it possible to run for longer distances; and a smaller, lightweight sidecar facilitated the requisite mobility on rough terrain – are now hard to find or entirely unavailable.
That meant that some of these elements had to be reconstructed, and others were hunted down both in Germany and elsewhere, such as the high-capacity "Schorsch Meier" gas tank and the tachometer, which runs in the reverse direction from the usual design. The sidecar, which used to be produced by Steib on contract for Zündapp, had to be built from scratch, because no originals survive.
These are just a few examples of the major challenges that were overcome by experienced motorcycle restorer Gustav Franke, and thanks to his efforts the off-road "Green Elephant" can now be displayed to the public in all its glory once again. Franke was assisted by an extensive "Zündapp Network" that included experts Jochen Zarnkow and Günter Sengfelder, to mention only two.
The Nuremberg Motorcycle Museum at the Museum for Industrial Culture
The motorcycles "Made in Nuremberg" kept rolling off the production lines here until the mid-1950s. But as the "motorcycle crisis" then set in with the dawning age of the automobile, the reputations of the "Green Elephant," "Boss," and "Bergmeister" began to dim.
The Museum has some 130 vintage motorcycles on display – all of them "Made in Nuremberg."
Nuremberg Motorcycle Museum
Text and choice of images: Matthias Murko
Implementation: Brigitte List
We would like to thank the "Zündapp expert" Günter Sengfelder, who made many photos from his archive available.
More about the history of the Nuremberg motorcycle industry can be found in the book accompanying the Nuremberg motorcycle museum
Matthias Murko: Motorrad-Legenden
Erweiterte und vollständig überarbeitete Neuauflage
Tümmel Verlag, Nürnberg 2014