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Backward Glances: 1944 NSU HK101 Kettendrad, The Ultimate ATV

Posted in Features on June 26, 2018
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This Backward Glances will make you do a double take. What is it? Well, the closest description would be a half-tracked motorcycle, but it really isn’t that. The World War II Kettenkrad is in a place all its own.

As Nazi Germany’s military buildup peaked in the late 1930s, the call went out for a fast, compact, air-portable, tracked vehicle for light towing and mountainous terrain. Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp finished the design on such a vehicle in the summer of 1939, but the job of turning it into a reality went to the NSU company in Neckarsulm, Germany. NSU had been in business since 1873 and was best known for building bicycles and motorcycles, though they had built cars in the early part of the 20th century. NSU would get back into cars in the late ’50s and develop the Wankel rotary engine. Volkswagen would buy the company in 1969 and merge them with Auto-Union and DKW to form Audi (and now you know the rest of that story).

In German, the vehicle was called Kleines Kettenkraftrad, for small-tracked motorcycle, which was abbreviated to Kettenkrad by the military. The NSU model designation was HK101 and the military called it the Sd.Kfz. 2 (for Sonder Kraftfahrzug—Special Motor Vehicle 2). Troops began getting the Kettenkrad in mid-1941, and it proved a nimble asset. It could tow light artillery and was frequently used that way. It was small enough to be delivered in the Luftwaffe’s ubiquitous Junkers JU-52 trimotor cargo aircraft. There were some specialty conversions of the Kettenkrad, but mostly it was a multipurpose workhorse and served everywhere the German soldier did, from the deserts of North Africa to the frozen wastelands of the Russian Front and Western Europe.

Is it a motorcycle or a halftrack? Both. And neither. The German army put it into the motorcycle (Kraftrad) equipment category. It was more a very light-tracked tractor because it really didn’t need the front wheel except in high-speed road use. Its tow rating was a mild 1,000 pounds, but they were often pressed to tow things much heavier. The Kettenkrad was one of the more universally useful pieces of equipment the German army had. This 1944 model is seen here at the annual Kübelkorps Reunion, a gathering of WWII military Volkswagens and German vehicles. The year this one was built, the greatest number were produced—4,490 from NSU and 1,996 from Stoewer.

The engine was a 1.5L OHV four from the well-known Opel Olympia car. It was mid-mounted, with the flywheel facing forward and coupled to an Opel three-speed transmission. Behind that was a two-speed high/low range box feeding a differential that powered the track sprockets. The Kettenkrad steered both by the motorcycle wheel up front and track brakes coupled to the handlebars. For high-speed driving, a small amount of steering input from the tire did the work, but with increasing steering input the track brakes were engaged. The front tire could be removed altogether for slow-speed operations and then you steered only with the brakes. The Kettenkrad used 40-link rubber-block tracks with the very efficient overlapped/interleaved road wheel bogie system used on almost all German tracked vehicles. Snow/ice chains could be added to the track for winter weather and starting in 1943, all Kettenkrads came equipped with cold-weather kits. A tropical kit could be added for warm-weather operations.

The standard Kettenkrad had a crew of three—the driver up front and two in the seats in back, facing rearward. Having spent some time in that rear seat, this author urges you to pity those poor German soldiers that spent hours there. The ride isn’t so much hard as extremely bouncy. You need to tie yourself down or have a death grip on the many grab bars to not to fly out the back. If you have seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, you may remember the scene where the captured Kettenkrad careens up on one track while the beleaguered GIs prepare to hold the bridge.

By 1943, the Kettenkrad had become so generally useful that Stoewer-Werke was licensed to build it alongside NSU. Approximately 15 percent of the 10,172 produced during the war were built by Stoewer. When the war ended, Kettenkrad production stopped for a short while, but under direction of the occupation government NSU began cranking out more from parts and units received for major repair. It’s estimated that around 550 more were produced as late as 1948 to be used as ersatz (makeshift) farm tractors…something they were reasonably good at. Many more ex-military units were commandeered and converted to tractors by farmers. In France, a small company made a few bucks collecting abandoned Kettenkrads from all the battlefields and converting them into farm implements.

The Kettenkrad shown is owned by Barry Kemball-Cook, a Texas military vehicle collector. He isn’t afraid to use it but laments the high-maintenance aspects of the tracks, which was also one of the Kettenkrad’s few downsides in service as well. It isn’t clear how many Kettenkrads are left, though the best educated estimates are that over 500 exist worldwide, with as many as 25 in the USA. Current market prices for a restored unit are well in excess of $100,000 usually, but there are companies in Eastern Europe still producing parts and even handbuilt replicas.

The driver has the best seat in the house, even though he is straddling the transmission. The Kettenkrad is not hard to drive once one gets used to the steering brakes being connected to the handlebars. You learn that violent steering inputs at high speeds—the rig can do over 50 mph flat-out—can create very hairy moments, so just a little steering works best. The fuel tanks on either side of the driver pit hold a bit over 21 liters each, exactly the contents of a German 21L jerrycan. The tractor could go about 180 miles on a fill-up on paved roads.
The engine was a very modern OHV powerplant from the Opel OL-38 Olympia car, which was also used as a German army staff car. It was rated for an official top speed of 44 mph, but if the driver had the courage, or the motivation, it could get past 50 mph. When the war started, Opel had been a wholly owned subsidiary of GM since 1931 and was one of the more advanced automakers in Europe. The war took Opel out of GM control for a time, but it reverted back after the war to become a trendsetting GM partner in Europe.
Barry is not afraid to work his Kettenkrad. The tracks give it startling mobility and capability that can spook even an ace four-wheeler. It’s a bit narrow, so likely it has a tendency to be tippy. It’s clear from our research that it’s very capable in most types of terrain. We’re waiting to see one in Moab!
The Kettenkrad’s towing pedigree is shown here with the hitch seen at the radiator air outlet. The radiator is under the rear seat and the fan blows air out the duct. Track extensions to increase the footprint were used for heavy mud and snow. A storage box could be fitted to the spot where you see the canvas rolled behind the passenger seat.
At the Kübelkorps Reunion, when one of the Schwimmwagens stalled climbing out of the pond and wouldn’t restart, Dave Crompton’s ’42 Kettenkrad proved it could still git-’er-done. The early ones had many notable differences that can be called out versus Kemball-Cook’s ’44. The headlamp is the most notable difference between early and late, and the presence of the NSU emblem is another. Note the tubular rails in back versus the flat panels on Barry’s.

The Details

Vehicle: 1944 NSU HK101 Kettenkrad
Owner: Barry Kemball-Cook
Estimated value: $130,000-plus
Engine: Opel Olympia Model 38, 1478cc, OHV 4-cyl
Power (hp @ rpm): 36 @ 3,400
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm): 57 @ 3,400
Bore & stroke (in): 3.14 x 2.91
Comp. ratio: 6.0:1
Tire: 3.50-19
Tracks: 40-link, 6.7-in width
GVW (lb): 3,500
Curb weight (lb): 2,726
Fuel capacity (gal): 11 (two tanks)
Top Speed (mph): 44 normal, 51 emergency
Fuel Economy (mpg): 13 off-road, 17 on-road

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