Backward Glances: 1944 NSU HK101 Kettendrad, The Ultimate ATV

1944 NSU HK101 Kettenkrad, the ultimate ATV

Jim AllenPhotographer, Writer

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.

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.

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 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