Puch's rare, innovative 800cc 148-degree V4 makes its mark at auction
Austrian motorcycles are these days synonymous with the KTM brand that has built such an imposing racing presence during the last half century. Austrian bikes have always been world-class though, and prior to WW2 it was the Puch name that was the pride of Austrian mobility, producing bicycles, motorcycles and cars of exceptional quality. One bike in particular has emerged as an auction block star in the last few months, with its outstanding engineering and exceptional rarity: the Puch 800 V-four.
The Puch name was somewhat of a casualty of history in the motorcycle sphere, with its ground-breaking work in two-stroke technology overshadowed by the rapid emergence of the Japanese manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s. Puch's "split-single" two-strokes (often referred to as the "twingle"), began development in the 1920s and featured tandem cylinders with both pistons on a single conrod. After WW2, the lack of available resources in Europe meant Puch built only two-stroke split-singles in 125, 150, 175 and 250cc capacities, but the build cost meant export opportunities were few despite genuine performance and the company's hallmark reliability. The Puch 250 "twingle" was sold via Sears Catalog in America as the Sears Allstate.
By then part of the Steyr-Daimler-Puch, Puch motorcycles disappeared into corporate oblivion during the 1970s, with most of the company's glorious engineering history obfuscated by the haze of two-stroke oil. Note the name Daimler in that construct; Puch is related to the German prestige mobility giant via Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft, so this is as close as Mercedes-Benz ever got to producing motorcycles, and the quality of the workmanship evident on pre-war Puch motorcycles would not be out of place on a modern motorcycle wearing the three-pointed star.
The innovative quotient of a motorcycle can largely be seen from the outside and this is particularly evident with the Puch 800. The 800cc V4 is the undoubted jewel of the Puch two-wheeled dynasty and was produced in limited quantities for just three years from 1936 to 1938.
Heavily influenced by neighboring Germany, Austria’s need for a powerful, large-capacity, military-grade four-cylinder motorcycle had been met by Germany’s Zundapp K600 and K800 boxer fours until 1936, when Hitler decided that production of the German masterpiece would be concentrated for military purposes and export of the machine was banned. The Zundapp is also one of the world's great pre-war motorcycles, but was produced in such large numbers for the German military that it is still available at quite reasonable prices at auction.
When Germany cut off supply of the Zundapp to mountainous Austria in 1935, Puch quickly stepped in with the Puch 800 four, which started with the basic formula of the Zundapp K800 (even the 62.0mm x 66.6mm bore and stroke were replicated), but tailored it to Austria's unique geography. The fascinating aspect of the Puch 800 is that it isn’t as one might first imagine, an exact copy of the Zundapp 800, but a refinement.
The engine of the Puch 800 is not a horizontally-opposed boxer four like the Zundapp, but wide-angle 148-degree V-four. The rationale behind canting each cylinder bank upwards 16 degrees was apparently to give the motorcycle greater ground clearance, though this is contradicted by the solid footrests that would ground out well prior to the cylinders, whether on a tarmac road, the unmade roads and mountainous terrain of the Puch’s home country, or the rutted mud likely to be encountered in a military campaign. Just the same, Puch claimed the 800 had 7cm greater ground clearance than the Zundapp, and in a country where alpine conditions are the norm, this was considered a significant virtue.
Only 550 motorcycles were built, as Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, stopping production and redirecting resources to the German war effort. Making matters worse, most of the bikes from Puch's limited production were destroyed in the subsequent war, making the 800 V4 one of the most desirable of all pre-WW2 motorcycles thanks to being highly innovative and exceedingly rare. It is believed that around 90 Puch 800 motorcycles still exist, a number that should ensure that they appreciate in value handsomely from this point on.
Indeed, prior to this year, we can’t find any Puch 800 fours that have reached public auction. In the last few months though, two have been sold through Austrian auction house Dorotheum, and unsurprisingly, they have sold for far more than the Zundapp K800 that they set out to emulate. Zundapp 800s, though still rare and desirable, are far more plentiful than Puch 800s and don't often sell for more than $25,000, regardless of how well preserved or restored they are.
On August 29, 2020, a 1936 Puch 800 sold at Dorotheum for €115,000 (US$136,900) and earlier this week (October 17), Dorotheum sold a 1937 model for €103,500 (US$121,300).
It is believed that nearly all of the remaining Puch 800s are still in the Austrian region, and the first Puch 800 owners get-together was held 12 months ago in the Wachau Valley near the Danube River, west of Vienna. If you're seeking one of these pre-war mechanical masterpieces, keep an eye on Dorotheum's auctions, as that seems the likely place to get one at auction.
There's complete detailed imagery of both Puch 800s in the image gallery.