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'World's most valuable car' sale back on

Christie's auction had been delayed pending investigation into the car's history.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The auction of a rare 1939 German race car, which had been postponed pending an investigation into the car's history, is back on. The car had been expected to get the highest price ever paid for any automobile at auction.

The results of the investigation, revealed that the car did not have the same history that was originally believed, but that is not expected to substantially alter its value, said Rupert Banner, head of Christie's motor cars department.

"The market will obviously speak to us and tell us whether there is change in the market for this car," said Banner.

The car, an Auto Union-Grand Prix V12, is one of five remaining "Auto Union D-Types." It's value had been estimated at more than $12 million.

It was originally scheduled to be sold in Paris on Feb. 17. That sale was cancelled on Feb. 9 when Christie's and Audi Tradition announced that further investigation was needed to confirm the car's racing history.

The car will now be sold through sealed bids. Christie's will accept bids through March 6.

Audi Tradition is a branch of Audi that researches the brand's history and heritage. In the 1930s, Audi was one of four brands that made up Germany's Auto Union car company. Later, after that firm was reconstituted in West Germany following World War II, the company was named Audi but retained the four-ring emblem that symbolized the combination of four companies.

In 1933, after becoming chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler offered 500,000 reichmarks for a company to design a race car to show off the nation's technological prowess. (At the time, 500,000 reichmarks was equal to about $150,000, or $2.3 million in modern terms, according to the Economic History Services Web site of Miami University of Ohio.)

Originally, Mercedes-Benz got the nod. But Ferdinand Porsche, then an engineer working with Auto Union, was able to secure some of that financing to build a revolutionary car he had designed.

That basic design was modified over the next few years to become the 1939 Auto Union D-Type, the last of the line.

The D-type had a number of features that were extremely advanced for its day, including an engine mounted behind the driver and four-wheel independent suspension. Its twin-supercharged 3-liter V12 engine can produce 485 horsepower, giving the car a top speed of 185 miles per hour.

In many ways, the D-type offered a glimpse into what would become the future of racing. It's fundamentally very similar to Formula 1 and Indy race cars of today. "It's the same as a modern day race car, just without fins," said Rupert Banner, head of Christie's motor cars department, in an interview with CNNMoney.com prior to the postponement.

One thing it doesn't have, of course, is modern safety technology. Race cars in those days didn't even have seatbelts. It was seen as preferable to be thrown from the car in a crash. One safety advance the D-type did have was a removable steering wheel, allowing the driver to be more easily removed in the event of a fire.

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D-type cars won several Grand Prix races throughout Europe. The car up for auction was originally believed to be the one that won a Grand Prix race in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the last race held in Europe until after the war. In fact, it was not.

This car did race on the famed Nurburgring track in 1939, the investigation revealed, finishing in 5th place. It also finished 6th at the 1939 French Grand Prix, a race in which two other D-types finished 1st and 2nd.

In spite of having a less-stellar racing history than was once believed, said Banner, the car's value should remain intact because it is simply the only Auto Union or Mercedes-Benz car from that era available to buy. The rest are either missing or destroyed or reside in private or museum collections, he said.

The car was one of 18 that were hidden in a mineshaft in eastern Germany during the war. They were discovered by invading Russian troops at the war's end. A number of the cars were subsequently lost or destroyed, according to Christie's.

It was taken to Russia after the war, where it was disassembled to study its technology.

The car was rediscovered in Ukraine in the late 1980s. It was still in pieces but was otherwise undamaged. Another car discovered nearby had had its chassis sawed in half, Banner said.

The current record for a car sold at auction, according to Christie's, is £5.5 million, or almost $11 million. That was paid for a 1931 Bugatti Type 41 Royale Sports Coupe sold by Christie's in 1987.

Ferdinand Porsche also designed another car for Hitler but for a very different purpose. That car, inspired by the success of the inexpensive Ford Model T in the United States, ultimately became known as the Volkswagen Beetle. It also had a rear-mounted engine, as do today's Porsche sports cars.

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