Staff Writer (Updated: 9/10/2014):
The early German campaigns proved the validity of the SdKfz 231 series of eight-wheeled armored cars though the family of vehicles lacked much in the way of capable off-road qualities in keeping pace with the blitzkrieg actions. Additionally, their engines were highly temperamental, often resulting in overheating powerplants while armor protection for the crew was suspect at best. These early generation vehicles were also largely originated from commercial vehicles built around civilian-minded frames with their military components added to the chassis as needed. In August of 1940, German authorities unveiled an initiative to create a new generation of 8-wheeled fighting vehicles (known to them as "8 Rad") to replace the SdKfz 231, SdKfz 232 and SdKfz 233 series cars. Work soon began on a logical successor, this becoming the SdKfz 234.
Unlike the previous German armored cars, the SdKfz 234 was designed as a military vehicle from the start - production to center more in line with that of a tank than an armored car. She was to be produced with a monocoque armored hull and no underlying frame meaning that the military components would be attached directly to the hull itself. The major portion of the hull was constructed from armor plate while the side storage boxed and fenders were of thin sheet metal. The Czechoslovakian firm of Tatra was tabbed with developing the required powerplant for the new machine and responded with its Tatra 12-cylinder, air cooled diesel engine of 220 horsepower. The air-cooled quality lent itself well to most types of rigorous weather conditions as no fragile radiator system was required. Large internal fuel tanks ensures excellent range - no doubt taking into account the vast open spaces of the African desert and the soon-to-be battlefields of Eastern Russia.
Like the SdKfz 231 before it, the SdKfz 234 fitted eight robust individual road wheels. An open-topped, hand-powered, six-sided turret with angled facings was fitted to the forward hull offering 360-degree traverse with some level of elevation. The selected primary armament was envisioned to be a 20mm (2cm) KwK 38 cannon with a 7.92mm MG42 general purpose machine gun fitted coaxially. Some 250 projectiles of 20mm ammunition were stowed throughout the vehicle, backed up by 2,400 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition. This supplied the SdKfz 234 with "just enough" firepower to handle both infantry and light armored vehicles. At its core, the SdKfz 234 was a reconnaissance-minded vehicle first and foremost - tangling with enemy tanks was not in its forte for its best defense was still its high speed. Bussing-NAG, already having proven their expertise with multi-wheeled creations, was tabbed as the primary contractor and awarded a procurement contract in August of 1940. A prototype was made available in July of 1941.
After evaluations of the prototype were complete, the Tatra engine was found to be too noisy for comfort. The design team was sent back to work along with some borrowed time for the German Army was concentrating their efforts on the development and production of tanks and assault guns to turn the tide of their North Africa campaign. As such, development strung along to the point that the SdKfz 234 did not meet the production lines until 1943 and quantitative deliveries did not commence until 1944.
The SdKfz 234 was crewed by four personnel made up of the driver, commander, loader and gunner. The driver manned a position in the hull superstructure while the commander and gunner manned their positions in the turret. The commander was situated to the left with the gunner to his right. A screen was added over the turret top to prevent grenade assaults from enemy infantry. A pistol port was identified at the rear of the turret to fend off enemies approaching from blind spots. Design was conventional with the driver in the front hull and the engine set within a compartment to the rear. The hull facings were highly angular, designed to repel or deflect projectiles (though only limited in scope to small arms fire). This kept the vehicle operating weight relatively light and the crew relatively safe. The large road wheels were set as four to a vehicle side with no side armor protection for each unit though the overhanging fenders did serve as storage compartments. The glacis plate was well-sloped as was the engine compartment deck at the rear. Armor protection was thickest at the front at 30mm and limited to just 8mm along the sides. Ground clearance was quite impressive, particularly at centerline. It is of note that only some of the production SdKfz 234s were actually fitted with onboard radios. Initial production models were set with a Tatra 102 series engine while later forms took on the Tatra 103 V-12, air-cooled diesel installation, delivering 220 horsepower at 2,250rpm. Drum-style mufflers were fitted to the rear ends of each fender, exhausting each bank of the 12-cylinder powerplant.