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Sunday, October 28, 2012


During the first 20 years of mass-produced automobiles, many efforts were made to create a car that was easy to operate and affordable for the average family; few met success. By 1930, another attempt was made. This time by Ferdinand Porsche who had just started an automobile design company. He designed a two-door sedan with lines similar to today’s VW Beetle, but the only company interested in using his design was a German motorcycle manufacturer who wanted to power it with a small motorcycle engine. Porsche’s car could not be adapted to such a small engine and the design lay dormant.

In 1933, Porsche originated a design that looked and operated very much like the Czechoslovakian-built Tatra. This interested Adolph Hitler who called Porsche in and discussed with him his interest in having a small car created for the average German family. At that time only 1 in 50 German families could afford a car. Hitler referred to it as a “volkswagen” or people’s car, and set down his criteria for it. It was to carry five people, cruise at a speed of 62 mph, get at least 33 miles per gallon, and cost the buyer no more than 1,000 Reich Marks. Hitler even provided to Porsche is own personal sketch (shown here) of what the car might look like.

This was an opportunity for Porsche to resurrect his earlier, bypassed small car design. His revised design was named the V1, and there was a convertible version was named V2. The names are uncomfortably similar to the later German rockets. By 1935, the prototypes had been completed and were being driven. The cars had a four cylinder, air-cooled, rear- mounted engine which produced 22.5 horsepower. Remarkably, they were nearly the same engines used in the Volkswagen Beetles several decades later.  

They were put through meticulous testing the following year. Porsche’s company, although private, was still under the control of the National Socialists (NAZI party) and road testing was required to be done by S.S. officers. Within two years a manufacturing plant, as well as an adjacent town to house workers, was constructed. The first models built had front-hinged doors, split rear windows, and larger hoods. The appearance was basically the Beetle we know now.

Just prior to being introduced to the public, Hitler changed the name of the car to the KdF Wagen. KdF stood for “Kraft durch Freude,” or “Strength through Joy.” Ferdinand Porsche hated the name and resented the fact that his design was being used for propaganda; but he was powerless to stop it.

The National Socialist government sold “stamps” to the public that they could use to purchase the automobile when it became available. It was promoted as a car savings program. If a family had accumulated 200 stamps, they could redeem them for a car. Huge amounts of cash were finding their way into the NAZI coffers. World War II broke out and the factory was converted to military vehicle production without ever completing a single KdF Wagen. Years later, people who had collected the stamps sued Volkswagen to get compensation.

During the war, Porsche’s plant was busy building vehicles for the German army. Their 50,000 “Kubelwagens” served the same function as the Allies’ Jeep; and the 16,000 “Schwimmwagens” were the amphibious version, which had a retractable propeller in the rear and was steered with its front tires. Because petroleum was in short supply, Ferdinand Porsche experimented with alternatively fueled engines including a wood/gas hybrid combination and compressed CO2. Sadly, it is estimated by historians that about 15,000 slave laborers were used in producing these military vehicles. This was 80% of the factory’s wartime workforce.

The Porsche plant was naturally a prime target for Allied air strikes and was partially destroyed. After the cessation of fighting, the plant was captured by American forces then turned over to the British, in whose zone it was located. The British were very interested in bringing the plant back on line to satisfy their need for light transportation vehicles. Using mostly undamaged spare parts lying around the factory, the workers produced 2,000 cars in the six months to the end of 1945.

In 1946, 10,000 cars were built. It was the British who named the company Volkswagen, and renamed the workers’ town Wolfsburg (today a center for automobile design and testing). But the British government was not interested in running the operation themselves. They tried to get Ford Motors to take it over but they refused. French and British companies were likewise not interested. Finally in 1949, the British government turned control of Volkswagen over to the German government.

Production at Volkswagen increased dramatically. They began to make “transporters” which we know as VW vans or buses. They subcontracted out the production of convertibles to the German company Karmann (remember the popular Karmann Ghia?). They began exporting the Beetles around Europe, then overseas, as early as 1950. The “standard” Beetle was a dull grey color, lacked synchromesh transmissions, and no chrome (outside or inside). The exports were available in several colors, had chrome, and extras like radios. By 1960, Volkswagen had manufacturing plants around the world.

Today, the VW Group owns Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, and 50% of Porsche. Once upon a time the company could have been had for a song.

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