A short history of the VW Beetle
Everyone knows the classic VW Beetle was designed by Adolf Hitler. Several sources show a sketch, allegedly drawn by Hitler to illustrate the sort of thing he wanted. Get out of it! There isn’t a single shred of hard evidence to support that. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche. He had designed a car with a similar shape some years before Hitler commissioned the ‘People’s Car’. Why did Hitler commission this car in the first place? He was probably embarrassed that the thousands of km of new roads constructed by the Nazi regime were pretty much devoid of cars and that he was jealous that the US had many more on the road at the time.
Anyway, back to Porsche.
Porsche had worked on small car design prior to this. His earlier work had elements that he would later include in the Beetle such as the flat 4 air-cooled engine and suspension. There is also a train of thought and evidence that the same idea was already in existence thanks to a chappy called Joseph Ganz. He was a jew and so it is said that he is the true inventor of the VW Beetle but the Nazis hid the evidence. Maybe they did, we will probably never know for certain. Ideas have a way of circulating and it isn’t always the person who first started them who gets the credit. If you look around there were several designs that resemble the Beetle including the rear air-cooled engine and back that sweeps down in a curve. The latter was a feature of many cars of the 20s and 30s.
The VW Beetle was also known as ‘The Bug’ hence the name of the series of fantasy ‘Herbie’ films. Herbie was the ‘Love Bug’ a VW Beetle which was a living being.
OK, so who was this Ferdinand Porsche anyway and why did he end up making cars.
Ferdinand Porsche was born in 1875 in what is now the Czech Republic. He proved to be a gifted mechanic and landed a job with an electrical company where he developed the electric hub motor.
He moved on to join Jakob Lohner and Co where he worked on a horseless carriage powered by his hub motors. This was further developed into a 4 wheel drive using a motor for each wheel but its performance was a bit limited due to the 2 tonnes or so of batteries needed to supply the power. It didn’t have much of a range either. He reduced the weight and increased the range somewhat by going on to build the first recorded hybrid car – fitting a petrol engine to drive the dynamo and had a small battery pack to supplement this. It was more akin to diesel-electric train engines than modern hybrids. After that, he was employed by Daimler worked on a small lightweight design which was never developed as the bigwigs there didn’t like it. After another job and unemployment during the depression years, Porsche founded his own company in 1931.
Following Hitler’s announcements to mobilise the nation and have a state funded motor racing programme, Porsche became involved in both. From that came the commission to build the ‘People’s car’. Although Porsche wasn’t convinced that a car such as that envisaged by Hitler was possible at the price demanded (roughly the price of a motorbike) he liked a challenge. The VW Beetle was born! After a period of incarceration in France after the war, Porsche’s health deteriorated to the point where he died in 1951.
The first VW Beetle prototypes were ally bodies on wooden frames but a year later, an all steel version was produced. Why? The cost I guess but surely aluminium would have been better – no rust and lighter. The first prototypes were built by Daimler Benz who were a bit sniffy about their reputation, however, they built 30. These were driven by SS soldiers until all of the mechanical issues had been exposed and engineered out. A pity Renault didn’t do that with the Scenic 50 years later … they left it to the customers to break the cars and then refused to accept any responsibility for the poor build quality and engineering cock-ups. Like the EGR valve that clogs up and knackers the turbo every 2 – 3 years.
Sorry, I digress.
Things seemed to be done in 30s with the VW Beetle. 30 were made to be shipped to car shows and festivals to introduce the car to the population.
A year before the second world war, Hitler ceremoniously laid the foundation stone for the factory that was to produce the Beetle. He declared that the new vehicle was to be called the KdF-Wagen (Kraft durch Freude – strength through joy). That tied in with the recreational division of the Nazi Labour Front. The factory was supported by a new town and escaped bombing until the US began daylight raids. The town was called KdF Stadt and was renamed after the war to Wolfsburg. During the war, it produced military vehicles and the V1 weapon (the dreaded ‘buzz bomb’). The Beetle itself was used as the basis of the wartime vehicles which no doubt enhanced the sturdiness of the post war period when it finally was in production. That in itself is an interesting story, essentially, the allies were called in by the local authorities to restore law and order in KdF Stadt and re-started production of the car.
When you look at the first Beetles and compare them to models made 20 years later, there are very few significant changes to the appearance. The front remained essentially the same as the prototypes with only subtle differences, whilst the back gradually became more modern looking and ended up with a single rear window. Production of the Beetle ceased in Europe in 1978, replaced by the Golf. It has been produced in South America since 1953 and the last factory producing the Beetle closed in Mexico in 2003.
The Beetle was ‘re-born’ in 1998 as the ‘New Beetle’ but has never really caught on in the same way as the original.