The Volkswagen, or “People’s Car,” that so many millions have known for more than half a century had its genesis in Nazi Germany. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the Volkswagen, had to share the concept with none other than Adolf Hitler. And though the Volkswagen may have first been intended for use as a civilian recreational vehicle, it was quickly transformed into three basic military iterations: the Kommandeurswagen (commander’s car), Kubelwagen (bucket car), and Schwimmwagen (amphibious car). The VW’s transformation into a military vehicle was a rapid metamorphosis over which Porsche had no control.
Evolution of the Kleinauto
The original concept for a German Kleinauto (small car) was in part a response to the phenomenal success of the Ford Model T. The German motorcycle company NSU decided to venture into the small-car business and hired Porsche to design such a car. The prototype was known as the Type 32 of 1932, and was only one of numerous prototypes before the actual Volkswagen went into series production. Porsche had considerable experience in automotive design. Born and educated in the Czech Republic, his mentor was Hans Ledwinka, designer of the early rear-engine air-cooled Tatra. Porsche believed in Ledwinka’s design. In 1900, at the age of 25, he showed his Lohner-Porsche-Electrochaise, powered by electric motors, causing a sensation at the Paris World’s Fair
In 1905, Porsche joined the Austro-Daimler Company and designed his first race car, the Prince-Heinrich-Wagen. Through racing-car design, Porsche realized early on the importance of aerodynamics, and this influenced most of his later automotive designs. Wind-resistance tests helped him create highly successful racing cars for Auto-Union. Before starting his own design firm in 1929, Porsche worked for Daimler-Benz, helping develop the famous SS, SSK, and other Mercedes models.
When Hitler took power, Porsche announced his concept of a small, inexpensive car at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show. At the show, Hitler promised to transform Germany into a truly motorized nation. Porsche and Hitler met in May 1934 to discuss plans for the “People’s Car.” Porsche outlined the specs he had in mind. The car would have a one-liter displacement air-cooled motor, producing approximately 25-brake horsepower at 3,500 RPM, weigh less than 1,500 pounds, with four-wheel independent suspension to reach a top speed of 100 kilometers per hour. Hitler added specs according to his own vision: the car was to be a four-seater, get 100 kilometers per seven liters of gasoline, and maintain 100 kilometers per hour. Porsche proposed that the car be priced at around 1,550 marks ($620 at 1934 exchange rate).
Hitler limited the price of the Volkswagen to 900 marks and gave Porsche only 10 months to build a prototype. Beating out other proposals, Porsche and his design team began building three prototypes in a garage at his home near Stuttgart. Hitler monitored the progress impatiently, then found out that Porsche was a Czech citizen. Dismayed, he quickly rectified the political problem by formally converting Porsche’s citizenship.
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The First Volkswagen Prototypes
The three prototypes, finished in 23 months, were successful from the beginning, once the front torsion bar suspension was “debugged” to make the twisting bars stronger and more flexible. Porsche, with his design team, which included his son Ferry, visited the United States to observe how Ford, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile were mass-producing their cars. Hitler encouraged Porsche to go on the transatlantic journey, thinking that he would be well received by Henry Ford. During his earlier imprisonment, Hitler had read Ford’s biography while writing his own Mein Kampf, and he believed he knew where Ford’s sympathies lay.
The road tests of the VW prototypes began in October 1936. At first, different motor designs were tried out, including a two-cycle and two-cylinder version, until Porsche settled on the “boxer” four-cylinder, four-stroke design. The essence of the boxer design was that all cylinders were arranged in a flat bank with all crank arms in one plane. The fan-assisted, air-cooled design was virtually immune from both overheating and freezing, unlike liquid-cooled engines. Simplicity and accessibility to various components was another advantage. The chassis and suspension of the Volkswagen used a basically flat platform with a central tube backbone that held the shift linkage and hand brake cable. The VW’s suspension consisted of crank-link front and swing rear axles, with the wheels suspended individually. Instead of the usual leaf or coil springs, the VW used torsion bars, a revolutionary concept at the time.
The relative success of the three VW prototypes was a minor achievement in comparison to the goal of mass-producing such cars by the millions. Hitler, vowing to out-produce Ford in the United States, became agitated over what he called the industry’s procrastination. On February 28, 1937, he warned during a speech that if private industry could not built such a car, it would no longer remain private industry. These histrionics foreshadowed what would face the Volkswagen company within a short time.
The Politics Behind the “People’s Car”
At the 1937 Berlin Auto Show, Hitler visited the exhibit where the latest automotive achievements were on display, among them the small Opel P-4, which was selling for 1,450 marks. Hitler listened to Adam Opel explain that this was his version of the Volkswagen, upon which the Führer stormed off angrily, warning that no private companies would be allowed to enter the small-car market on a competitive basis. Volkswagen was to be Hitler’s offspring, and nobody except Porsche and his team were to have a hand in its cultivation. Hitler was using the “People’s Car” to utmost political advantage. The Nazi brass formed a new company called Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Volkswagens, funded by the German Labor Front. Now Porsche, his hands no longer tied financially, threw himself into the project like the dedicated engineer and businessman he was. A small factory was set up in Zuffenhausen, near Stuttgart, and 30 more prototypes were produced. Soon another 38 were built. Since few people in Europe fully understood the industrial science of automobile mass production on the scale that Hitler wanted, Porsche and his team returned to the United States to recruit engineers and executives and buy more equipment.
At the same time, the German Labor Front devised a scheme by which workers could buy a Volkswagen in advance. Through the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) organization, which sponsored all sport, travel, recreation, and leisure activities for industry workers, money was collected on a layaway basis. By the time World War II began when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, a total of 210 KdF Volkswagen sedans had been built. Only two prototype units were military versions. The rest of the KdF sedans were allocated to military officers as personal cars. Hitler was given the very first convertible Beetle built in 1938. Photographs of the vehicle were published in Der Adler.
Militarizing the Volkswagen
The Kubelwagen (Bucket Car) idea stemmed from a meeting on January 17, 1938, between the SS-Fahrbereitschaft VW director, the director of Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Office), and other HWA officials. The purpose of the meeting was to see how the KdF Volkswagen could be turned into a military vehicle. Another meeting nine days later gave the Porsche company free reign as to how to achieve such a design. It was not until the beginning of November 1938 that the first Kubelwagen was shown. The initial rear-wheel-drive prototype was called the Type 62 and was compared to the standard HWA four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer military personnel car. The new design was met with approval, excepting the sheet metal, which was deemed too “civilian-looking.” Further tests were also favorable, and the body was redesigned. Compared with the KdF sedan, larger tires were used, the rear track was widened, and ground clearance was increased.