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History Of The Volkswagen Beetle

Author: Irving Robbin

(Article orginally published 1960)

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Volkswagen Classic Beetle
At the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century, Americans drove rapidly and complacently along their manicured highways. The cars were impressively large, with huge areas of sheet metal and glass. Fins of various shapes sprouted from the rear accompanied by the flowering sheen of dazzling chrome. Horsepower was rampant in the land, and the huge engines devoured fuel in insatiable gulps. Parking spaces became longer and wider, garages were remodeled, and the repair bills, though rarer, became higher when they did come. Inside these traveling living rooms, the passengers rode on soft foam rubber, surrounded by magic pushbuttons. It seemed as if we had reached the very epitome of transportation.

Suddenly a tiny speck appeared on this glittering landscape, a beetle among the butterflies. It was a very small car, so small as to be almost ludicrous. It started a new fad among the cartoonists and provided new jokes for the television comedians. This car couldn't go very fast or climb steep hills too readily, but it nearly always got to where it was going. On snow and ice, it out-drove the big cars. The gas tank took a very long time to empty, and the repairman became a stranger. This unadorned beetle-shaped little machine seated only four, was not entirely comfortable, but it was good transportation. A major innovation was the rear mounted engine and, in addition, no antifreeze was ever needed because the engine was air-cooled.

The car, of course, was the Volkswagen. It is still with us, in multiplying numbers each year. In spite of the luxury of our traveling palaces, many Americans really wanted a low-priced utility car. The little beetle started a trend which has changed the face of the American automobile industry, and opened the country to many similar imports. The American soldier, returning from the occupation in Europe, introduced us to the Volkswagen and we suddenly realized that our own cars were out-pricing themselves. The homely Volkswagen made transportation available to people who could not afford a larger machine, and has become a "second car" for families that require its convenience. It is putting thousands of Americans on wheels. This car which is fulfilling, in a sense, a great democratic concept, was the idea and political pawn of the dictator, Adolph Hitler.

It all began at the end of the summer of 1933 when Ferdinand Porsche was summoned to the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin for a meeting with the dictator. Porsche had an outstanding reputation as an engineer. He had been chief designer for Daimler-Benz, Auto-Union, and now had his own engineering consultation firm. In a private conference, Hitler told the engineer his plans for a car.

It should be small, perhaps a four-seater, have a good durable engine, get 40 miles to the gallon, and be air-cooled since most Germans did not have garages. In 1933, Hitler had described the modern Volkswagen! He even called it a Volkswagen - the people's car - and stipulated that it sell at a low price. Porsche then asked for an idea of the price. With laughter the dictator answered, "At any price, Herr Doktor Porsche. Any price below 1,000 Marks!"

Porsche paled. Even jokingly, this sounded like an order and he knew it was next to impossible to build a car at that price. One thousand Marks in 1933 was roughly equivalent to 250 dollars. Even Ford could not build that cheaply. After leaving, Porsche dismissed the matter as a wild whim of the iron dictator, but he did not know that Hitler intended VOLKSWAGEN to use the promise of a Volkswagen as a political device to win Germans to his regime. Mussolini made the Italian trains run on time. Hitler wanted to give the Germans a car. With such minor favors do dictators seek to cover their larger misdeeds.

Less than a year later at the opening of the Berlin International Automobile Show, Hitler, in a purple-faced, impassioned speech, promised the German public a small, low-priced car. Then Porsche received an official order to have three prototype models ready within ten months! Hitler even arranged for the various members of the German Automobile Manufacturers Society to supply some of the component parts. In effect he was ordering the entire industry to produce the car. The section of the order that still seemed impossible was the price. It was not to exceed 900 Marks. Porsche was extremely upset. He knew the cost figures of the greatest mass-produced car in the world at that time - the Ford. However, Henry Ford rarely turned out less than one million machines of a particular model, and their equivalent cost was about 2,600 Marks. But no one dared say no to the dangerous dictator, and work began.

What Hitler did not know was that Porsche had already designed and built a small car. In 1932 he had gone to NSU and produced three machines which closely resemble the modern Volkswagen. Rear engined, air-cooled, with a squared-off body, these machines were just what the dictator wanted. Porsche had had the same idea years earlier. Even the name was similar - Volksauto. But they never came near the desired production price. NSU dropped the idea. So did Porsche, that is, until Hitler came along. Resurrecting the Volksauto, he began to redesign it. It took time. Porsche had established his workshop in his own private garage and, meticulous engineer that he was, refused to rush the project. At the same time, he was building racing cars for Auto-Union and was really much more concerned with beating the Italians than satisfying Hitler's whim.

Hitler did not consider it a whim. In speech after speech he kept promising the public their Volkswagen, and behind the scenes he kept a relentless pressure on Porsche and the German Automobile Manu facturers Society. Actually Porsche was being squeezed from both sides. Hitler was not to, be denied, but the manufacturers were holding back. They did not want to participate in a project that would eventually offer them serious competition.

In 1935, Porsche visited America. He toured the General Motors, Packard, and Ford assembly lines with a stopwatch in his hand. He made notes of the specialized machine tools and body dies. It was all so different from European production methods. The American system turned out cars in great quantity, something no European had ever done. When Porsche returned he realized that German private capital could never finance this kind of operation. It would have to be done by the government.

Finally in 1936 the three prototypes were ready: After severe road tests, Porsche was satisfied and at the 1937 Automobile Show Hitler announced that production would soon start. Then his rigidly controlled state economy clamped down on iron and steel allocations to the other manufacturers. The Nazi state was taking hold with a vengeance! Robert Ley, the unpalatable head of the "Strength Through Joy" movement, was assigned to set up a factory. He ruthlessly appropriated a private estate at Wolfsburg, hired an architect, and Hitler presided at the cornerstone ceremony. Nazi financing now backed the Volkswagen project and nothing could stop it. Before the plant was finished, Porsche needed thirty models for more complete testing, and the august firm of Daimler-Benz was summarily ordered to build them. Two hundred crack Storm Troopers, under the direction of Porsche's son Ferry, tested the cars in every possible way, and in the shortest possible time. The military state brushed all delays aside. Hitler wanted his car and woe to the man or corporation that dared stand in his way!

Porsche and a production team were then sent to America to recruit American technicians for the new factory. Key engineers who could speak German were signed up, and American mass-production knowledge was ready to operate in Nazi Germany. Strangely enough, the American manufacturers did not show the slightest interest in the German scheme. Henry Ford said, "If someone else can make better and cheaper cars than I, it serves me right."

What is most significant about the entire project is that Hitler did not really care if the car ever went into production. The Volkswagen was a political device, a sop to his public, whose support he desperately needed for his military adventures. There is proof of this. Two months before the cornerstone ceremony, he had annexed Austria. Two days after the ceremony he signed the orders for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and eleven months after that, the Nazi hammer fell on Poland. The German people marched behind Hitler. The Volkswagen, a propaganda tool and unfulfilled promise, was forgotten. Marooned at Wolfsburg were the American technicians and their families.

With the war fully under way, the now completed factory at Wolfsburg was called upon to produce a military vehicle. Porsche redesigned the Volkswagen, enlarging the engine, strengthening the transmission and suspension, and using an open four-seater body. Except for the rear engine it was not unlike the American Jeep. The great advantage of the wartime VW was its weight of only 1,100 pounds and two men could stand it on its wheels if it overturned. It served on all fronts - the mud in Poland; the freezing winters of Russia; the hot sands of Africa. Field Marshal Rommel once pointed out that a Volkswagen would operate where a camel bogged down! A special model of the car was amphibious. With a propeller and rudder added it swam at 15 miles per hour, with a steady 50 miles per hour available on the roads.

It was only after the war that the V W finally fulfilled Hitler's promise, but on a world-wide basis. The Wolfsburg plant was located in the British zone of occupation and became a repair depot. Hundreds of workers and refugees came there for jobs, and the British authorities put them to work just to keep them busy. Using the discovered blueprints, they put the Volkswagen into production. That was in 1946, thirteen years after Hitler's promise. But this time it was really for the people. The cars went on sale, first in Germany, then throughout Europe.

In 1948, the British appointed Dr. Ing. Heinz Nordhoff, a former designer for BMW, as director of the Volkswagen. He began his job with a statement of policy. Remembering the history of the car under Hitler, he said, "The future begins when you cut every tie with the past." Nordhoff remained in charge when the plant was given to the West German government. It prospered. Production went up beyond all expectations, and by 1955 over one million cars had been made. That was the first time in European automobile history that a single car had passed the magic million mark. Nordhoff then established one of the largest service organizations in the world. With replacement parts and service available, the little Volkswagen began to be seen everywhere.

It was seen under exceptional circumstances recently, in California. A service man missed a driveway on a large estate and drove the car into the swimming pool. When the owner dashed out to see what the commotion was all about, he discovered the little beetle-bodied car serenely bobbing on the waves. A Volkswagen will even float!

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