Thursday, April 16, 2015

Volkswagen - Origin of the world beating 'People's Car'

Very few cars have achieved the success and lasting fame of the Volkswagen Beetle. In production for 65 years and selling over 21 million units, it is the longest manufactured and most successful car in history. The Beetle was the realization of a shared vision of a group of Austro-Hungarians; Ferdinand Porsche, Hans Ledwinka, Paul Jaray, Josef Ganz and Adolf Hitler; for a cheap, modern car for the common man. Design and production problems almost strangled the car at birth. It was then almost snuffed out of existence by the Second World War, but somehow, against all the odds, it survived and prospered in ways its originators could never have imagined.

The idea of a 'people's car' was nothing new. Scores of companies attempted to service the lower end of the market with a variety of cycle-cars, velocettes and three-wheelers. These were usually built of cheap materials like plywood and powered by motorcycle engines and, while basic, were at least a step up from a bicycle or motorbike.

DKW's first venture into automobiles was with the electric powered Slaby-Beringer cyclecar.

A high flying concept
One of the central ideas behind the Volkswagen is found in the patents of a Hungarian aeronautical engineer named Paul Jaray. Born in 1899 in Vienna, Paul Jaray studied aeronautics in Prague and wrote extensively on wing design and aeronautical theory. In 1914 he joined the Zeppelin Company and rose through the ranks to become their chief designer.

Jaray recognised the importance of aerodynamic streamlining and he experimented extensively in Zeppelin's wind tunnels on a range of design concepts. After the Treaty of Versailles put an end to Germany's airship industry, Jaray turned his interest to cars. In 1922 he lodged a patent for a car design concept featuring a "half stream-lined body shell" that would "reduce the resistance of air to the highest degree attainable" by "deflecting the air chiefly upwards, as well as rearwards over its top and then down to the bottom with the least disturbance as possible."

One of Jaray's wind tunnel maquettes.

Jaray consulted for a few German automobile manufacturers in the mid-1920s, but these initial experiments proved less than satisfactory. He then moved on to Switzerland and established his own consulting company called Stromlinen Karosserie (streamlined bodywork). As his ideas evolved and automobile companies became more adventurous, Jaray became more successful and by the 1930s he was consulting for companies such as Hanomag, Adler, Mercedes-Benz, Maybach, Auto-Union, Tatra, and Steyer-Puch.

Josef Ganz the Motor-Kritik
Josef Ganz was born in Budapest in 1898 to German and Hungarian parents. In 1916 his parents moved to Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany and the young Ganz left school to enlist in the German army (although he served with the navy). Upon demobilization in 1918 Ganz went to study as a mechanical engineer. His experiences at university made Ganz highly critical of conservatism in the auto industry and in 1927, shortly after graduation, he gave voice to his opinion as the editor-in-chief of Klein Auto Sport magazine, which later became the influential Motor-Kritik magazine.

Passionate about automotive innovation, Josef Ganz railed furiously against the conservative pillars of the German auto industry from the pages of Motor-Kritic. His acerbic commentary resulted in several lawsuits but he was undeterred. It was Ganz who first termed 'volkswagen' to mean a cheap, modern car for the working man. However, during the boom years of the Roaring Twenties most car companies were interested in building larger, more luxurious cars for the rich, not budget cars for the poor. After the Stock Market collapse of 1929, some of the smaller players in the industry saw an opportunity. Ganz was engaged by the Ardie motorcycle company to develop a budget car. A single, very basic prototype was built. Ardie turned down the project which was then picked up by the Adler motorcycle company.

Josef Ganz (left) and Paul Jaray (right) pose in the Adler 'Maikafer' (May beetle). Remarkably the prototype is preserved in the Central Garage Museum, Bad Homburg. and / and

Recent claims that in Ganz' maikafer we have the true origin of the Volkswagen is drawing a very long bow and is not supported by the evidence. The tiny wooden-bodied maikafer, powered by a single cylinder 200cc two stroke engine mounted ahead of the rear axle, differed very little from other contemporary cyclecars, such as the Hanomag Kommissbrot (army loaf).

Truck maker Hanomag's Kommissbrot was a typical budget cars of the late 1920s. The chassis was wood and the body was of plywood with artificial leather covering. Hanomag even made a basic attempt at streamlining, although that could scarcely have improved its mediocre performance! It was powered by a rear mounted single-cylinder 400cc four-stroke engine with chain drive to the rear wheels. Rear mounting the engine had little to do with streamline theory - it simply lowered cost by removing the need for a drive shaft. DKW addressed the same problem by adopting front-wheel drive in their vehicles.

But the Maikafer was Ganz' foot in the door and other commissions started to come his way. In 1932 the Standard Motorcycle Company engaged Ganz to develop the Maikafer concept into a more substantial, budget car. The result was the Standard Superior which they revealed at the Berlin Motor show in 1933.

The Standard display stand at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show. The chassis of the Standard Superior is in the foreground (it also appears on the cover of Motor-Kritik magazine earlier in the article) highlighting the car's modern features, including the central tube chassis developed by Hans Ledwinka of Tatra, independent all-wheel suspension and a rear mounted two-stroke engine.

The first Superior's featured a simple, wooden body, but Standard updated the styling with their Superior 'Deutschen Volkswagen.' With their modern, streamlined appearance the Standard pointed to the future,  but the noise and heat generated by the air-cooled two-stroke engine beneath the tiny rear bench made for an uncomfortable ride for the already cramped passengers. Only a few hundred cars were built.

In 1933 Josef Ganz was engaged as a consultant on Mercedes-Benz' rear-engined 130H project. By the time he joined, the project was in trouble. The original design had factored an air cooled boxer engine, but performance issues with the newly designed engine led Mercedes-Benz to swap it for an inline water cooled engine at the last minute. The new engine compromised the car's centre of gravity, degrading its handling. Neither Ganz nor Ferdinand Porsche, who was also consulted on the project, could salvage the car at this late stage. Released in 1934, the Mercedes-Benz 130H sold poorly. It was improved over subsequent years but gained a reputation as a lemon.

Jaray's Vision Realised
Hans Ledwinka (1879-1967) started his career as a mechanic with the Austrian Nesseldorfer company, a carriage maker who had begun manufacturing cars at the turn of the century. When Nesseldorfer stopped building cars during the First World War, he transferred to the Austrian car manufacturer, Steyr-Puch, where he became their chief engineer. Ledwinka's ambitions to build a cheap modern car bought him into conflict with Steyr-Puch's management and in 1921 he moved back to Nesseldorfer, which was soon renamed Tatra. Ledwinka set to work on the concept he'd been working on at Steyr-Puch. The result was the Tatra T11, which featured a raft of revolutionary features, such as the central backbone chassis, fully independent suspension and four wheel brakes. The T11 was powered by an fan cooled two-cylinder opposed boxer engine.

Josef Ganz demonstrates the robustness of the Tatra T11. For Ganz, Tatra embodied the modern design and innovation that he felt the German auto industry lacked and he borrowed many of their ideas in his designs.

In the mid 1930s, Tatra, always at the cutting edge of automotive design, engaged Paul Jaray as a consultant engineer for their new V570 modern, budget car project. This project proved more challenging than anyone anticipated. The rear mounting of the car's air cooled engine created serious problems with both cooling and handling. Ledwinka spent three years working though the technical challenges, resulting in more than a dozen patents addressing air cooling alone.

The Volkswagen stillborn in Czechoslovakia in 1933. The original prototype was designed as a conventional, front-engined car by Hans Ledwinka's son, Erich and Erich Uberlacher, which went on to become the successful Tatra T57. However, a second rear engined version was also built and this would eventually evolve into Tatra's famous rear-engined streamliners. Several prototypes were built, one of which survives in the Tatra factory museum. 

As the problems with the V570 project increased in complexity, Tatra put the project on hold and released a conventional, front-engined version on the market as the Tatra T57. The T57 proved to be a market winner and would remain in production from 1934 to 1949. While Tatra may have lost faith in the V570 project, they had not lost faith in a Jaray inspired streamlined, rear-engined car. With great vision and foresight they repackaged the project as a luxury sedan, which finally saw the light of day as the legendary Tatra T77 in 1934.

Paul Jaray's streamlined dreams finally came to life in the Tatra T77. For more details about the story of Tatra's streamliners, see my post

Another Vision - the National Car
There was one particularly interested observer amongst the visitors at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show. Adolf Hitler, had just been elected Chancellor of Germany a few months earlier and he used the occasion to made a speech vowing to get Germany motoring. It would be a project of national renewal, restoring Germany as a modern industrial power. Within the year the Ministry of Works had announced the construction of a network of highways, the Autobahns, linking the country. The Autobahns needed cars to drive on them.

Hitler was born in a little village in north western Austria, near Linz, in 1889. He had a troubled home life and was a poor student. When his mother died in 1905 he moved to Vienna where he lived a bohemian, poverty stricken existence. He came to despise the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural character of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and became a radical German nationalist. When the First World War broke out he enlisted in the German Army.

The shock of Germany's defeat in the War, the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles and the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire radicalised him further. In the 1921 Hitler joined the National Socialist German Workers Party. Despite set backs, such as the ill considered 'Beer-Hall' coup in 1923, the Nazi's message program of German nationalism and economic regeneration found an ready audience during the Depression years and by 1933 the Nazi's gained a majority in the Reichstag and Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany. The Nazi's immediately launched a series of industrial programs to rebuild the German economy and 'restore' Germany to its 'rightful' place as the leading nation of Europe.

Although Hitler had never traveled outside of Europe, he recognised that the car industry had been an important factor in the US's economic and industrial growth. He was however opposed to unrestrained US style free-market competition, as that would result in duplication of effort and waste of Germany's limited resources. Germany's transformation into a fully industrialised nation of car owners, driving on modern super highways, would be via a centrally controlled national car project. At the 1934 Berlin Auto Show he challenged the German auto industry to build a modern car, seating four adults, that could cruise at 100 kph, that would be cheap enough for the common man. He set a maximum price cap of 1000 marks for the car. Designs were to be revealed next year at the 1935 Berlin Auto Show.

Photo from the 1935 Berlin Auto Show. The car on the left is the rear-engined Mercedes-Benz 150 sportster and on the right is the famous Mercedes-Benz SSK roadster.

The auto industry was aghast. While they were happy to receive the government's financial support, they resented its political interference. The price of 1000 Marks was also well below the cheapest price of even the simplest vehicle, for instance, DKW's P15, a vehicle largely constructed of wood and artificial leather, cost almost three times the proposed price cap. Industry representatives attempted to negotiate for a more realistic price but Hitler was adamant: the car must be modern, steel and cost less than 1000 Marks.

Josef Ganz must have found it bitterly ironic that Adolf Hitler proved to be the most enthusiastic supporter of his vision of the 'people's car.' Ganz' enemies in the car industry had used the change of government to accuse him of slander and blackmail and he'd been arrested by the Gestapo. He was released in June 1934 and fled Germany for Switzerland. There he continued developing his car designs, but without much success.

Josef Ganz and his Swiss 'volkswagen.' Ganz' experience in Switzerland demonstrated that without substantial financial backing it was impossible to successfully build even budget car. Ganz' volkswagen was simply an improved maikafer cyclecar. Maybe 40 examples were built before the project was terminated.
Ferdinand Porsche and the long pregnancy
Ferdinand Porsche was born to German parents in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1875. He was always mechanically minded and although he studied engineering, he was never formally qualified.

In 1898 Porsche joined the Lohner carriage company in Vienna where he developed an electrically powered car. He later developed the design into a hybrid powered, electric car that proved to be a success and over 300 were built.

Lohner-Porsche hybrid electric car. These novel cars were powered by electric motors mounted within the enlarged front wheel hubs. They used a small petrol engine to keep the batteries charged, thereby reducing the weight of the batteries and extending the cars' range.

In 1906 he joined the Austro-Daimler company and rose through the ranks until he became managing director in 1916. In 1923 he came into conflict with Daimler's management over the direction of the company so he moved to Daimler in Stuttgart where he became technical director working primarily on the racing car designs. In 1926 Daimler merged with the Benz company to become Daimler-Benz, but again he found himself in conflict with the board over his plans for a budget motorcar. In 1929 he quit Daimler-Benz for the Austrian Steyr-Puch company. Steyr had just lost their chief designer, Hans Ledwinka, over a similar dispute and decided not to make the same mistake again, allowing Porsche time to develop his budget car idea, but then the Depression hit and Steyr-Puch went into receivership. They were later bought out by Daimler and Porsche was retrenched.

Sick of corporate interference with his designs, Porsche decided to strike out on his own and in 1931 established his own consultancy company. One of his first projects was to develop a mid-range car for Wanderer. This introduced him to Baron Klaus von Oertzen, formerly managing director of Wanderer and now chairman of the board of Auto-Union. Von Oertzen was looking for a show piece project that would put Auto-Union on the map. Porsche presented a concept for a mid-engined streamlined racing car like one he'd built for Daimler-Benz in the 1920s. This would become the world famous Silver Arrow racers that came to dominate the 1930s Grand Prix racing circuit. For more information about these amazing cars, see the following links: and and

Porsche stands behind world Grand Prix champion, Bernd Rosemeyer, with a Type D Silver Arrow. These were temperamental beasts - the engines required fine tuning by the engineers just to run, while instability with the torsion suspension designed by Porsche required extremely careful handling on the road. In 1938 Rosemeyer lost control of his racer at 268 mph, was thrown from the car and killed instantly.

Zundapp Type 12
Prestige projects like the Silver Arrows helped Porsche bankroll a speculative budget car project but he really needed corporate backing to get it off the ground. In 1932 the motorcycle company Zundapp came forward with a contract for budget car. The resulting 'Type 12' prototype was a semi-streamlined rear-engined vehicle. Porsche designed it for an air-cooled boxer engine design he was working on but Zundapp mounted a 5 cylinder water cooled radial engine of their own design instead. Three prototypes were built, one with Zundapp's engine, one with an air-cooled two cylinder two-stroke, and the third with Porsche's boxer engine. After trials, during which Zundapp's radial engine proved to be much quieter that Porsche's engine, Zundapp decided not to proceed with the project, concentrating instead on their very successful motorcycle business.

Ferdinand Porsche's son, Ferry, stands beside the original Zundapp Type 12 prototype. This example, hand-built at Porsche's workshop has none of the smooth lines and streamlining of the later cars. The other examples were contracted to professional body works. Unfortunately all three prototypes were destroyed during the Second World War. A replica has been built for the Zundapp Museum in Nuremberg. Like Standard and NSU, Zundapp found that the move from motorcycle to car production involved far more capital, re-tooling and re-training than they were prepared to make.

The rear view of a later Zundapp Type 12 sedan prototype shows its streamlining credentials. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the Tatra V570.

NSU Type 32
The motorcycle company NSU picked up the 'volkswagen' project from Zundapp. This new car, called Type 32, was powered by Porsche's four cylinder air-cooled boxer engine and addressed some of the flaws of the Type 12. However, Porsche's patent torsion suspension proved problematic and there were still problems with the boxer engine. These problems could have been overcome with more development but NSU withdrew from the project after construction of three prototypes.

The original and surviving Type 32 was more streamlined than the Zundapp Type 12, but still quite ungainly. Two other prototypes were built, one with a wood and artificial leather body and another in steel. Both were destroyed during the war. The original Type 32 was traded back to the Volkswagen Museum in the 1950s.

The Type 32 with 'modernised' headlights at Volkswagen exhibition in the 1960s.

Thwarted again, Porsche changed tack. In 1934 he wrote a letter directly to the Adolf Hitler outlining his plans for a 'people's car' and seeking government backing. Porsche had already met Hitler when von Oertzen made his pitch for sponsorship of the Auto Union racing program. To showcase Germany's sporting and industrial prowess, Hitler had ensured that his favourite automotive company, Mercedes-Benz, received state sponsorship to the tune of 500,000 Marks for its racing program. Obtaining a similar government grant would be an important lifeline to the newly founded Auto Union, but Hitler dismissed von Oertzen's request, claiming Auto-Union were an unknown company without any reputation in the racing field. The mercurial Porsche, who had little tact and enormous self-confidence, dismissed the Fuhrer's arguments out of hand and laid out his own vision for the Auto-Union racing program. Hitler was not used to being contradicted, especially in public, but found Porsche's gruff confidence compelling and he agreed to grant Auto-Union a matching grant.

Now Porsche put Hitler to the test. Was he really serious about a people's car? If he was, now was the time to put his money where his mouth was as Germany's car industry had no intention of delivering the 'cheap car.' Porsche however, could deliver the car, but he needed funding.

Hitler sent for Porsche and the two discussed details of the design. Hitler didn't think much of Porsche's Type 32 design and recommended some aesthetic changes, but the two were basically on the same page. Porsche was given a small grant to develop a prototype.

Two V3 prototypes were built in the garage of Porsche's home in Stuttgart as there wasn't sufficient room to build them at his design studio. Three more were contracted out to Daimler-Benz. Several different engines were tried, including a water-cooled two-cylinder two-stroke, an Austin vertical four and the air-cooled boxer engine that had been trialled in the NSU Type 32. All proved to be noisy and unreliable. The engine finally chosen was an improved 984cc flat four, air-cooled boxer engine that had been redesigned by Franz Reimspiess of Porsche's design team. It's an important fact to note that the Volkswagen was the result of the efforts of a large design team, with specialists working on their various components. These included, Karl Rabe, working on the air cooling, Karl Frohlich, working on the transmission, Josef Zahradnik working on the axles and suspension, and Josef Mickl, as aerodynamic consultant.

Ferry Porsche behind the wheel of one of the V3 prototypes. The V3 featured the Tatra-styled bonnet mounted headlights that Hitler had recommended. These would soon be remounted in the wheel arches in the V30.

In 1935 all five prototypes were then put through their paces by the German Automobile Manufacturers Association. Each vehicle was driven 30,000 kilometres and their performance was carefully noted and a report was presented in January 1937. All five vehicles had suffered significant, even catastrophic, break downs and accidents. Almost every component failed, from fractured crankshafts (traced to the poor quality cast iron used), brake failure, electrical failure, steering failure, and importantly, Porsche's patent torsion suspension failed in most vehicles. The suspension would need substantial strengthening if it were to last. Such a report could have spelt the death knell for the Volkswagen, but the all test drivers had felt that the cars had good handling qualities. The Manufacturers Association concurred and recommended that another series of cars be built which addressed the identified faults. They requested 30 cars be delivered for a second round of testing.

Hitler was furious when he received the report. Four years had passed since he'd announced a national 'People's car' project and he still had nothing to show for it. The private car companies had opposed him at every turn, turning out either over-priced standard cars or inadequate plywood kleinautos, while Porsche's promised volkswagen was going to require at least another year of development. His mood was not lightened when at the 1937 Berlin Auto Show Opel described their P-4 sedan as "our volkswagen." Hitler flew into a rage and during his opening speech reminded his audience, "Either automobile makers produce the cheap car or they go out of business. I will not tolerate the plea, 'it cannot be done!'" Opel quickly found themselves very much on the wrong side of the Nazi's.

Opel introduced the P-4 in 1935. Prices ranged from 1800 to 1600 Marks, depending on the model. In response to Hitler's outrage Opel proposed to reduce the price to 1400 Marks, but the Nazi's disallowed the price reduction - there would be no competitor to the volkswagen.

The Berlin Auto Show debacle transformed the volkswagen project. Hitler was no longer prepared to leave the project in the hands of private industry. The volkswagen project became a nationalised program of work under the auspices of the KDF (Labour Front) organisation. KDF were assigned the task of building a showpiece factory, the largest in the country, with a forecast production capacity of one million cars per year. They settled on the little town of Wolfsburg in Lower Saxony. On a huge estate appropriated from the local count they began construction of an enormous factory and residential units for the projected hundreds of thousands of workers it would require. The town was renamed Stadt des KDF-wagen dei Fallersleben (city of the KDF car near Fallersleden) or more simply, das Autostadt, the car city.

Construction of the power plan complex at Wolfsburg. Wolfsburg was chosen as it was situated at a rail and canal intersection in the middle of the country.

In the meantime Daimler-Benz was ordered to build the 30 new prototypes and this time there was to be no cost cutting measures. Each of the cars was hand-built. The cars were delivered to an SS transport unit for testing in June 1937. The cars were then put through an intensive continuous driving test for 50,000 kilometres.

Porsche observes one of the type 30 test vehicles. With this model the true volkswagen has taken shape, with fender mounted headlights. The trunk lid is much smaller than in the production version however.

The Daimler built type 30s are distinguishable by their lack of a rear window.

The type 30s performed well in testing and in 1938 an improved version, the KDF 38, went into production. This model was the true Volkswagen that we know today. On 26 May 1938 Adolf Hitler laid the cornerstone of the Wolfsburg factory. At an elaborate unveiling ceremony, the KDF 38 models were revealed and grandiose speeches were made about future of Germany and the Volkswagen. The Volkswagen would come in three basic models, a hard top sedan, rag top cabriolet, and a convertible.

The full, elaborate ceremonial of the Nazi state was put on show for the unveiling of the Volkswagen.

Adolf Hitler was presented with his own Volkswagen convertible.

There was considerable interest in the Volkswagen both within Germany and abroad, even in far away Australia. On 17 February 1938, the Barrier Miner, Victoria, published this write up of the Berlin Auto Show and the unveiling of the Volkswagen.

THE four-year plan of economic self-sufficiency had been tremendously successful, declared Herr Hitler today when opening the Berlin Motor Show, at which the "people's car" was shown for the first time. "We aimed to make the motor industry independent of foreign materials, and tremendous labor was involved. Revolutionary inventions exclude the further use of basic raw materials, even if they are available in unlimited quantities. We have succeeded in increasing Germany's power and confidence. Thus prepared, it will energetically undertake further great tasks. There are now 80,000,000 Germans, forming a mighty consumptive power within a unified economic system, enabling cheaper marketing and production. Thereby we are able to lower the cost of radios, films, and motor cars. The future development of the motor industry will include a reduction in the number of types, lower prices, and a reduction in weight. Hitler rebuked fast drivers, saving that it was an art to drive slowly. Those who drove fast could easily spare the 30 minutes saved by mad speed.
The Minister for Propganda (Dr. Goebbels) said that 1900 miles of motor roads had been built throughout Germany during the Nazi regime. It was intended to build a further 3000 miles in the next 10 to 15 years. They would be of the utmost importance from a defence viewpoint.
The president of the Reich Federation for the Motor Industry said that, although raw material prices in Germany were double those of the United States, car prices were being reduced because of the more extensive use of artificial materials, such as rubber and petrol. The textile component of tyres shortly would be artificial silk, instead of cotton.
The "people's car" attracted thousands of visitors. It will not be marketed until 1940, but many Germans already are paying installments on it. It is a roomy five-seater, rear-engined saloon, capable of 60 miles an hour. When the German demand is satisfied, it will be exported to south-eastern Europe.

This diagram, which appeared in numerous Australian newspapers in May 1936, was the first that non-Germans saw of the new 'volkswagen.' Some basic elements of the design were captured correctly, but many early features of the V3 prototypes were wrong, such as the plywood floor and two-stroke air-cooled engine. The torsion bar suspension system wasn't fully understood either.

A purchase plan arrangement was set up for buyers via a 5 Mark per week lay away plan. The plan however favoured the Nazi's more than the customers. The car had to be paid for in full before it would be delivered. Also, if a payment was missed the contract could be voided without compensation. Nevertheless, some 336,000 Germans signed up for the plan, paying more than 280 million marks into the fund by the war's end.

The KDF fund prospectus.

Fantastic promotional movie from 1938 sells the Volkswagen dream - freedom to go where you want. It was a powerful message.

Oddly enough, although the Nazi administration was renowned for its corruption, at the end of the war the KDF Volkswagen fund was found intact. The fund and all its records were confiscated by the British occupation forces to prevent it being falling into Soviet hands.

Unfortunately, none of these 'savers' were to receive their car. With the advent of the war the KDF works was reallocated to war production, although it never operated at its full capacity. A military version of the volkswagen was built as a general staff car. The kubelwagen jeep and the schwimmwagen amphibious car were developed based the volkswagen engine and chassis, although neither were completely manufactured at Wolfsburg. The volkswagen's survival after the war was a miracle in itself, no more surprising than its difficult evolution and birth. But that's another story...

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