Tuesday, April 21, 2015

History of the Karmann Ghia

60th Anniversary of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. The story of how the iconic little VW roadster came into existence is shrouded in myth and mystery and unfortunately, as the principles in the story are no longer with us, we will never be able to define ‘the truth’ of the tale.

The story as we know it begins in 1933 when Adolf Hitler opened the Berlin Motor Show with a call to develop a cheap, modern car affordable for the German worker. Several companies attempted to design a ‘People’s Car’ (or volks-wagen) but it ultimately was Dr Ferdinand Porsche’s design that received the nod of approval. The German government funded the construction of the largest automobile plant in Europe and planned to produce 1 million cars a year by 1940. If these plans had come to fruition, Germany would have become Europe’s number one automobile manufacturer, but the Second World War put paid to that idea.

Despite being bombed repeatedly during the war, the Volkswagen factory was quickly cleaned up and Volkswagen sedans began to trickle off the production line as early as 1946. The original beetle had been proposed in three body styles – a standard hard-top sedan, a rag-top sunroof sedan, and a soft-top cabriolet. The VW factory manufactured the hard and rag-top models but due to shortages of steel and capacity issues production of the soft-top was outsourced to the specialist body builder Karmann. Karmann had been bodying cars since 1902 and had specialised in convertibles for a range of German car companies during the pre-war period, such as Opel and Adler.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, VW was virtually the only German car company able to maintain volume production. This led a number of smaller coachworks, such as Denzel, Hebmuller and Rometsch, to fit custom sportster bodies over VW chassis. These rare and highly prized vehicles showed that the beetle design could be made into a sportster, but the cost to do so was often prohibitive.

Denzel built sporty roadsters on VW running gear. Denzel may have served as the inspiration for the Porsche 356.

Rometsch were a luxury bodybuilder who attempted to turn the humble VW into a luxury cabriolet and coupe. Rometschs' efforts earned them the ire of VW managing director Heinz Nordhoff, who deliberately blocked them from purchasing VW chassis and engines. This forced them to buy whole cars from local dealerships. Nordhoff then instructed the dealers to refuse Rometsch's custom, so Romestsch had to send their employees out to buy cars in their own names. This process was unsustainable and Romestsch were quickly forced out of business. Romestsch cars are highly sought after today.

Drews of Wuppertal began building their attractive aluminum bodied sportster in 1947. 150 cars were built before the company folded.

Over at Karmann, the new managing director, Wilhelm Karmann Junior, was concerned about the future of the company. Although the VW cabriolet contract was turning out approximately 10,000 cars a year, Karmann’s other major contract with DKW was looking shaky as that company began to wind back sales of its cabriolet and coupe model. Looking for a new project to fill the gap left by DKW, Karmann pitched a proposal for a sleek coupe design to VW. VW general manager, Heinz Nordhoff, dismissed the idea as he did not believe that a VW sportster could be built for an economical price. Karmann persisted and began working on a wooden mock up. VW still rejected the idea.

In 1952 Karmann met Luigi Segre, stylist for the Carrozzeria Ghia of Turin, Italy at the Turin Motor Show and the two discussed Karmann’s ideas for a sporty Volkswagen. Nothing formal had been agreed but Segre had an idea. Ghia had been working on a sportster design for the US Chrysler company, but the project had been abandoned. Segre saw an opportunity to reuse the Chrysler design and, without advising Karmann, secretly bought a second-hand beetle and fitted it with the Chrysler bodywork. Ghia unveiled the car at the 1953 Paris Motor Show, where it drew considerable attention. Ghia however did not have a contract with VW to build any cars so enlisted Karmann’s support with the notoriously difficult Nordhoff.

From the front (above), the Chrysler K310 Elegance looks nothing like a Karmann Ghia, but from the side and rear, it's an exact match. The hump around the rear wheel arch is a distinctive giveaway.

Karmann was impressed with Ghia’s styling and agreed to present the car to Nordhoff. Nordhoff conceded that the car was stunning but remained dubious that the car could be built for an acceptable price - but he did not say no. Karmann had to really pare back the design to meet VW’s price requirements, but by 1954 the car was officially revealed to the public. A three way partnership was agreed where Karmann built and fitted the bodywork to what was essentially a modified VW beetle chassis and engine. Ghia received a commission for their design but weren’t involved in the actual production.

The VW Karmann Ghia 1953 prototype differs in a number of respects from the production version. Most obviously there are no 'nostrils' in the front.

The tail lights and engine deck-lid vents are different too.

Wilhelm Karmann and Luigi Segre beside their creation

The VW Karmann Ghia (Type 14) went on sale in August 1955 and was an immediate success. The Karmann Ghia catered to customers who wanted a cheap and reliable but sporty looking car. Given that its VW underpinnings were the same as a standard beetle’s, the car really didn’t deliver sports car performance! Large numbers were exported to the United States, where they helped Volkswagen break into the US car market.

Ghia marketing was pitched at female drivers.

The classic, curvaceous Type 14 Karmann Ghia remained in production from 1954 to 1974. Small changes to styling and fittings were made year on year and the Karmann Ghia received periodic engine upgrades, starting out with the standard 1200cc in 1955 and ending with the 1600cc in 1963. Over 445,000 were made, which is an extraordinary volume for what was essentially a hand-built car.

Producing the body's complex curves required a substantial amount of hand welding, which limited the number of cars the factory could produce.

A train load of Karmann Ghias on their way to market

In 1961 VW introduced the new 1500 notchback sedan. Ghia of Turin was again engaged as stylists for a new generation of Karmann Ghia based on the 1500. The new Type 35 Karmann Ghia carried forward the square styling of the notchback and was nicknamed the ‘razor’s edge’ due its sharply edged bonnet. The ’razor’ was a completely different car from its Type 14 predecessor, being much roomier inside and with a better engine. However, its styling proved less than appealing and sales of the new model were sluggish. The Type 34 was withdrawn from sale in July 1974 with sales of only 42,505.

The new Type 34 styling was more in keeping with the squarer look of the times.

Karmann turned out both the Type 14 and Type 34 for several years. As is evident in the brochure, the Type 34 was a much larger car than its predecessor, with more headroom, more modern features and a better engine, but customers never really warmed to the car and the Type 14 continued to outsell it by a significant margin.

Ghia continued to style new model Karmann Ghia’s on Volkswagen's behalf right through the late 60s and early 70s. A new model was planned for release in 1975 but declining sales of their rear engine range led Volkswagen to make a radical decision and move into front engined, front wheel drive cars, based on the Audi platform. The 1975 Karmann Ghia model was shelved, except in Brasil, where it was released as the Karmann Ghia TC.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Death and Resurrection of the Volkswagen

Allied war planners reviewing aerial photography of their bombing raids on Volkswagen's Wolfsburg factory must have felt satisfied with their work.  The photographs revealed the complete destruction of a large central section of the factory and a pockmark of bomb craters across much of the rest. A damaged Lancaster bomber had even crashed through the roof 1944. Yet, the reality was quite different. Despite the visible devastation, production at Wolfsburg had barely been impacted. As the Allies bombing campaign became more intense during the war, the Germans were forced to reorganise their industries to cope. Post-war studies of the effectiveness of Allied strategic bombing revealed that German industrial capacity actually increased during the war and only collapsed at the end when Allied ground troops physically overran the factories and their transport lines.

At Wolfsburg, critical machinery, such as industrial presses, were distributed to surrounding villages and rural areas where they were safe from Allied bombing. The production lines were moved from the main hall to the vast factory basement, where it was protected by the reinforced concrete roof and floor. These changes inevitably slowed production, but production never stopped.

Production and vehicle repairs shop was moved to the vast reinforced basement during the war. British inspectors, used to small scale production facilities in the UK, thought that the basement was Volkswagen's main production floor.

Wolfsburg was situated in the geographical centre of Germany and with US and British troops advancing from the west and Soviet troops closing from the east, there was a great deal of anxiety at the factory about who would reach the town first. Due to the rumours about the destruction and vengeance wrought by the Soviets in the east, everyone hoped it would be Americans or British. The Porsches', along with their son-in-law, Anton Piech, and the senior management of Volkswagen opted to take no chances and fled to southern Bavaria, near the border with Austria. On 10 April 1945 US troops arrived and accepted the surrender of the virtually empty factory.

Hall 2 was flattened by bombing, but had never been fitted out and was largely used for storage.

The factory certainly looked worse for wear. In addition to the bomb damage, the factory’s forced labour force had run amok, smashing windows, setting fire to offices and vandalizing the machinery. Nevertheless, senior engineer, Rudolf Brormann maintained a cool head and saw an opportunity to keep the factory running. The exhausted US 9th Army had been in hot pursuit of retreating German forces for several weeks and their vehicles were in desperate need of maintenance and repair. Brormann made the factory’s maintenance services available to the army and offered to supply them with 110 brand new German kubelwagens that had yet to be dispatched. Brormann offered to build 1,000 more kubelwagens from available stocks of parts. A contract was signed and the US Army authorized the Reich Bank to advance Volkswagen RM1,350,000 to recommence production. Interestingly, all the kubelwagens were painted in the desert sand colour scheme of the Afrika Korps. When the Americans questioned why, given that the Afrika Korps had not existed since 1943, Brormann admitted that all no one had officially instructed them to paint them any other colour. The Americans accepted the new vehicles and quickly moved on.

US forces at Wolfsburg. The large rectangular building in the background is the power station.

On 26 May 1945,the Americans handed over the factory to the British Occupation Forces. No sooner had the British taken possession of the factory than specialists from the British automotive industry arrived on site to conduct an assessment. Over the next few years dozens of inspectors and technical committees from a wide range of countries would call at the factory.

This photo from the power station shows the gaping hole in Hall 1's roof. Beyond is the demolished Hall 2.

The Allies had agreed amongst themselves that Germany would be disarmed, its industrial capacity destroyed and factories closed and the country transformed into an agricultural society. All German technology and patents were to be expropriated by the victors. As a military facility the Volkswagen plant was designated to be dismantled and its assets distributed as reparations. Colonel Charles Radclyffe and Major Ivan Hirst of the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (who both had connections to the British motoring industry and were car enthusiasts) were tasked to secure the factory and supervise the liquidation of its assets. Upon first inspection they believed the factory to have been badly damaged and virtually worthless, but on closer inspection discovered that the damage they’d observed was either superficial or fake. In fact, to prevent the inspectors from stripping the factory, the workers and management had disguised its undamaged and fully functioning machinery with carefully placed rubble and rubbish.

A forlorn VW sits in Hall 1. It was this car that gave Ivan Hirst the idea to begin production of the civilian Volkswagen.

To keep the factory running Brormann offered Radclyffe and Hirst to build Volkswagens for the British in exchange for food and supplies. This placed Radclyffe and Hirst in a quandary. The British authorities had no desire to keep the Volkswagen plant running, but like the Americans they were facing an acute shortage of transport. As the British auto industry transitioned from military to civilian production, the supply of vehicles to the Occupation Forces dried up and the few vehicles that did make it over to the continent found the going particularly rough on Germany’s shattered roads. Inevitably the British team had commandeered the few Volkswagens on site for their own use and, despite their initial scepticism, they were soon won over by the cars’ robustness and reliability. Radclyffe and Hirst recognised that the Volkswagen offered a solution to the Occupation Forces vehicle shortage and signed an agreement with the factory management to build 20,000 cars for the British Occupation Authority.

The question at Volkswagen was now ‘what car to build?’ They had built military kubelwagens for the Americans from stocks of parts delivered in late 1944, but the Ambi-Budd karosseriewerkes in Berlin that manufactured the kubelwagen bodies had been leveled by Allied bombing. What little remained of their factory, including the panel presses for the kubelwagen and schwimmwagen had then been dismantled by Soviet engineering teams and shipped to the Soviet Union as reparations. The British made tentative inquiries with their Soviet counterparts about returning the presses but relations between the former Allies were already turning frosty and the Soviets dragged their feet.

British drivers and the first run of Volkswagens outside the Wolfsburg plant. These are military style VWs mounted on a kubelwagen high clearance chassis.

With no more kubelwagen bodies on hand, the factory was forced to use the civilian Volkswagen body. During the entire war only 600 civilian Volkswagens had been built, all for military use and most mounted on a kubelwagen chassis. Steel however was in short supply so panels were welded from steel offcuts, cannibalized panels from damaged vehicles and other random oddments and then hammered into shape by hand. As a result the first generation of post-war Volkswagens were of shockingly poor quality, broke down regularly and rusted rapidly. Many were destroyed in crashes due to the combination of poor brakes, dreadful roads and reckless drivers. However, the shortage of roadworthy vehicles meant even the most catastrophically damaged vehicles were dragged back to the factory and repaired or cannibalized for parts.

Nothing was wasted. Such was the scarcity of parts and steel that every damaged VW, regardless of its condition, was returned to Wolfsburg for repair.

The French Connection

As the first post war Volkswagens began rolling off the production line, the authorities in the neighbouring French Occupation Zone began to show particular interest. The French automobile industry had suffered from confiscations of plant, material and trained workers during the war years and French authorities were particularly keen to extract reparations from the Germans. The French Authorities presented Volkswagen’s British administrators with a demand for materials and machinery. To fulfill the demand would have shut down production, so the Hirst and Radclyffe made a counter-offer in the form of completed Volkswagens. The French were also suffering a shortage of transport so, although they found it distasteful, they agreed to take a consignment of Volkswagens in exchange. The trouble was that the British did not have a sufficient supply of steel to complete the order so they did a deal to use an allocation of steel earmarked for the French reconstruction to build the cars. It was an unorthodox approach but was typical of Ivan Hirst’s quick thinking expediency. The supply of French steel allowed the Volkswagen plant to begin production in earnest, and within a year, the Dutch Volkswagen agent Ben Pon placed the first commercial order with the company for Volkswagens.

The French weren’t only interested in Volkswagen’s plant and material, they also wanted Dr Ferdinand Porsche. The Porsche family had fled to Austria at the end of the war. Ferdinand Porsche had been interrogated by the Americans, but when the French requested he be handed over to them, they demurred. These maneuverings made the British authorities suspicious that the French intended to claim the Volkswagen plant for reparations. In fact this was exactly the French government’s intention.

If there was one thing the British motoring industry was certain of, it was that it did not want anything to do with Hitler’s ‘people’s car’, but even more so they didn’t want anyone else having it either – especially not the French! Hirst and Radclyffe were ordered to delay and disrupt the demands from the French authorities while London attempted to develop a coherent strategy.

Despite all their disparaging reviews of the Volkswagen, there was a begrudged recognition that the Volkswagen could provide suitable service in the far-flung corners of the Empire, where consumers were far less sophisticated. However, British manufacturers were counting on the Commonwealth export market for their post-war recovery.

Actually, within the hallowed halls in London the decision was cut and dried – the Volkswagen plant must be liquidated as soon as possible and instructions were sent to Berlin to finalise the inventory and commence liquidation. Radclyffe had since been promoted to a senior position in the British Occupation Authority, leaving Hirst in charge of the day to day running of Volkswagen. Radclyffe knew that liquidating Volkswagen was far more difficult that London realised and raised a series of concerns with London.

Firstly, the British Authorities had an unfulfilled contract with Volkswagen for the supply of 20,000 vehicles. He also pointed out that the French and Dutch had also placed orders with the company and had committed funds and resources. It would not be appropriate for the British to unilaterally cancel the contract and upset their Allies.

Radclyffe then questioned the social impact. The Volkswagen factory provided work for over 1,000 people. If the factory was closed what would be done with the workers, who would clearly become a burden on the over-stretched budget of the British zone? He also noted that Volkswagen’s electrical plant also provided both power and heating to the 100,000 residents in the nearby township of Wolfsburg. Did the liquidation order extend to the power plant?

Things were tough after the war. The grounds around the factory were used to grow crops.

Radclyffe’s questions were enough to stall London’s plans for the time being. Hirst still had his hands full though fending off demands from the representatives of British and continental companies who arrived at Wolfsburg with requisition orders for machinery and supplies. Hirst even resorted the trick Volkswagen management had pulled on himself when a delegation arrived at the factory demanding the release of Volkswagen’s main industrial press. While Hirst took the delegation on a long winded, circuitous tour of the facility, workers hastily covered the press with tarpaulins and piled it with rubble and debris. The visitors where then taken to view a pile of bomb damaged, broken machinery and invited to take anything they thought they could salvage. Inevitably of course, they declined the offer and left empty handed. Another trick Hirst employed was to take delegations on a tour of the facility in the factory’s sole surviving schwimmwagen, all the while plying them with liquor. At a certain point in the tour Hirst would lose control of the car and plunge off the roadway into the canal. These sort of larks invariably distracted the delegation from their purpose.

In December 1945 the French government invited Porsche to Paris, ostensibly to discuss licensing manufacture of a French Volkswagen. Ferdinand, Ferry and Anton Piech traveled to Paris but quickly found themselves in a political pressure cooker. The French government intended seizing the Volkswagen factory and moving it to France as reparations and they wanted Porsche’s patents. When Porsche stonewalled, the trio were arrested as war criminals. After four months imprisonment Ferry was released and hurried back to Stuttgart. To raise funds to secure his father’s release, Ferry began to promote a custom sportster that he’d been developing in Gmund. The first cars were entirely hand built from assorted VW parts in barn. Now Ferry moved the operation to Porsche’s Stuttgart workshop and started taking orders – with payment up front.

Ferry and Ferdinand Porsche with 356 number 1

While Ferry was busy founding Porsche, his father was engaged in a battle of wills with the French government and, surprisingly, Porsche was winning. In France, as in England, a ‘behind the scenes’ political storm was raging between the government and the auto industry. The government wanted to seize Volkswagen’s assets and begin its own nationalised car project, but the two majors of the French auto industry, Citroen and Renault, had ideas of their own.

Citroen and Renault had been eager observers of Germany’s Volkswagen project. Both companies realised that if successful, the German Volkswagen would come to dominate the European small car market and so they set about designing a suitable competitor. Citroen started work on their ‘very small car’ project that would eventually become the ubiquitous Citroen 2CV in 1936.

During the war years Citroen hid the prototypes and plans in rural France. After the war the car was developed as the 2CV.

Renault however did not make a start on their project until 1943. The Renault project, carried out in utmost secrecy right under the noses of their German overseers, was modeled on the Volkswagen itself (which Renault engineers had observed at the 1938 Berlin Auto Show) and would later become the Renault 4CV. Both companies realised that if the government’s Volkswagen project, it would be a direct threat to their business, so they began lobbying against the government’s plans. As the government was a major shareholder in both companies, they quickly realised the Volkswagen plan was against their own interests and shelved the idea.

The pressure on Porsche now relaxed, but he was not immediately released. The French authorities still wanted his technical expertise and he was only freed after begrudgingly agreeing to provide consultancy to Renault. By this time the development of the Renault 4CV was too far advanced for Porsche to have any real influence on its design, but did make a few unenthusiastic suggestions, which did little to endear him with his French counterparts. Finally, in August 1946, he was freed to return home. Interestingly, the French government have sealed the records of Porsche's case until  2047.

The mad scramble

Under Ivan Hirst’s management the Volkswagen plant slowly began to show promise. In 1945 1,785 cars trickled out of the factory. In 1946, 10,000. The company was no longer dependent on military contracts and was now fulfilling civilian orders, but the question of ownership of the company was never far away. With both British and French interests out of the picture, a range of suitors came courting. Henry Ford was offered the factory as compensation for damage incurred to the German Ford factory in Cologne. Henry Ford Junior quickly recognised that the Volkswagen was a sure fire winner in shattered post-war Europe, but his obstinate father, who seemed to delight in humiliating his son, rejected the offer.

The father of the Australian motoring industry, Sir Lawrence Hartnett, inspected the factory in 1947. Hartnett, who had been instrumental in establishing General-Motors Holden as Australia’s first true car manufacturer, had recently fallen out with General-Motors’ US management over their refusal to build a tough and cheap car for Australian conditions. Two Volkswagens had been sent to Australia for evaluation in 1945 and Hartnett recognised that the Volkswagen was exactly the type of car he had envisaged and he actively began lobbying the Australian government to accept the factory as reparations. Nevertheless, he too was thwarted by the very industry he had spent years developing.

Other countries now made offers, some serious, some opportunistic. The Soviets offered to purchase the factory and move it to East Germany. Finally, after more than a year of stalling, they returned Ambi-Budd’s kubelwagen and schwimmwagen body presses, but these were found to be so damaged and corroded as to be entirely useless. Then again, the time when these would have been useful had long passed.

Germany accepts the challenge

By 1949 the question of Volkswagen’s ownership was becoming urgent and, with no viable offers on the table, the British occupation authorities decided to turn the factory over to the Germans. But whom exactly? The company had been owned originally by the Nazi Labour Front and they no longer existed. After much debate, the decision was made to create a public share company. An allocation of shares went to the employees, to the State Bank of Saxony, who had funded the venture, and the state of Lower Saxony.

Radclyffe signs over the Volkswagen factory.

The company had been in German hands for some time. The British had originally installed a German lawyer Herman Munch as managing director in 1945, but he had proven incompetent. Hirst was defacto managing director and held out a hope that he would be formally offered the position. Unfortunately for Hirst, Volkswagen offered the position to a German, Heinz Nordfhoff. Nordhoff had been the managing director of GM-Opel’s truck division during the war and had consequently been banned, along with all Opel senior management, from holding any position in a GM company. He had originally hoped the ban would be short-lived and he would eventually be welcomed back to his beloved Opel, but Opel’s new American management dissuaded him (and others) that he could ever return. Despondent, he had bounced between the shattered remains of the German auto industry until he would up at Volkswagen. Before the war, Nordhoff had been a fierce critic of the Volkswagen and, even now, he could barely disguise his disgust for the ‘horrible’ little car. But in 1947 Volkswagen was virtually the only German car company that was actually functioning so he accepted the job. Over the next 20 years he would come to utterly dominate the company; both building the company into the automotive juggernaut it is today while simultaneously stifling its development.

VW workers 'celebrate' the 10,000th car with placards protesting the shortage of food and wages. Nordhoff's firm hand stamped out such troubles and gained his employees respect.

Hirst, who’d done so much to get Volkswagen onto its feet, was unceremoniously shown the door; an embarrassing reminder of the occupation period. He went on to work in the Foreign Office, but remained a passionate enthusiast for Volkswagen all his life.

Ivan Hirst and his personal VW.

Nordhoff now had the field to himself and he intended to make some changes, but that is another story…..

Volkswagen History 
Part 1 - Origin http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/volkswagen-world-beating-peoples-car.html
Part 2 - War http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/volkswagen-at-war.html

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Volkswagen at War

The Volkswagen’s amazing post-war success disguises the fact that, even with the unconditional financial and logistic support of the Nazi Party, there was no guarantee that the car would be anything more than a short termed venture. In 1939 the KDF was an entirely unproven vehicle and although it possessed several positive features, these were outweighed by numerous defects. Ironically, war was the crucible that turned the Volkswagen into a viable automobile.

Hitler’s KDF ‘people’s car’ project was a radical initiative without precedent in history. The project’s goals were audacious – to build a modern steel car, capable of transporting a family of four at a maximum speed of 100kph, and that would be economic on fuel and maintenance. The car would be paid for by subscription and built in the largest, most modern automobile factory in the Europe at the rate of 1 million cars per year. Both domestic and international observers questioned whether any of this was really possible.

A model of the giant Volkswagen factory that was to be built at Fallersleben (Wolfsburg) was displayed at the 1938 Berlin Auto Show. It would be the largest, purpose built auto factory in the world. A canal runs along the right hand side of the model. The factory power plant is visible as the slightly taller building at the top right hand corner of the model.

That was in 1934. After years of time-consuming development and frustrating setbacks, Hitler finally presented the KDF wagen to the German people at the 1938 Berlin Auto Show. The car, designed by the celebrated engineer, Ferdinand Porsche, whose work on the Auto-Union Silver Arrows had made him a household name, attracted immediate attention. It featured a mix of cutting edge technology, such as torsion bar suspension and rear mounted, low compression engine, but was compromised by low quality, cost saving fittings, such cable brakes and an unsynchronised gearbox. The bodywork was unlike almost every other car on the road, being curvaceous rather than streamlined. The car's styling instantly polarized opinion with some critics slamming the car as ‘ugly.’ A small handful of motoring critics were permitted to test drive the car and their reviews were mixed. In spite of the car's relatively poor handling one important feature was noted from the beginning – the car's engine was ultra-reliable and would run, tirelessly, under all conditions. Many thousands of customers didn’t need convincing and rushed to sign up to the purchase scheme. By 1940 336,000 customers had committed to the scheme.


The Nazi’s spared no expense on car’s promotion. A trio of cars stood as honour guard at the ground breaking ceremony at the site of the Wolfsburg factory and then did a publicity tour of the country. Hitler received the gift of a Volkswagen convertible for his 50th birthday and a car was donated to Germany’s Grand Prix driving team.

Ferry Porsche chauffeurs Hitler and his father in Hitler's Volkswagen convertible.

Germany's victorious Grand Prix drivers, Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch and Hermann Lang mess around with their presentation Volkswagen.

The KDF organization produced a lavish 30 page vehicle prospectus, along with advertisements, flyers, promotional materials and newsletters. Yet, mosth of this was activity was smoke and mirrors as the Wolfsburg factory had yet to build a single vehicle. The pre-production Volkswagens had been hand-built by Daimler-Benz, Porsche Gmbh and a handful of karosseriewerkes at a cost in excess of the price of a Rolls-Royce limousine. The shortage of actual vehicles meant that the prototypes and pre-production cars were recycled, rebuilt and often substantially modified, making it extremely difficult to definitively trace the car's technical development.

A rare colour photograph of four pre-production VW30 models on tour through Berlin. The same cars were modified and repainted several times to give the impression there were more of them than there actually were.

The Nazi authorities recognized the provisional nature of the Volkswagen because they offered Porsche and his company a sweetheart contract that effectively made him a millionaire overnight. Not only was Porsche paid a one Mark commission on every Volkswagen built, he was guaranteed 2,500 engineering days and 30,000 workshop hours per annum to continue development. To tie him to the venture, the Nazi’s also built Porsche a house at Wolfsburg overlooking the factory.

Porsche was attentive to the development of the factory, which was rapidly taking shape as the most modern automotive factory in the world, but his mercurial interest in the car itself rapidly waned. Improving the car was a matter of details - details that could be left to others - and Porsche turned his attention to other projects, such as the ‘volksschlepper’ (people’s tractor).

Ferdinand Porsche (standing to the right of the petrol tank in the black hat) briefs civilian and military personnel on the Volksschepper project. Although not as 'sexy' as the Volkswagen project, the industrialization of Germany's agricultural sector was just as important a priority for the Nazi's.  The Porsche tractor project, however, would not be be complete until after the war.

Ferry Porsche takes charge
Ferdinand Porsche’s son, Ferry, had been intimately involved in Volkswagen project from the beginning. He had coordinated the cars grueling road testing and development phase in 1936 and he now took control of the Volkswagen project. While his brother-in-law, Anton Peich, set up the production facilities at the new factory, Ferry and the Porsche design team worked on improving his father’s design.

Ferry Porsche (the young man in the black suit, second from the right) looks on while his father briefs Hitler at the 1938 Berlin Auto Show.

The Kubelwagen
With friends among the SS and Nazi leadership, Ferry realized that Germany would be at war by 1940, which would likely coincide with the completion of the Wolfsburg factory, and war, by anyone’s estimation, was bad news for a civilian car manufacturer. A military contract however, would be a welcome lifeline until the war - expected to be short and victorious - was over. On his own initiative he initiated project 62 to develop a general purpose military vehicle.

The curvaceous Volkswagen was itself unsuitable as a military vehicle, but its robust chassis and ultra-reliable engine could be adapted for military use. The first Type 62 prototype was little more than a bare Volkswagen chassis with four tube frame seats and a small sloping bonnet. To keep the weight down the car had no doors or other bodywork. Testing showed that the spartan Type 62 was capable of traversing extremely rough ground and actually performed better than German Ford and Opel’s 4 x 4 light trucks, but it had inadequate ground clearance or protection for the passengers. The Wehrmacht however, were impressed enough with the prototype’s performance to approve further development.

The original Type 62 prototype was basically a chassis with spartan running gear. As with many other contemporary German military vehicles, the spare wheels were mounted on each side to provide the passengers some meager protection. The vehicle's low ground clearance is evident in the photo.

The next version of the Type 62 had much more in common with the civilian Volkswagen, with curved bodywork clearly adapted from the civilian car. To reduce weight the doors were replaced with canvas screens. Ground clearance is still low.

One of the military’s requirements was that the vehicle must be able to keep pace with marching infantry, but even Porsche’s low compression engine, running at tick-over, would quickly outrun marching soldiers. After considering a lower gearing ratio, Ferry came up with an imaginative solution by fitting reduction gears within the wheel hubs to drop the car’s idle speed. The car was also fitted with a ZF limited slip differential. To improve handling over rough ground, bigger wheels and higher suspension was added. After experimenting with modified Volkswagen panels, the car received its distinctive flat, stamped panel body to simplify construction and minimize cost.

An early production Type 82 Kubelwagen. The distinctive corrugated bodywork was used to provide strength to the otherwise thin metal panels.

In trials and pre-production service during the Poland campaign, Porsche’s new car consistently outperformed heavier military trucks and specialized 4 x 4 vehicles. The Wehrmacht was convinced and placed an order for the Type 82 ‘Kubelwagen’ (which meant bucket seat car – a misnomer since the car was now fitted with bench seats).

An early production Kubelwagen with the spare tyre recessed into the bonnet. The recessed bonnet was soon abandoned in favour of a flattened glacis in order to simplify production.

The production Kubelwagen was unveiled at the 1940 Berlin Auto Show where it shared the stage with the civilian KDF wagen. Note that the spare type is now mounted atop the flat bonnet glacis.

Technical manuals for the Kubelwagen and military Volkswagen appeared in 1940.

In 1940 the Wolfsburg Volkswagen factory finally became operational, but car production was sporadic and inefficient. The factory turned out engines and chassis, but although steel presses were installed, they did not produce Volkswagen bodies, which continued being manufactured by hand by Porsche, Daimler-Benz and specialist karosseriewerkes. The cost of hand tooling these vehicles meant that they consumed hundreds of man hours and cost an equivalent of 8,000RMs - a far cry from Hitler's proposed 990RM purchase price! Only a handful of civilian Volkswagen sedans were produced during the war for promotional purposes and Nazi bigwigs.

The factory celebrates the beginning of series production of the Volkswagen in 1941. These cars were hand-build at excessive cost for propaganda purposes and disguised significant operational problems at the factory. During the entire war only 667 military and civilian beetles were built at Wolfsburg.

The Type 87 military 'Kommanderswagen' was basically a civilian Volkswagen body mounted on a four wheel drive Kubelwagen chassis.

Similarly, the bodywork for the Type 82 Kubelwagen. the factory's main wartime product was manufactured by the Ambi-Budd karosseriewerkes in Berlin. Bodies were shipped to Wolfsburg by rail and assembled by hand. 

Nevertheless, the Kubelwagen was beating its path across Europe and North Africa. Drivers appreciated the car's easy handling and low maintenance. Air-cooling was a particular advantage as the car rarely overheated, even in the desert conditions of North Africa. The cars’ light weight, balloon tyres and rear wheel drive allowed it traverse sand dunes and drifts that would bog other vehicles. The desert campaign did require changes to the cars’ air filter, but otherwise the Kubelwagen performed extremely well.

Similarly, on the Russian Front, Kubelwagen’s air-cooled engine proved its worth. In the sub-zero conditions of the Russian winter the entire German Army literally froze in its tracks. During the coldest month’s German trucks, tanks and aircraft were sometimes forced to keep their engines running 24 hours a day in order to prevent them from freezing. This increased the wear on engines, increasing the risk of breakdowns, and was prohibitively costly in terms of fuel. Being air-cooled, the Kubelwagen could be trusted to start even in the coldest conditions. In spring, when the Russian Steppe turned from a sheet of ice to a sea of mud, the Kubelwagen’s light weight and impressive traction was an advantage. The one consistent complaint about the Kubelwagen was its cable operated brakes, which were poor, even for the 1930s.

When push came to shove, the Kubelwagen was light enough to be manhandled over obstacles.

The Schwimmwagen
The German Army’s experience during the Blitzkrieg and the Russian campaign identified a requirement for a light scouting vehicle that was capable of fording streams and rivers. The Kubelwagen had already demonstrated an ability to ford shallow streams so Ferry Porsche and his team set to work to make the vehicle truly amphibious.

The initial design, designated the Type 128, was based on the Kubelwagen chassis fitted with a hull comprised of welded plates. The welded body plan proved too weak to handle the stresses of off-road and amphibious use and constantly leaked.

Ferry Porsche sits behind the wheel of the prototype schwimmwagen while his engineering team watch for leaks.

To address the challenge of maintaining hull integrity, Porsche and Volkswagen bodywork designer, Erwin Komenda abandoned the Kubelwagen chassis and designed a simple, pressed steel, boat-like hull that was 40cm shorter than the standard Volkswagen chassis. The vehicle had no doors. A standard Volkswagen engine was mounted in the rear and the four wheel drive train from the Type 87 'Kommanderwagen’ installed. Four-wheel drive only functioned in first gear. The exhaust and air filters were moved to the top of the rear deck and the car propelled itself in the water via a fold down propeller unit that connected to a simple drive shaft to the engine. The propeller had no reverse gear and the vehicle was reversed in the water by disconnecting the propeller and running the car’s wheels in reverse. The car steered in the water by turning the front wheels. On water the car could maintain a respectable 3 mph.

The schwimmwagen's four-wheel drive enabled it to tackle serious inclines.

Ferry Porsche presents the schwimmwagen to Hitler and Himmler in 1941. Himmler's SS were the first military units to take possession of the schwimmwagen. The schwimmwagen soon replacing motorcycle sidecar units as all terrain scouting vehicles.

Few amphibious vehicles have ever proved successful, but the schwimmwagen was as good on land as in the water. It was an excellent reconnaissance vehicle, able to traverse virtually any terrain and make substantial river crossings. Crews also appreciated the protection offered by its pressed steel hull. The schwimmwagen was certainly the most successful amphibious vehicle of the Second World War, and possibly of all time. Some 15,000 were built before construction stopped in August 1944.

War Footing

Kubel and schwimmwagen production keep the Wolfsburg factory running, but not anywhere near its full capacity. In fact, during the entire war the factory – the biggest purpose-built industrial plant in Germany – operated at less than half its capacity. The problem wasn’t one of capability but was simply that the Nazis viewed Hitler’s Volkswagen project as sacrosanct and despite pressing war needs, no one attempted to divert the factory from its original purpose. Alongside the factory the “City of the KDF Wagens” continued to grow, becoming home to some 50,000 residents by the war’s end.

Nevertheless, Ferry Porsche and Anton Peich’s pestering for more contracts resulted in a handful of military contracts falling to the Wolfsburg plant. A section of the factory was given over to production of wings, fuselages and fuel tanks for Junkers bombers. They also built Mercedes-Benz truck engines under license, and there was a vehicle maintenance facility for servicing trucks. Late in the war the plant manufactured the wings and fuselages for V-1 flying bombs. Like a boomerang, the flying bomb, would come back to haunt them all, almost destroying the entire Volkswagen project.

The Great Engineer and the Mighty Mouse
While Ferry Porsche was running the Volkswagen venture, Ferdinand Porsche was applying his talents to something entirely different. Hitler rewarded his favorite engineer with the post of Inspector General of Tank Design to oversee the next generation of German battle tanks. Germany started the war with four tank types, ranging from the Panzer I light scouting tanks through to the Panzer IV medium battle tanks. Light and fast, these tanks were the cornerstone of Germany’s Blitzkrieg and more than adequate to deal with the poor quality British, French and continental tanks they came up against. But on the Russian front the Germans confronted Russian heavy armor that was qualitatively more advanced than anything they'd faced before.  The nature of tank warfare quickly changed from one of rapid manoeuvre to something more akin to a slogging match.

In 1941 Porsche submitted a design study for a new heavy tank, designated the “Tiger.” Porsche’s Tiger was powered by two mid-mounted 600PS Mayback HL 120 TRL petrol engines, which drove an electrical generator that powered two electric engines driving the rear sprockets. It was a set up somewhat reminiscent of Porsches’ early electric hybrid engine vehicles he designed for Lohner in the 1890s. One hundred chassis were built by Porsche GmbH before the army selected the design presented by Henschel and Sons, which went into production as the Tiger I.

The Porsche Tiger is easily differentiated from the production Tiger due to the forward placement of its turret. Although Porsche's own tank designs were not really successful, many companies adopted Porsche's torsion bar suspension.

Porsche (in the hat) standing atop his Tiger.

The Ferdinand
The concept of the ‘tank destroyer’ evolved in response to the conditions on the eastern front where tank armies engaged each at long range across an open landscape. In order to mount the heaviest possible gun, the tank destroyer dispensed with turrets in favor of mounting the gun directly in the hull. Gun elevation and traverse were compromised by compensated by heavier frontal armor and a lower silhouette. This also simplified construction.

In 1942 Porsche adapted his pre-production Tiger tank chassis into a heavy tank destroyer. Due to the mid-mounting of the engine, the crew and gun compartment had to be tacked onto the rear of the vehicle as a large, rectangular case-mate. This increased the tank's silhouette, making it a larger target, but allowed it mount the latest, high velocity 88mm anti-tank gun, capable of destroying even heavily armored tanks at a range of 3 miles. They were named Ferdinand in Porsche’s honour.

93 Ferdinands were built and served with the 653rd Tank Destroyer Battalion.

Ferdinands first saw service in the great tank battle at Kursk in 1943. They gained a fearsome reputation on the battlefield, but design flaws were immediately apparent. The crew had very poor visibility, especially to the side and rear and the Ferdinand was not equipped with any defensive weaponry. Russian infantry quickly learned Ferdinands could be easily swarmed and disabled by grenades and Molotov cocktails. Once disabled, they and their crews were helpless. The Ferdinands great weight of 65 tonnes also took its toll on engines, gearboxes, tracks and suspension and recovery was very difficult due to their immense weigh. Three Panzer IV recovery tanks were required to tow a single disabled Ferdinand, which contributed to their losses.

These two Ferdinand's lie abandoned on the Russian front.  

After the Battle of Kursk the 50 surviving Ferdinands were refitted with defensive machine guns and a commander’s cupola to improve visibility and were renamed ‘Elephants.’ In 1944 the 653rd unit was shipped west for service against the invading Allied forces, first in Italy and then in France, where they performed well until supplies of fuel, ammunition and spares faltered. Most Elephants were abandoned or destroyed by their crews.

Despite the obvious drawbacks inherent in the design of heavy tanks like the Tiger and Ferdinand, Ferdinand Porsche was working on a new super heavy tank project. Nicknamed ‘The Maus’ (mouse), this folly saw the development of the largest tank ever built. The Maus was almost 11 metres long, 4 metres high and weighed an astonishing 188 tonnes. Armoured on all sides, including over the tracks, and mounting a 128mm cannon that could destroy any Allied tank at medium range, the Maus was intended to be an impregnable moving fortress on the battlefield in support of more traditional armour. However, even Porsche’s genius could not overcome the Maus’ most obvious weakness – its incredible weight.

Ferdinand Porsche (in the black hat near the ladder) rides on the Maus prototype.

Like the Ferdinand, the Maus’ engines drove electrical generators which in turn drove the electric engines that provided motive power and turned the massive turret. However, there simply weren't any engines powerful enough to move the Maus at more than a crawl. Several different engines were trialled but the engine eventually fitted was a Daimler-Benz inverted V-12 cylinder diesel aero engine. Two hulls and a single turret were constructed before the testing ground in east Germany was overrun by Russian forces in 1945. After the war the Russians managed to construct a single working prototype from the components, which is now housed at the Kubinka Tank Museum, outside Moscow.

The captured Maus is loaded onto a specially built railway carriage. The weight of the tank was so great that the train itself could only cross specially reinforced bridges.


One can certainly question Ferdinand Porsche’s motivation for promoting such an outlandish project. The famous tank commander and Inspector General of Armoured Troops, Heinz Guderian, dismissed the project as being of no military value, but Porsche knew it was exactly the type of spectacular project that would impress Hitler and Porsche was able to use Hitler’s favour to override the general’s objections. Regardless of whether the project was viable, Porsche and company received substantial financial compensation for their efforts. http://www.lonesentry.com/articles/maus/

The Allies meet the Volkswagen
In 1942 British forces in North Africa stumbled over two abandoned Kubelwagen’s in the desert. Both had run out of fuel and been abandoned by their crews. This was Britain’s first chance to see the mysterious Volkswagen and after a brief preliminary review, they were shipped to England for study. One was put through extensive road testing and the other disassembled. An engineer’s report on the vehicle was then compiled which was startling in its contradictions.

The Kubelwagen was praised for its handling, good suspension, off-road capability, its general toughness, its low-maintenance engine (which was of strikingly better quality and performance than contemporary British engines), and its fuel efficiency. The poor quality of the Kubelwagen’s cable brakes was noted. Surprisingly, despite the generally positive evaluation, the report summary dismissed the Kubelwagen as a poorly manufactured vehicle with no redeeming features which the British motoring industry could learn from.

From the outset Britain’s motoring industry had viewed Hitler’s Volkswagen project with a mixture of contempt and grave concern. Firstly, the captains of the British motoring industry were fundamentally opposed to any sort of technological innovation and they simply could not countenance Porsche’s unorthodox design. With their minds closed, they could not conceive of any demand in England for Porsche’s novelty. While they were scathing of the vehicle itself, they could not fail to recognise its particular qualities. More than anything they feared that the capacity of the Wolfsburg plant, whether it was building Volkswagens or any other type of vehicle, was a mortal threat, not only to British exports, but to the British domestic market itself. It was therefore essential that the Volkswagen’s positive attributes were officially suppressed. British troops were advised against using captured Volkswagens, which were to be turned over to authorities and stripped for parts and scrapped.

Interestingly, the British recognized the value of one piece of the Kubelwagen’s equipment – its spare fuel tank – which was soon became known the world over as ‘the Gerry can.’

The Americans also captured their first Kubelwagens in North Africa in 1942 and sent them back to the United States for evaluation. The Americans in no way felt threatened by the Volkswagen and consequently their evaluation was far more impartial than the British. The Kubelwagen was compared favourably with the Jeep and American soldiers were permitted to use captured Volkswagens. In fact, in June 1944 the War Department issued a User and Technical Manual for the German Volkswagen. By the end of the war, thousands of Allied troops were driving around Europe in captured Kubelwagens, Schwimmwagens and Volkswagens.

Volkswagen history
Part 1 - Origin http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/volkswagen-world-beating-peoples-car.html
Part 3 - Resurrection http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/the-death-and-resurrection-of-volkswagen.html