The history began as a dream of Ferdinand Porsche. He had a vision about building
a car that everybody could afford.
Porsche was a technical genius who already in his younger
years worked with all sorts of technical problems and their solutions. He was later employed by a large number of car companies
like Lohner, Austro-Daimler, Mercedes, Daimler-Benz and Steyr before he opened up his own design bureau in 1930. At least
10 years earlier he had been designing a small, affordable car for Daimler, but the project got canceled on a prototype level
as Daimler thought it was to risky.
In 1931 he ordered his staff of engineers to start designing a car with a water cooled
three cylinder engine, independent suspension and the capacity to carry four adult at good comfort in 100 kph. The price was
to be kept as low as possibly, in order to make the car affordable to the masses.
Porsche tried to sell his idea to the german auto industry,
and in 1932 he found a partner in Zündapp. Three prototypes were built using Porsche's original design equipped with a new
engine. That engine however turned out to have a sever cooling problem and melted after only ten minutes of running. Zündapp
withdrew from the project and left Porsche to find a new partner.
The project was picked up by NSU, a motor cycle manufacturer wanting to expand into
cars. The problematic engine was scrapped and a completely new air cooled four cylinder engine was built. That engine was
to be the predecessor of the flat four engine we know today. The design of the NSU bared many similarities to the beetle and
was equipped with the revolutionary torsion bar suspension. The engine was placed in the rear in order to avoid the traditional
and complicated transmission with a separate gear box, drive shaft and rear axle. Three prototypes called "type 32" were built
and tested, but due to the economical climate in Germany at the time NSU withdrew from the project and Porsche was alone once
At that time, in 1933, on the Berlin Motor show the newly
selected chancellor Adolf Hitler announced his plans to produce a small car for the German people. When Porsche heard that
Hitler shared his dream he quickly arranged a meeting with him to find a business partner. At the meeting Hitler was very
optimistic but had a few demands before being willing to sign a contract. These were:
The last demand was going to be especially hard to achieve since the
cheapest car on the market at the time was the Opel P4 with a price tag of 1.500 RM.
- The car should be able to carry two adults and three children.
- It should have a cruising speed of 100 kmp.
- The fuel consumption should not exceed 0,8 liter per 10 km.
- The engine had to be air cooled.
- The car should also be able to carry three soldiers and a
- The price should be less than 1.000 RM.
Despite these somewhat unrealistic demands Porsche accepted
and a contract was signed in 1934 stating the delivery of three prototypes within ten month. The prototypes were to be built
by RDA (the German Auto Manufacturers Association). Even though Porsche had a great experience of building small cars a number
of modifications were necessary mainly in order to meet the target price of 990 RM.
As RDA realized that the project had a chance to succeed (and
didn't want to see that happen) they deliberately delayed the project in order to make Porsche miss his deadline and thereby
lose the contract.
Porsche missed his deadline, but Hitler realized what had happened and placed the
whole project under government supervision. The three prototypes were eventually delivered in October 1936 and was called
"W1". The next series of 30 cars built during 1937 was called VW 30.
That same year GeZuVor (Gesellschaft Zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagen, GmbH,
The Group Planning The German Peoples Car, Inc.) was founded and became responsible for the production of the car. The GeZuVor
was a part of DAF (Deutsches Arbeiter Front, The German Workers Front) which was an organization receiving contributions from
all workers and organized all kinds of family activities. A section called KDF (Kraft Durch Freude, Strength Through Joy)
got the task of selling the car now referred to as "KDF wagens".
Between 1935 and 1937 a total of 50 prototypes were built.
A number of engines were also tested before the decision was taken to go ahead with the flat four air cooled engine designed
by Franz Reimspeiss. That engine was more or less to be unchanged until this day.
The prototypes were submitted to a rough test program in order
to expose weaknesses. For example they had to withstand days of full throttle runs on the newly built German autobahns. Due
to the extensive tests SS soldiers had to be recruited as test drivers since the test program lasted for about 1600 million
The final design was decided and updates were made (Hitler himself is supposed to
have been involved during this process). The final 44 prototypes were built in 1938 and another 50 in 1939 for demonstration
and advertising purposes. The beetle now looked like we know it.
Since the facilities to produce the car didn't exist, Hitler
decided to build a whole new town called KDF stadt just for this purpose. It was founded in May 26 1938 and the production
was supposed to start in September 1939, but in Marsh 1939 World War II broke out. After the war the town was renamed
Wolfsburg from Werner von Schulenberg of Wolfsburg who was forced to give up his land for this project.
The way you were supposed to become an owner of a KDF wagen
was unique. The idea was to save for it by buying a 5 RM stamp each month and when you had enough of stamps (200) the car
would be delivered.
But when the war broke out all plans of production were halted
and a total of 337.000 people who had been saving for a car got cheated. They wasn't compensated until 1961 after a lawsuit
in a German court. A settlement was reach where they either got a check of 100 DM or a 600 DM discount when buying a new bug.
The bug goes to war
The war created an enormous demand for munition. The factory was therefore taken over by
the German air traffic ministry and the production converted to meet the demand. The factory produced stoves, V1 bombs, repaired
In an attempt to keep the car alive Porsche designed a cheap and practical military
vehicle based on the beetle pan. It had a slightly raised suspension and was equipped with a limited slip differential for
better traction. The result was the type 82 or Kübelwagen (bucket car), and became so popular that captured ones often were
used by the allied troops. A total of 50.000 were made.
An amphibious version of the type 82 called at first type 128 and later type 166
was also made. It was quickly nick named Schwimmwagen (swimming car) and there were about 15.000 made. For propulsion in the
water the car was equipped with a retractable propeller connected to the crank shaft of the engine. Top speed in the water
was about 5 mph and the front wheels acted as a rudder.
For the officers and other higher ranking militaries the factory also produced military
versions of the beetle and a prototype called type 87 or kommendeurwagen (commander car). It was basically a beetle body on
a four wheel drive Schwimmwagen chassis. Note that both cars in the picture are equipped with producer-gas units since there
was a shortage of petrol towards the end of the war.
After the war
After the war the factory ended up in the british zone, which perhaps was lucky since
neither the russians, americans nor the french wanted to start the production of the little car that already then was considered
to be outdated.
The british selected major Ivan Hirst as responsible for the factory. He wanted to
start the production of cars again since the war had created a huge demand for a small cheap car.
Despite the fact that 2/3 of the factory was destroyed by
the allied bombing the workers under Hirst´s leadership managed to assemble 58 cars during the remaining of 1945, mainly from
spare parts found in the remains. That impressed the british officers who quickly ordered 5.000 cars. The factory was saved!
In 1946 the factory was ordered to produce 1.000 cars a month and in that year the
total number of cars produced was 10.020. By now the company was officially named "Volkswagen" and the town it was produced
in "Wolfsburg". The first export took place in 1947 when a dutch car dealer named Ben Pon bought five cars. (It was by the
way Ben Pon who more or less was the driving force behind the development and introduction of the type 2 transporter that
was introduced in 1949).
Dispite a steady increase in the production it was soon realized
that it had to be increased even more to make the company profitable. The export was minimal and limited to only to a small
number of neighboring countries. But once Germany on June 20 1948 changed its currency from RM (reich marks) to DM (deutsch
mark) the business boomed.
That same year the company was handed over to the German government who appointed
Heinrich Nordhoff as the senior executive. He had prior to the war been in charge of Opel and his biggest contribution that
also turned out to be crucial was the vision and realization of a network of dealers and service spots.
In 1950 they started an assembly plant in Ireland in order to get around the import
ban of German products. This proved to be a success and expanded to South Africa (1951), Brazil (1953) and Australia (1955).
As the factories back in germany couldn't keep up with the demand the foreign production increased to include manufacturing
of parts. Soon these "foreign" bugs were 100% built in their respective countries. The number of plants grew and soon included
Mexico and new ones back in Germany.
The production kept growing and in 1955 Volkswagen were producing
1.000 cars a day.