by James Kraus
Nearly anywhere you live, it has a name. Käfer (Germany), Beetle (US, UK), Coccinelle (France), Maggiolino (Italy), Fusca (Brazil), Buba (Croatia). It was the most mass-produced single model in automotive history and was like no other car on the road.
Under direction from Adolf Hitler to develop a affordable mass-produced car for the German people, Ferdinand Porsche came up with the concept that was to become the first VW, inspired heavily by the work of fellow Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, designer of the mechanically similar Tatra T97.
Parameters laid down by the Führer included mileage of 7 L/100 km (36 mpg), air-cooling, seating for four and the ability to cruise endlessly at 100 km/h (62 mph) on the newly-built German Autobahns.
The production VW was indeed air cooled, with a four-cylinder, horizontally-opposed engine and four-speed gearbox. The opposed or “boxer” layout was chosen to keep the mass of the engine close to the axle, and also had the benefits of a low centre of gravity and natural dynamic balance. Unusual for the time; the engine was a very over-square, short-stroke design, keeping mean piston speed, internal stresses and wear to a minimum. The engine was largely the work of Porsche engineer Franz Xaver Reimspiess, who patented several details of the design.
Widespread use was made of lightweight metals. The crankcase and gearbox were cast magnesium and the cylinder heads were aluminium. To keep weight to a minimum and increase mechanical efficiency and traction, the engine was mounted in the rear, adjacent to the driving wheels. The suspension was independent all around with torsion bar springing.
The body was styled by Erwin Komenda in accordance with the best aerodynamic principles as they were understood at the time, including the radically sloping front, made possible by the rear engine and lack of a radiator. It was intended to be of unit-body construction. At the time, only the Citroën Traction Avant was built in such a fashion. However, Hitler decreed that the body should be removable. Thus a platform chassis was utilized with a heavy-gauge steel central tunnel providing extra rigidity. This design added several pounds of unnecessary weight, but paved the way for production of military variants.
A massive factory was built, but only a handful of cars were actually produced before World War II. As war got underway, production shifted to the manufacture of military machinery based on VW components. There were a variety of these, but the most common were the Type 82 Kübelwagen, the Type 87 Kommandeur, and the amphibious Type 166 Schwimmwagen.
Supporting actor in many a WWII film, the Kübelwagen was a open-topped 4-door body attached to the standard VW platform chassis. The Kübelwagens first saw significant use in 1941 by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Waffen-SS LAH Panzer Division.
Available with rear or four-wheel drive, most units produced had the standard VW rear-drive with the addition of a ZF-designed limited-slip differential. Outside of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars of the late thirties, this was the first application of a limited-slip axle. 15:21 reduction gears at the rear hubs and oversize off-road Kronprinz tyres all around were fitted and the suspension set to a raised ride height. The Kübelwagen soon proved its worth in combat and over 50,000 were eventually built and used throughout the SS, the Wehrmacht and ground units of the Luftwaffe.
The Kommandeur consisted of a standard VW body built with slightly widened fenders and running boards to accommodate 200 x 12 Kronprinz tyres. Underneath was the high ride-height Kübelwagen chassis with either two or four-wheel drive. The interior of the Kommandeur featured folding map tables and mounts for two Mauser Kar98k rifles and a single MP40 submachine gun.
The Schwimmwagen, being more boat than car, did not use the VW’s platform chassis, instead having its own unique unit-body hull, using the VW driveline, suspension and four-wheel drive components. Four-wheel drive was specified for the Schwimmer to ensure that it could readily climb out of water under a wide variety of beachhead conditions.
Following the war, the heavily bombed factory ended up in the British occupation zone and was put under the control of Major Ivan Hirst. The British were unsuccessful at attracting buyers for the facility and the tooling. A representative of Ford famously remarking he didn’t think it was worth a damn. Meanwhile, under the direction of Major Hirst, the workers kept up meagre production of the cars amidst the rubble, sometimes bartering finished cars for steel and other raw materials. By the end of 1948 production was up to one VW every three and a half minutes. As many cars as possible were exported to generate hard currency, and by 1949, two were sent off to America, which would eventually become its second largest market. By 1961, five million VW’s had been produced.
Success of the VW was instrumental in what has become known as the German economic miracle. Devastated by the war, Germany lie in ruins with most of its industrial capacity and infrastructure destroyed. The country struggled from 1945-1950, but in the fifties, the situation turned around with a speed that was indeed miraculous. From 1950 to 1959, industrial production rose 250%. Volkswagen production over the same period rose 1400%.
Early testers praised the VW’s quality, detail finish, ruggedness, ride, handling and economy. VW continuously improved the car, often making modifications as soon as they were ready, rather than waiting for the following model year. The motor grew from the original 1.0 litre to 1.1 and then 1.2 litres. In the fall of 1960, a brand new engine was introduced that would last through the rest of the car’s production life in 1.2, 1.3, 1.5 and 1.6 litre capacities.
The popularity of the VW inspired many other manufacturers to develop rear-engined models, notably the Fiat 500, 600, 850 and 126, the Renault 4CV and R8, Simca 1000, Sunbeam Imp, NSU Prinz and the Chevrolet Corvair. The VW outlasted them all. Ultimately the Beetle was built or assembled in 20 countries around the world, with up to four factories producing them simultaneously in Germany alone. In 1965, VW’s headquarters facility became the largest automobile factory in the world, eclipsing even Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Nowhere was VW’s success more evident than in the Unites States. After a slow start in the early fifties, sales grew as the cars favourable attributes spread by word of mouth. By 1955, sales had reached an annual volume of over 30,000 cars, despite a complete lack of advertising. Sales gained momentum in the late fifties as more drivers sought a rational alternative to the oversize, be-finned and chrome be-decked vehicles that the domestic cars were becoming. Others appreciated the VW’s design continuity as opposed to the planned obsolescence of the American manufacturer’s annual model change.
In the 1960’s, US sales benefited from a unique, honest and humorous advertising campaign developed by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency. In addition to the clever, straightforward and irreverent copy by Julian Koenig (the original copywriter), art director Helmut Krone gave the ads a unusually clean, concise visual style. The DDB ads won numerous awards and expanded to other VW markets around the world. In 1999, it was selected as the best advertising campaign of the 20th Century.
At its peak of popularity in the U.S., the car that Ford did not think was worth a damn accounted for 4% of new vehicles sold in 1969. Together with its derivatives, the Types II and III and Karmann Ghia (all sharing the same basic engine and wheelbase) VW’s market share came to almost 6%. This was nearly the same as the Mustang achieved at its peak in 1966.
Besides being the basis for the original Porsche 356, the VW had a bit of competition history of its own. The car’s light, quick steering, generous suspension travel, rugged dependably and superior traction made it eminently suitable for arduous long-distance events and rallies. The first documented VW to be classified in international motorsport took 6th place in the 1.5 litre class at the first post-war running of the Rallye Monte-Carlo in 1949. In the 1951 Tulip Rally a VW came in first in the 1.5 litre class and third overall. An early split rear-window VW with a 1.3 litre Porsche engine and Porsche brakes finished third in class and 43rd overall (out of 378 starters) in the 1954 Mille Miglia.
The VW made a final appearance in international competition in the early 1970’s when VW-Porsche Austria entered Beetles in WRC events. Björn Waldegård (winner of the 1969 Rallye Monte-Carlo and the 1979 World Rally Champion) came in sixth overall in the Swedish Rally and Tony Fall took tenth in the Austrian Alpine in these cars. These were impressive results, given that the VW’s were up against the factory teams of Alpine-Renault, Fiat and Lancia. At the national level they were more successful, winning the Austrian championship in 1971 and 1972.
These homologated VW’s produced 126 hp at 6000 rpm and breathed though a set of two dual-throat 46 IDA Weber carburettors. To increase oil capacity without reducing ground clearance, a dry sump system was used which included a large oil cooler behind the front valance, where the air conditioning condenser would otherwise be fitted. To deliver the power to the rear wheels, a Porsche Type 901 5-speed gearbox with limited slip differential was installed.
Drive train and suspension from the VW form the basis for the Formula Vee racing series, an entry-level single-seat formula that began in 1963 and continues around the world. A number of F1 drivers first developed their skills in Formula Vee, including Emerson Fittipaldi and Niki Lauda.
The VW was a car with a personality, and it was a personality that attracted many buyers. Some bought it because of its innate functionality, some more for its expression of design integrity, and others who sought anonymity in its ubiquity.
In a poll taken by R.L. Polk and company, it was determined that VW owners “defy classification by any conventional criteria…from lawyers to prison guard lieutenants, to bartenders, to advertising executives…they enjoy the most diverse sports and hobbies from skeet shooting to skiing, to gem cutting…they read the wall Street Journal, and Mad Magazine…”
Like no other car, the VW was driven by people from all over the globe and from all walks of life: people who could barely afford the car, people who could afford a far more ostentatious vehicle, and people who could afford just about anything, like Paul Newman. Driving the VW in no way expressed or revealed one’s social or economic standing. Just good sense.