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Birth of the Beetle - Part One

The car that became the most popular of all-time.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • First of two part series
  • The history and design of the Volkswagen Beetle
  • Innovative design proven in war
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This article was first published in 2008.

The Volkswagen Beetle story begins in the early '30s when Adolf Hilter - then Chancellor of Germany - endeavoured to bring motorised transport to the entire German population.

In 1934, Hitler enlisted the famous Dr Ferdinand Porsche to create one such 'people's car' - the Volkswagen. From the outset, the new vehicle had to deliver accommodation for two adults and children, reach 60 mph (97 km/h) and attain fuel consumption equivalent to 33 mpg (7.1 litres per 100km) - all at a cost not much more than a motorcycle...

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Dr Porsche had limited time for the project so much of the vehicle's design was based on his earlier work on the NSU 'Type 32' prototype. The Volkswagen shared its rear-engine/rear drive layout, torsion bar front and rear suspension, swing-arm rear axles, air-cooled horizontally-opposed engine and much of the NSU's styling. A strong emphasis was placed on achieving light weight and simple mechanicals - though not necessarily with simple design.

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By late 1935 Dr Porsche had three ‘Type 60’ prototype Volkswagens screwed together. These first prototypes used aluminium bodies draped over traditional wood frames. Steel body and frame prototypes were later built in 1936 and a convertible model was also designed.

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The Volkswagen employed an all-alloy air-cooled engine with a single down-draught carburettor and a compression ratio of 5.8:1. Displacing 1.0 litre, the horizontally-opposed engine produced almost 24hp (18kW). This enabled a top speed of around 65 mph (105 km/h). The air cooling system of the engine was also seen as a major advantage - "air cannot boil" was one of the catchphrases surrounding the engine.

The body was treated with anti-corrosion processes and the acrylic paint offered a long-lasting finish. The earliest production models were equipped with a split rear window and had an aerodynamic drag figure of 0.41 (slightly more than the prototypes without bumpers). Kerb weight was kept down to just 655kg.

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By 1937 the fundamental design of the people’s car had been decided and a well-known German coachbuilder (Reutter) produced a batch of 30 Volkswagens for promotional purposes. Hitler further increased public interest by introducing a savings system where people could collect stamps that would eventually pay for the car (an original advert for this scheme can be seen here).

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At this point a mass production facility was required. Hitler dispossessed an area surrounding Wolfsburg castle and the cornerstone for the plant was laid at a ceremony in 1938 - an event witnessed by around 70,000 Germans and with Nazi propaganda in full stride. Staffing issues had been addressed by Dr Porsche; he'd travelled overseas recruiting German engineers who had been working in other vehicle factories.

Hitler decided the name for the new vehicle would be KdF Wagen, which translates to ‘Strength through Joy' Wagen. Hitler also announced the establishment of a new town to support the production facility - this town was to become KdF-Stadt.

Production of the KdF was scheduled to begin in late 1939 but this coincided with the declaration of World War 2. Very few KdFs rolled off the production line in 1939 - and nobody who saved their stamps ever received a free car...

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The German war effort took precedence over consumer vehicles so the KdF production line was reengineered for the manufacture of military vehicles. Some very interesting models were constructed for the German military - the Kubelwagen (a "car made like a bucket") and 4WD Schwimmwagen (an amphibious vehicle with a fold-down rear propeller that let it travel through water at up to 10 km/h). All shared the same basic design as the Volkswagen. Note that engine capacity grew to 1.1 litres by 1943 - this gave greater torque and up to 30hp (22kW).

Over the following years, the Volkswagen-based military vehicles proved remarkably dependable over a wide range of terrain and ambient conditions. They coped very well with the extreme heat and dust of Africa and the ice of Russia. Traction was also exceptional on a variety of surfaces.

About half way through the Second World War, the KdF production facility was manned by more than 12,000 prisoners of war and there were many aircraft repairs carried out under the same roof. The V1 long-range weapon was also manufactured at the plant, making it a prime target for Allied bombing raids.

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In May 1945 the Second World War drew to an end, leaving the Wolfsburg factory showing the effects of major bombardment. The British took control of what was left of the factory and decided to resume manufacture of the original Volkswagen - purely as transport for the occupying forces. Fortunately, much of the vehicle’s assembly machinery and parts had survived bombing but production was very limited.

Interestingly, the British government passed up the opportunity to seize plans of the KdF Wagen (which was now officially renamed as Volkswagen). It is widely suggested that its design was seen by the British as flawed - but other sources suggest it was feared what might happen to the established British auto industry if the Volkswagen was put into mass production...

The production facility was handed back to the German people by 1948 and was placed under the direction of Heinz Nordhoff. Nordhoff turned the company on its head, increasing production to 19,000 units in 1948 and 46,000 in 1948. This rapid rate of growth would continue until the mid 1970s.

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There were several detail changes to the original design during the late '40s. The fuel tank was altered to provide better luggage space, wider tyres were fitted, reinforced bearings went into the rear hubs and a 'Pope's nose' number plate light was introduced. The bonnet also received a cable release system (replacing the existing exterior handle), the engine used a different carburettor and the suspension was improved. Interestingly, Mr Nordhoff wasn’t a huge fan of the original Volkswagen design but everyone else seemed to have faith in it; as a result he left the basic character of the car unchanged.

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Meanwhile, the designer of the Volkswagen, Dr Porsche, had been imprisoned in France and was prevented from returning to his homeland until 1949. Upon his return it is reported that he was moved almost to tears when he saw the number of people's cars on German roads - his vehicle had become a landmark success. Unfortunately, Dr Porsche died in 1951 and never saw the vehicle reach its greatest heights.

In Part Two - the final - we'll look at the evolution of the mighty Volkswagen.

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