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VW Beetle: Car of the People

Jeffrey Syken

In 1927, Doctor-Professor Ferdinand Porsche, already famous for his design work at Austro-Daimler and Daimler Benz, was persuaded by Fritz Neumayer, proprietor of the Zundapp Motorcycle Company, to collaborate on plans for an inexpensive car that would enable the German working class, economically devastated by the Treaty of Versailles that ended WWI, to own and operate a motor vehicle. Although three prototypes would eventually be built, they failed given their troublesome five-cylinder radial water-cooled engine. However, another motorcycle manufacturer, NSU, was interested in the “People’s Car” idea thus, by 1932, Porsche was at work on the “NSU Volkswagen,” which was the true forerunner of the VW Beetle. Like Zundapp, NSU came to the realization that to develop and build a very inexpensive car for the masses required a significant investment in time and money. By 1933, this project was also shut down and NSU began building Fiat cars under license.

Despite these false starts, Dr. Porsche’s fortunes and reputation had been enhanced and through his subsequent successes in building Grand Prix racing cars, he came in direct contact with Germany’s new Chancellor; Adolf Hitler. Porsche saw his opportunity to revive the People’s Car idea and submitted a memorandum to the Transport Ministry setting out his ideas on the form the car should take, outlining the specifications and suggesting the State might back him with funds to build an experimental car. Although the Feuhrer had no plans on going into the automobile business, he realized that the Autobahn – Germany’s magnificent new national highway network – was practically empty given that about only one in fifty Germans could afford to own a car, at the time. Hitler also realized that making car ownership commonplace would enhance his popular support. To that end, the Reichsverband der Deutsche Automobil-Industrie (Cooperative Organization of the German Automobile Nanufacturers), gave Porsche a contract to develop a People’s Car (a/k/a “Volkswagen”).

Alas, the cooperative hamstrung Porsche at every turn so an infuriated Hitler determined to back the project with State funds. A factory was built at Wolfsburg and by 1938, the “KdF (Strength Through Joy)-Wagen” was made manifest. Unfortunately, none of the thousands of German workers who subscribed to a savings plan to purchase a KdF-Wagen would ever get one since, with the breakout of WWII in September 1939, all production at the factory went to making military vehicles. At the end of the war, the Wolfsburg plant was revived by the British in order to make VWs for the occupation forces’ use. For a war-ravaged Europe, the VW was the right car at the right time and its popularity grew exponentially to the point that by the mid-1950s, it was leading West Germany’s industrial/economic revival. The car would evolve over the years and improve, but maintain its basic shape. Derivatives such as the Karmann Ghia and the VW Microbus would also share in the success of VW’s reputation for quality at low cost. By 1972, the dated design had exceeded the Ford Model T in unit production and when production finally ended in 1980, +21 million VW Beetles had been produced. Dr. Porsche’s idea for a “German Model T” had succeeded beyond his expectations.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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