Automotive History & Mystery: Who’s The Real Father Of The Volkswagen? Hunting For Its DNA Back To 1903

petting the new baby

 (l. to r.) Hans Nibel, Ferdinand Porsche, Paul Jaray, Hans Ledwinka, Edmund Rumpler, Adolf Hitler, Josef Ganz


Success has many fathers.   No wonder so many are eager to share in the paternity rights of the Volkswagen, the world’s most successful and long-lived car. Some have had books written and documentary movies made to stake their claim; others have sued in courts of law and the court of public opinion, in articles, books and the internet.  The essence of their claims is that one person conceived the initial novel idea of a Volkswagen, or its unique technical aspects, or the iconic shape of the Beetle. Drawings, models, prototypes, production cars, and other evidence to litigate their claims are used, from the 1930s right into the present, and likely into the future.

Many of these claims have found considerable traction, including court settlements and favor as well in the court of public opinion. They reflect the innate human tendency to want to give credit for a success to a single person. We love heroes and winners, and it’s much easier to judge things in black and white, and to rely on isolated pieces of evidence or commonly held assumptions for determining the true winner or hero.

The following is an exercise to look more closely at some of the key claimants and their roles in the birth of the Beetle, as well as to look at  some lesser known automotive pioneers whose work influenced the primary claimants as well as the final product. The reality is that technological and design advances are almost never made in isolation which makes this task more difficult. It’s inevitably not truly comprehensive, but it is an effort to shed light on the Volkswagen’s long gestation.

One thing we know for certain going into this lengthy exercise: The baby Volkswagen is Austrian. Every one of its paternal candidates pictured above was Austrian or ethnic Austrian. No wonder I’m a bit obsessed with the Beetle.

Part 1: Henry Ford – The Godfather


Henry Ford l

Henry Ford undoubtedly was the godfather of the Volkswagen. Although Ford’s dream was to make the automobile more available to the masses, he didn’t exactly set out to build a true “People’s Car”, given that his new Model T cost $850 in 1909. This was at a time when a worker made $200-400 per year, and an accountant or dentist made some $2000 per year. That was more than most “real” cars on the market, which were largely accessible only for the truly wealthy.

Ford’s T was a conventional and pragmatic car, in the formula laid down by the seminal Mercedes of 1901: a strong steel frame to support the body, a water-cooled inline engine in front driving the rear axle via the transmission and drive shaft. Henry had his ideas about some of the details and execution, which was to a very high standard, but there was nothing really new or revolutionary about its design.

Ford Model T assembly line

The Fordian revolution was all about production. As Ford plowed his profits back into ever more efficient production facilities and methods—inventing the rationalized automotive assembly line in the process—the cost to build and buy a Model T plummeted. This created a virtuous loop: the lower the price went, the more sales increased. By 1914, a relatively well-paid Ford worker could buy a $490 T with four month’s pay. By 1925, the price dropped further, all the way to $260 for the two passenger roadster (the enclosed sedan cost $660); now the T was truly affordable to the working class. Production topped 2 million in 1923 alone. Henry had created the second American Revolution, and the rest of the world wanted to share in it.

That applied especially to Europe at the time, and Henry wasted no time exporting the T, with local production of bodies and many other key components, such as the Trafford Park plant in the UK above. Although Model Ts accounted for fully half of all the world’s cars ever built by the early twenties, the Model T was way too big, thirsty and expensive to become a true People’s Car in Europe. It was strictly for the well to-do, if not the truly rich. Something different was needed, for the very different circumstances in effect there.

Cycle car

There had been all manner of crude small cars and cycle cars in Europe ever since the car’s invention, but these were inevitably marginal undertakings. The motorcycle was the closest thing there was to an entry-level car. So Europe’s biggest manufacturers took to creating cars in the Model T’s vein but substantially scaled down. A flurry of mini-Ts appeared in each of the major countries.

Citroen 5_CV

Citröen’s 5CV of 1921 was perhaps the prototype of the genre, or at least the first one built on a relatively large scale. Citröen was the pioneering adopter of Ford-style production methods in Europe, and some 80,000 5CVs were built in its four year production life. Its 11 hp 856 cc four was representative of this class of cars.

Austin 7_GE_Sunshine_Saloon_1.1

The British Austin Seven went into production in 1922, and was both very successful and influential. It was even built in the US as the Bantam and in Germany as the Dixie, a forerunner of the BMW.

Opel Laubfrosch

In Germany, the Opel 4 PS, known as the “Laubfrosch” (tree frog) arrived in 1924 looking heavily influenced by the Citroen 5CV. The Laubfrosch was a relatively big hit, and catapulted Opel into Europe’s biggest volume auto manufacturer, undoubtedly why GM bought Opel in 1929.

And although it came along some ten years later, the Fiat Topolino was in the same mold.  All these cars (and others in their class) were of course substantially smaller than the Model T, typically two-seaters. This was due to high taxation and fuel costs, as well as to keep production costs as low as possible. Europe’s market was highly fragmented, and no manufacturer had the scale to even remotely approach Ford’s efficiencies. The Opel came perhaps the closest, with some 120k built between 1924 and 1931, and its price dropped from 4500 RM to 1990 RM in 1930. But that’s still only some 17k per year, in a country of 65 million, which was more than half the population of the US at the time.  Although cars per population in the UK and France were far below that of the US, Germany was substantially behind them even. The country that birthed the car was a laggard in its adoption.

These “Mini-T” cars were all highly conventional in their conception and construction.  But they were still only affordable by the solidly upper middle class at best; professionals, small businessmen and such. The working class person was still stuck dreaming of an affordable car while pedaling their bike.

Although the major manufacturers generally had little interest in attempting to build even cheaper cars, it became something of a Holy Grail for forward-thinking engineers, designers, dreamers, and even certain political figures. And it was increasingly clear that the solution was likely to include some radical new ideas and technology.

For that matter, the automobile in Europe was ripe for reinvention, small or not so small. The 1901 Mercedes formula mostly worked well enough for large cars, where its deficiencies could easily be masked by its size, weight and power. But new ideas of how the automobile could be conceived and designed were brewing, and although that would come to affect all the classes of cars in Europe eventually, it was with smaller cars where the greatest benefits were seen.

Before we delve in to the contributions of the various gene donors, it’s essential to debunk the common idea that the VW, like so many other “inventions” was the result of a Eureka moment experienced by its isolated creator hunched over a drafting table. Truly novel inventions are exceedingly rare; invariably a number of individuals or organizations are chasing after the same goal, their efforts based on previous inventions and research, and constantly feeding off the fruits of others engaged in the same quest.

Charles Darwin wasn’t the first to propose evolution, and Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. They, and so many acclaimed scientists and inventors were competing with others, and constantly exchanging information. And in the case of Edison as well as Ferdinand Porsche and others, they were really the managers of the process and the efforts of many employees in their charge. But the person at the top inevitably gets (or seeks) the lion’s share of the credit.

Part 2: Edmund Rumpler – Head In The Sky

Born into a poor Jewish family in Vienna in 1870, Edmund Rumpler was infatuated with heavier-than-air flight early on. Since this was not yet a reality, after he graduated with an engineering degree in 1895 he hitched his star (temporarily) to the nascent automobile industry. At the tender age of 25, he was made the Technical Director of the Nesselsdorfer Wagon Works (in what is today the Czech Republic), a manufacturer of railroad carriages eager to expand into automobiles. His assistant in that undertaking was another of our paternity claimants, an even younger 18 year-old Hans Ledwinka. Nesselsdorfer would eventually become Tatra, and Ledwinka would have a brilliant career there. But Ledwinka owes Rumpler more gratitude than just giving him his first job.

Rumpler and Ledwinka’s first car at Nesselsdorfer there was a flop, due to a faulty engine, a recurring issue that would bedevil Rumpler. He moved on to Adler in Berlin, where he was unhappy with the simple and crude chain drives then commonly in use, as well as the excessive weight of the alternative shaft drive rear axles. So in 1903 he invented and patented something truly new and original: the swing axle, the first driven independent rear suspension.

A prototype was built, but there were problems with the very small, hard tires of the time coping with the camber changes. So Adler passed for now, although the ball-joint torque tube, another of Rumpler’s inventions was used and eventually went into widespread use internationally. The swing axle would have to bide its time until both Rumpler and Ledwinka (and others) would separately put it to good use.

view from above

Here’s the brilliance of the swing axle’s design as used by many that adopted it, particularly so Tatra. It dispensed with any expensive and easily-worn universal joints; as can be seen here, each half shaft’s large ring gear can swing freely in an arc around the (small) driveshaft pinions. The two half shafts are located by the two round guide shoes inside the round case.

Here’s the same basic design as used still in today’s Tatra trucks, which are legendary for their off-road prowess and durability.

VW had a different type of joint, using a ‘tang” inside a differential gear, with fulcrum plates. Also very tough, simple and rugged, although in principle not as much so as the Tatra style. But the VW was optimized for lower cost mass production.

In any case, until better IRS systems came along, swing axles were the way to go.

As powered flight became a reality, Rumpler’s first interest took flight too. He acquired the German license for the Austrian Taube (“Dove”) designed by Igo Etrich in 1909. An elegant and advanced design, Rumpler was soon building them in significant numbers for various uses, including for the military during WW1. Rumpler designed an advanced V8 engine for it, but (once again) it was not successful, and most were powered by a Daimler four cylinder. The Taube made Rumpler successful and famous.

He went on to found Rumpler Air Service, a pioneering transport service in Germany, flying one or two passengers in the small planes of the time.

But Rumpler thought big, and he was the first to conceive in considerable detail the very far-reaching idea of international heavier-than-air transport. In 1921 he created The Trans-Oceanic Company, and in 1927 unveiled this concept of a giant ten-engine flying-wing amphibious plan seating 175 passengers. It was simply too far ahead of its time, so he turned his attention back to cars.

Given how critical aerodynamics is in aviation, it’s no surprise that Rumpler made aerodynamic efficiency a key element in his thinking. Undoubtedly he was aware of the 1913 Alfa Romeo that had been rebodied by Carrozzeria Castagna at the request of Count Marco Ricotti. It was a one-off, and due to excessive heat from the engine inside the body in its unusual place, it soon was turned into an open car, negating some of its slipperiness.

Rumpler’s Tropfenwagen (“Tear Drop Car”) of 1921 approached the problem quite differently, as it was anything but a mere streamlined body on a conventional chassis.

The Tropfenwagen sat on a revolutionary chassis, one that is essentially akin to the “skateboard” chassis that underpins Teslas and an increasingly number of current EVs. This is looking at it from the rear, and we can see the swing axles with quarter elliptic leaf springs and control arms. Just ahead of that is the four-speed gearbox, and then the very unusual 2.3 L W6 engine, with its three banks of two cylinders to make a very short and rigid engine, in the rear-mid location of the quite light built-up steel “frame”. Ahead of the engine there were openings in the frame to allow the storage of two spare tires.

This shows the location of the engine and the radiator directly behind it, whose hot air was exhausted through vents in the car’s tail.

The Tropfenwagen was less of a production vehicle and more of an on-going design/engineering exercise to entice existing car manufacturers to license it. Hence a number of different body styles and sizes were built, from 6-7 seater limousines to a rather compact open car and coupe. In part this was to show the flexibility of the concept, as well as to see which ones attracted the most interest. Some 20 of these various first series Tropfenwagens were built, including two sent to the US to attract American car makers, powered by a Continental six cylinder engine. Rumpler’s W6 engine again had some deficiencies, thus the later versions used a Daimler four.

It’s hard to say what was the most revolutionary or influential aspect of the Tropfenwagen; its aerodynamics or its extremely advanced and unique chassis, IRS and drive train. But at least we can put a hard number to its aerodynamic drag, which Volkswagen did in 1979 in their new advanced wind tunnel. They tested a Tropfenwagen, a 1940 Tatra 87 and a 1939 Kamm prototype sedan. Here are the hard numbers:

Although the Rumpler had a significantly greater frontal area (“A”) due to its much greater height, its coefficient of drag (Cd), or the relative aerodynamic efficiency of its shape, was so much lower at 0.28 to make up the difference and still have the lowest overall aerodynamic drag (“CdA”). As such, the Tropfenwagen’s 0.28 Cd was not equaled by the most aerodynamic production cars until the mid-late 1980s, a truly stellar achievement. And it explains how it readily exceeded 60mph (100kmh) with only 36 hp.


Although the Tropfenwagen were not really successful per se, but Benz did buy a license as it clearly saw its potential. That’s in Part 5.  And of course Hans Ledwinka at Tatra adopted its swing axle rear suspension, which is still on Tatra trucks today. The swing axle was taken up by numerous makes, primarily German and Austrian firms, who placed a high value on the better ride they afforded.

And within a few years, Ledwinka would take up the aerodynamic theme with a vengeance.

The Tropfenwagen was too far ahead of its time, but its influence was vast. It was the prophet of the aerodynamic age and the Volkswagen was very much a product of that. It ignited a wave of aerodynamic rear engine concepts and actual cars. One of these early ones was this one designed by Sir Dennistoun Burney; his Burney Streamline of 1930 was one of two more obvious intermediate steps between the Tropfenwagen and the Tatra 77 of 1933. Unfortunately, its long and heavy water cooled six cylinder engine protruding from the rear was not ideal. The consequences of too much weight on the rear wheels of a rear engine car would soon make itself known, and significantly affect the design of the Beetle.

Rumpler moved on to FWD, although not successfully. His career came effectively to an end in 1933, given his Jewish birth. His wife and children moved to Vienna, but he stayed behind, sold his company to Ambi-Budd, the German branch of the Budd Company, pioneers in steel car body building and employer of engineer Joseph Ledwinka, brother of Hans. Rumpler consulted to Chrysler on suspension issues and such, and died of natural causes in 1940.

Pages: 1 2 3 4