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

Part 3: Paul Jaray – Aerodynamics Is King

Paul Jaray was also born into a Jewish family in Vienna, in 1889. After his education and some time as an assistant at the Prague Technical University, he became an aerodynamicist, working first for Flugzeugbau Friedrichshafen, on sea planes.

His first claim to fame was in designing the Zeppelin Airship Bodensee, which was a breakthrough in airship design, thanks to its advanced aerodynamics. Through extensive wind tunnel tests, Jaray substantially changed the ratio of diameter to length from preceding Zeppelins, resulting in a very significant reduction in drag and corresponding increase in range. The Bodensee was the prototype of all subsequent rigid airships.

Jaray used his aeronautical experience to develop a specific formula for automotive aerodynamic design principles that led to a patent, applied for in 1922 and issued in 1927. His approach was influential, and numerous companies used Jaray licensed bodies during the streamlined era that unfolded in the early thirties.

Jaray built streamlined bodied versions of Mercedes, Opel, Maybach (above), Ford, Chrysler, and numerous other makes.  It became something of a formula, resulting in look-alike cars. Although Jaray’s work was influential, and eventually variations on his themes became near-universal.

Jaray had to sue Chrysler, as it was all too obvious that their 1934 Airflow was a bit too much under the influence of his work and patents.

After Hans Ledwinka decided to build a large streamlined car, Tatra bought a license and paid Jaray to provide the expertise to develop them, including the 1934 T77.

We’ll take up the actual VW’s development a bit later, but this wooden buck of its definitive body design by Erwin Komenda from 1937 clearly shows the influence of Jaray, even if his patent was expired or ignored by this time.


Part 4: Josef Ganz – Advocate and Agitator

Josef Ganz was born into a German-speaking Jewish family in Budapest, but they soon moved to Vienna and then Mainz in Germany. He fought in WW1, and completed his university-level engineering degree in 1927, by which time he became inspired by the idea of a small car for the price of a motorcycle. That was hardly a novel dream, but Ganz took up the cause with a passion.

Hanomag Komissbrot s

Ganz’s cause was inspired in part by his experience as owner of a second-hand Hanomag 2/10 PS (above), lovingly called the “Kommissbrot” (“Commissary Bread Loaf”). It was a pioneer in its own right, and played a significant role in the development of future small cars and the Volkswagen. The Kommissbrot was really quite revolutionary for 1925, with its radical full-width and low-slung body.

Although it was built on an assembly line, Hanomag was not able to price the Kommissbrot low enough to undercut the established conventional cars like the Opel. Hanomag eventually replaced the Kommissbrot with a conventional sedan in 1930, but not before they sold some 16,000 of the little loaves.

The Hanomag had a single cylinder 499cc engine that made 10 hp and was mounted in the rear over the chain-driven axle. To keep costs down, it made do without a differential and had rather crudely sprung solid axles front and rear. Ganz was determined that any small car he designed would have a more sophisticated suspension.

Ganz began to sketch small cars that were essentially scaled-down Rumplers, with mid-rear engines, swing axles, and small aerodynamic bodies. After his graduation, Ganz became editor of Klein-Motor-Sport, and undertook a campaign to advocate for advanced new small cars, railing against the established manufacturers for their conservative mind-set.

After tirelessly hounding manufacturers to get on the lightweight rear-engine bandwagon (despite Hanomag’s decision to exit that market), he finally secured a development contract with Ardie in 1929, resulting in the 1930 Ardie-Ganz prototype (“Maikafer” or “May Bug”), seen here with Ganz and Paul Jaray (right). As can be seen, this is essentially an update of the Kommissbrot concept; a very small, light open two seater. Its front “radiator” is a dummy.

Ganz Ardie-Ganz_1930

That resulted in the 1931 Adler Maikäfer prototype. It is on the basis of this car that Ganz claimed to be “the engineer behind the Nazi Volkswagen”.

The 1933 two-passenger Standard Superior was the first production car built to Ganz’s design standards and patents. It had a mid-rear mounted 12hp 396cc two-stroke engine, tubular central chassis, fully independent suspension, a rather crude wood body covered in “artificial leather” (vinyl), and priced at 1590 RM.  But it was a whole class or two smaller, slower and less capable than what Hitler envisioned for his Volkswagen.

It used a tubular central frame (which was not new), independent suspension front and rear, using two sets of transverse leaf springs to locate the front wheels and one in the back in conjunction with the swing axles. That was not new either, but it certainly was an improvement on the Kommissbrot’s solid axles.

The little two stroke twin is on one side of the center tube, and the transmission on the other. It was a space efficient way to package the drive train, but one does wonder about issues of noise and heat emanating from it, as well as access for servicing. VW tried for years to make that work on its EA266, which was intended to replace the Beetle, but they finally gave up for those reasons and went with FWD (Golf).

The chassis with its mid-rear engine and swing axles was essentially similar in concept to that of the Rumpler Tropfenwagen, scaled down considerably.

Later in 1933, the body was revised due to wide criticism of the original, to include a small rear window for any children that might be squeezed into its very small back seat over the engine. The engine was increased in size to make 16 hp. But it was still essentially the same car, and still used wood covered with vinyl for its body.


Standard used the term “Volkswagen” in its advertisement (“the fastest and cheapest German Volkswagen”). This was not used as a brand, but generically, since the term had been in common usage for some time.

There’s even a video of a restored Standard Superior, so that one can enjoy the sound and sight of its nattering and smoky little two stroke engine.

Ganz was arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 for supposedly blackmailing the German auto industry. He was later released and fled to Switzerland, where he developed the same basic concept into “The Swiss Volkswagen”. The prototype chassis is seen above. It may have four wheel independent suspension, but it’s not much more than a two-passenger go cart otherwise.

Some 40 similar small cars were built locally, but Ganz ended up embroiled in years of lawsuits there and in Germany over his designs and patents. He eventually moved to Australia, where he did a bit of consulting and passed away in relative obscurity in 1967. But not before an article was written in which he claimed to be the forgotten father of the Volkswagen Beetle.

Ganz book

There has been a considerable campaign to establish Ganz as just that, with a book, documentary and website dedicated to that cause. I haven’t read the book, but just watched the documentary. I found it somewhat embarrassing, for the many distortions of facts and the absolute unwillingness of its makers (including a descendant of Ganz) to 1.) accept that there were already small cars like the Kommissbrot; 2.) that others were also working towards similar goals, and 3.) that there was a large gulf between his vision and version of the Volkswagen and the ones by Hitler and Porsche. But like many such documentaries it has a specific goal, to advocate for a cause and do so by playing on the viewers’ emotions, never mind the facts, of which 99% of the viewers will be ignorant.

In that same year (1931) that Ganz built his little Adler Maikafer open two-seater, the car that he claimed was the true basis of the Volkswagen, the Type 12 was taking shape on the Porsche drawing boards, a speculative design for a compact air-cooled rear-engine 4/5 seater all-steel sedan. We’ll get to that later, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to which one was more influential on the Beetle.

There’s also this design for a “people’s small car” by Béla Barényi, made sometime between the years 1925 and 1931. He made numerous sketches and proposals, one of which ended up on the cover of Ganz’s Motor-Kritik magazine. I can’t give him a chapter of his own, but in later years, in a drawn-out legal battle, he finally won his claim that the drafts he had made as a student of the “future people’s car” be recognized as the “intellectual parent” of the Volkswagen. That’s precisely the same claim Ganz made the rest of his life. That court claim is according to one source that I can’t confirm. And judges aren’t always right.

Meanwhile in Italy, all the way back in 1924, the San Giusto was a production car that was years, if not decades, ahead of what Ganz, Ledwinka, Porsche, Nibel and the others in Germany were doing or just dreaming of.

Designed by Cesare Beltrami, the San Giusto had a light alloy backbone chassis(!) featuring double-wishbone fully independent suspension front and rear(!), meaning no swing axles. Undoubtedly influenced by the Rumpler Tropfenwagen, it had a mid-rear 748cc vertical four cooled by a top-mounted blower. And it had front brakes, noticeably absent on Ganz’s car.

Here’s another view of this delightfully light and highly advanced chassis. Only some 20 of these cars were built, undoubtedly because of the difficulties in making its production economically viable in Italy at the time.

That’s not to suggest that Beltrami was the first to design and build a non-swing axle IRS. The 1915 Cornelian, backed by Louis Chevrolet and the Blood brothers, qualified in the 1915 Indy 500 with Chevrolet at the wheel. It used upper and lower transverse leaf springs front and rear to locate the wheels, and double-jointed drive axles. And it even had a primitive form of rack and pinion steering. A production version was contemplated.

My point is simply that there were other more advanced cars that had been actually built, sold and raced before the time of Ganz’s designs and those of others.

There is no question that Ganz played an influential role in the early days of the movement to create a small affordable car in Germany. And that he contributed technically to the cause with his own cars as well as by consulting with Mercedes and other manufacturers at the time. And it’s painfully clear that Hitler was not about to let him continue playing that role, cutting short a career that might well have played a more significant role at the right company. That alone speaks volumes about the times, but it does not quite confer paternity.

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