Part 7: Ferdinand Porsche – Looking for a Sugar Daddy
What’s there to say about Ferdinand Porsche that hasn’t already been said, so many times? His career started in 1898, when he built the first gas-electric hybrid and then went on to include many of the finest and most successful racing and production cars in Austria and Germany for decades. So we’re going to pick up his story in 1931, after he was made redundant at the Steyr Works due to the Depression. Tired of working for others, at the somewhat advanced age of 56 he started his own firm, Dr. Ing. h.c.F. Porsche Gmbh, offering design and consulting services for engines and motor vehicles. He brought with him a number of loyal subordinates, most of whom had followed along with him at his various previous jobs.
1931 was a difficult time to set out on one’s own, in a struggling economy. He did pick up a few consulting contracts, but he decided that he needed to initiate new projects with the hope of selling them to manufacturers. Given the times, a small car seemed like the obvious direction, and thus the first Porsche-initiated project was called Type 12 “Kleinwagen”, given that number so as to make it look like it wasn’t the first. It was for a compact aerodynamic 4-5 passenger sedan with a rear air-cooled flat four engine.
Motorcycle maker Zündapp bit, and gave Porsche a contract to build three prototypes in 1932. But since Zündapp motorcycle engines were two strokes, they insisted on a two stroke in the T12, and a five cylinder radial one at that. This engine did not pan out, and Zündapp soon abandoned the project. Another factor may well have been the high cost of the all-steel bodies built by Reutter.
But Porsche soon hooked another motorcycle manufacturer, NSU. The project was now T32, and three prototypes were built, with bodies by different coach-builders. The one on top was built by Reutter, as it looked originally (left), and as later modified with lower and integrated headlights (right). That one is in the VW Museum, and is considered by VW as the oldest direct descendant of the Beetle still in existence. The lower left one was presumably built by Dreutz, and the one on the lower right also by Reutter, but to a quite different design and using wood and artificial leather covering.
The Porsche-NSU Type 32 was a bit bigger than the Beetle would end up being, with a 2600mm wheelbase (2400 for the Beetle), and its engine was larger, with 1470cc and 28 hp. The air-cooled boxer four designed by Josef Kales already shows many of the distinctive features that would be used on the definitive VW engine.
NSU also killed the project with Porsche, supposedly because its part-owner Fiat did not want a new competitor. Or because NSU simply found it too expensive and daunting to jump into the car business.
Porsche needed a more substantial and reliable partner for his small car ambitions. He would soon find one; or the other way around.
Along with long-time associate Karl Rabe and backing from Adolf Rosenberger, Porsche also started a subsidiary company to develop a racing car, also on speculation. The “P-Wagen” was essentially an evolution of the Rumpler-based Benz RH Tropfenwagen racer that we looked at earlier.
Initially, there was talk about Zündapp funding the racing program, but that came to naught. Mercedes was the dominant force at the time, and had secured a large grant from the new Nazi regime to dominate the Grand Prix circuit. If Porsche was to get his P-Wagen built, he would also need a more substantial and reliable partner.
Part 8: Adolf Hitler – Car Nut
For this exercise we’re going to stick to just one or two facets of Hitler’s warped personality. One is that he was a certified car nut. Oddly, he never learned to drive, but that wasn’t uncommon then. During his year-long stay at Landsberg Prison after his failed putsch of 1923, it’s been confirmed that the bulk of the lively daily conversation among Hitler and his coterie of fellow privileged political inmates (and keepers) was not politics, but rather art, theater, opera, and…cars. His loyal friend Jakob Werlin, a Benz employee, fed him with all the latest happenings in the industry and the racing world. And upon his release, Werlin picked him up in a slightly used Mercedes on the cheap, on behalf of the party, meaning Hitler.
One of the books Werlin brought to Hitler in prison was “My Life and Work” by Henry Ford. This would be a deeply influential read, and Hitler evolved right then his plans for putting Germans back to work by building a system of highways to bind the nation closer together as well as mass-manufacturing a small car that the average man could afford. From the day he left Landsberg, automobiles and his grand vision for them was always near the foreground of his thinking, until the war changed his priorities. That’s the other quality: the vision thing.
Hitler’s first major public function after becoming Chancellor of Germany in January 1933—after providentially having become a German citizen in the nick of time—was to open the Berlin Auto Show that February. In his opening address, he laid out his three-pronged vision: highways, cheap cars and international motor racing, to showcase Germany’s technical superiority. And he affirmed that it was the intention of his government to support the production of a Deutschen Volkswagen.
The German word Volk is almost impossible to translate completely and satisfactorily, for there are multiple layers in their meaning. In its most superficial and simplistic meaning, it is just “pertaining to the people”. But it also means “pertaining to a specific culture”, as well as “pertaining to a nationalistic and/or racist movement”. So while the term Volkswagen can mean simply an affordable car, in Hitler’s meaning, it was clearly meant to stand as a symbol of the superiority of the German Volk. It’s why “The People’s Car” as commonly used in reference to the Volkswagen is rather unsatisfactory, at least to me. Volkswagen is a loaded word, or it certainly was so until after the war.
After his opening speech, Hitler made a beeline to the Tatra stand, where he told Ledwinka about how he had used a T11 “for a million kilometers” for his politicking throughout Austria. Ledwinka showed him the chassis for the new T77, and had to go into great detail of its air cooled V8 and rear suspension. That evening Ledwinka was summoned to Hitler’s hotel to hear yet more details. And supposedly Hitler said that any future German Volkswagen “must be like a Tatra—air cooled and robust”. Perhaps this is the basis of the Volkswagen origin myth regarding Tatra and Ledwinka.
One month later, in March 1933, Porsche had his first meeting with Hitler, to make a plea for funding for his P-Wagen racing car. He was told by well-placed sources that Mercedes already had 100% of the funds tied up and that he had no chance of changing Hitler’s mind. But Hitler greeted Porsche warmly, and the two instantly hit it off, thanks to the familiarity of their respective Austrian accents. Porsche was some 15 years older, and became something of a father figure to Hitler, who was in rather desperate need of that. Hitler was always courteous and respectful, to Porsche, who spoke informally and candidly to him, greeting him with “Guten Tag” instead of “Heil, Mein Fūrer!”
Hitler kept Porsche at that meeting for much longer than expected, engrossed in the plans for the P-Wagen. Porsche’s power of persuasion won the day, and he got the funding for his racers. These carried the Auto-Union Silver Arrow name and became legendary in their time, both for their raw power and their tricky handling, which only some drivers, notably Bernd Rosemeyer, ever fully mastered.
In its ultimate 1936 form, Porsche’s supercharged V16 was making over 520 hp and dominated the GP circuits. It was the final feather in Porsche’s very large racing car cap.
The next meeting between the two would be more momentous, and this time Porsche was summoned to Hitler’s hotel room, in May 1934. Hitler was concise and brief: he wanted the Volkswagen built, and he wanted Porsche to head up its development.
During that brief meeting, Hitler sketched his ideas for what a Volkswagen might look like (above).
For what it’s worth, it looks a lot like the Mercedes 130H, which would have just been presented at the 1934 Berlin show. It obviously caught his attention.
There’s also this sketch by him from 1933 that clearly shows a streamliner. It may well have been influenced by the T77, which was new at that prior year’s show.
The basic criteria were spelled out by Hitler: to accommodate four adults and one child, have a top speed of 100 kmh (61 mph) and be able to maintain that continuously on the new autobahn Hitler was having built, and to have a consumption of no more than 7L/100km (33.6 mpg).
Most significantly, he wanted it to be sold for less than 1000 RM (Reichsmark), or some $250 at the time. This struck Porsche as incredible, as constant cost-cutting had driven the cost to build—not sell—the NSU Type 32 down to 2200 marks. Even the little wood and vinyl 12hp Ganz-designed Standard Superior was priced at 1590 RM. Under 1000 RM? That seemed absurd.
But it was not Porsche’s style to question; this was simply going to be his latest challenge, and he would do everything in his power to make it happen. Porsche was apolitical, and one-pointed in pursuing the jobs given to him with his characteristic intensity and thoroughness. During the war years, he never once questioned the practicality or effectiveness of the tanks and other military weapons that he was tasked with by Hitler (most were mediocre or even failures). He stayed above the fray, and just did the best he could given what he had to work with. Initially, that wasn’t much.
In the early 1930s, car ownership in Germany was decidedly still a serious luxury. In 1932, there were only 486,000 licensed cars for a population of some 65 million; a much lower rate than in France and the UK, never mind the US. And even these number are misleading, as a very high percentage of these cars were owned for business purposes.
An analysis showed that the cost of buying and operating a car for 10,000 km per year was 67.76 RM per month, or 35% of the monthly income of a working class family, which were currently spending some 2.3 RM per month for transport (public transport and/or bicycles). The purchase price was too high as was the cost of fuel. Gasoline could well have been drastically cheaper in Germany at the time, due to a global glut of oil during the Depression. But like other European countries, it was taxed high to dampen consumption, since it had to be all imported. Hitler was adamant about Germany developing its synthetic fuel capability (from coal), as he knew that would be essential during a war. That required high prices, as it had to be heavily subsidized. And the taxes were a significant source of vital revenue to the Reich.
Germany’s car industry was very inefficient, with way too many small manufacturers. This was largely the result of Germany’s high import tariffs, which it needed in order to prop up the Reichsmark, the only major global currency that was still on the gold standard during the Depression. It resulted in higher prices than in other European countries; drastically so in relation to the US. Fordism was widely discussed, but not feasible under the circumstances.
Although Ford had a subsidiary in Germany, it was GM’s Opel that was the closest to bringing Fordism into reality. Their small 1.2 L was steadily improved and cost-rationalized, and the 1935 P4 was priced at 1650 RM, which was dropped further to 1450 RM in 1937. The ver conventional P4 was the closest thing there was to an affordable mass-market car, and it had a 50+% share of the market in its class. The P4 was still too expensive for the working class, and the industry was quite wary of Hitler’s vision of drastically expanding motorization. They could not fathom how a legitimate family car could be built for 1000 RM; even 1200 would be a huge stretch.
Still the two biggest domestic manufacturers, Mercedes and Auto-Union decided it was better to take up the effort than have it forced on them later. They jointly funded a development program through the RDA (Automobile Manufacturer’s Association), which signed a contract in June 1934 with Porsche. The contract called for the delivery of three prototypes in ten months.
Porsche had no proper facilities to build prototypes. So the Porsche home garage was turned into a shop, and work commenced…
…from the drawings of the first prototype (Type 60 V1).
The basic elements of the Volkswagen chassis are already all here, except for the plywood floor, which would turn out to be too flexible. Note the different location of the engine cooling blower.
This chassis has a two cylinder boxer, with one carb directly feeding each cylinder. Several different engines were built and tested, including two strokes parallel and boxer twins along with four stroke boxer twins and fours. The challenge was to keep costs down and meet Hitler’s demanding performance and efficiency expectations. This turned out to be harder than initially anticipated.
The finished product was the Type 60 V1 sedan, the first of the direct line of true Volkswagen. These had the flat twin engine.
It was followed by the 1935 V2, a convertible, driven here by Ferry Porsche.
These did not arrive in the stipulated ten months. Porsche was struggling, due to a lack of facilities as well as his masters at the time, the RDA. The primary issue was cost. Porsche’s internal correspondence put the cost at between 1,400 and 1,450 RM, or in other words, about the same as the latest Opel P4. The industry gambled that Porsche, just about the only man in the Reich who could speak frankly with Hitler, would be able to talk him out of his unrealistic price target. But they grossly underestimated Hitler’s absolute determination, and Porsche could see it wasn’t worth even trying.
So the relationship between Porsche and the RDA unraveled, with Porsche essentially bypassing them and working more directly with Hitler. Porsche invited Hitler to a road test in January 1936, without the RDA present. The RDA then responded with a report saying that the cost would be 1600 RM. Expecting to get Porsche into hot water, the opposite happened: Hitler vented his fury at the industry, accusing them of succumbing to elitist thinking. He simply refused to accept that the industry of superior Germany could not build such a car for his stated price.
Hitler assured Porsche that the Volkswagen would be built for such a price, no matter what it took, even compulsory reductions in the price of raw materials and such. And after a satisfactory demonstration of the prototypes for Hitler at Obersalzberg in July, 1936, Hitler decided definitively that Porsche’s car would be built, and not by any of the existing manufacturers, but in a completely new factory. And although the industry was wary of the potential competition, for the time being, they were relieved to be unburdened by Hitler’s unrealistic demands.
The very big question was how to finance such a huge new factory. The solution was the DAF (German Labor Front), which had taken over from all existing labor unions after Hitler took power. Membership was compulsory, and that created a massive influx of funds. It would allow the factory to have not-for-profit status thus avoiding taxes and lowering its cost. And it would limit competition to the existing industry as the cars would be sold to blue collar RDA members. The RDA’s leisure and recreation arm, renamed KDF in 1938, enthusiastically took on this parentage of the Volkswagen.
But even the RDA struggled to finance what was now becoming the world’s biggest automobile factory. They had to sell property and take out bank loans. Phase 1 had a planned annual capacity of 450k cars. In its third and final phase 3, annual capacity was to be a staggering 1.5 million cars, more than Henry Ford’s River Rouge factory, the biggest in the world, and substantially greater than the total sum of all existing German production facilities. Hitler’s expansive vision was mind-boggling.
Development of the Volkswagen continued, with the V3 (left), seen here at the Porsche Villa, with V1 (right). It now had a proper steel floor and a body much closer to the final one.
The biggest change was a brand new engine design. The various two-cylinder engines proved to not be up to the task, so Porsche engineer Franz Reimspiess was tasked with designing a new boxer four. Anyone familiar with the VW engines will recognize this, although it hadn’t yet sprouted the oil cooler on its case. Little did he know what an iconic engine he designed, built in endless permutations by the tens of millions, and still being built today (but not by VW).
The V3 having proved itself, the next step was a series of 30 cars (VW30) built by Mercedes, who had the facilities to do so. This body may look a bit retrograde with its smaller rear side windows, but it was actually a major step forward technologically. Unlike the steel-over-wood coachbuilt bodies of the earlier version, this was designed with production in mind. In conjunction with Ambi-Budd, the all-steel body was optimized to be as stiff, light and cheap to manufacture in vast quantities as possible. This resulted in using a lot of fluting (creases), which was a relatively new technology and made the panels much stiffer than if they had been flat or smooth.
These 30 cars were subjected to a grueling one million kilometer test regime. This took place during 1937, and is a key element in why the Beetle emerged as a relatively durable product from the beginning, and was so effective during the war in its Kübelwagen form.
A lot of Porsche’s time was spent not just on the car itself, but on the process of making them by the millions. He and a few associates went to visit Ford’s River Rouge plant in 1937, to see the vaunted Ford process with their own eyes. They were ferried to the plant in a new 1937 Zephyr, and when Porsche noticed the front hinged door, he telegraphed back to Stuttgart with orders to change the Beetle’s door to front hinged too.
And just in the nick of time, as long time Porsche body designer Erwin Komenda was just finalizing the Volkswagen’s definitive body. These are the wood body bucks, from which the tooling was to be made. The front fenders were yet to be changed to accommodate smoother flush head lights.
I originally intended to include Komenda in the group picture at the top, as he is solely responsible for the Beetle’s body design, as well as many other Porsche creations, including the seminal Porsche 356. Contrary to what some might assume, Porsche relied on a staff to execute his projects, from the first drawings to the last bolt. He was well known to regularly burst into the drafting room or shops and offer highly un-filtered feedback, but he was also lavish with his praise too. Many of his staff spent their entire working lives following Porsche loyally from one company to another, and finally to his own firm.
The first three definitive versions (VW38), sedan, cabriolet and sunroof sedan were presented at the cornerstone ceremony for the new KDF factory in Fallersleben (later changed to Wolfsburg).
At the end of that ceremony, Hitler got in the back seat of the convertible and Porsche drove him to the train station, where his personal train was waiting.
44 of these VW38 pre-production cars were built, followed by 50 VW39 cars in 1939. The 996cc boxer four made 23.5 PS (25 hp), and met the specifications for performance and economy that Hitler had laid out.
One of the key financing techniques for the new factory was that the KDF Wagen was sold strictly on a lay-away plan. The KDF-Wagen Spar Karte (saving card) was launched on 1. August 1938. Subscriber would pay at least RM.5 a week towards the value of the car. They could pay more if they could afford and wanted to. Massive advertising campaigns followed and by the end of 1939 260,000 people joined. By May 1945 700,000 joined in total and 336,000 completed their full payment. Their payments were honored some years later by VW after the war.
In Hitler’s vision, soon his beloved German working class would be mobile, enjoying the freedoms that only the automobile afforded.
The vast factory was built, but of course just as Beetle production was about to commence in 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and that changed everything.
The unanswered question is how would things have turned out if Hitler hadn’t gone to war? Would the Volkswagen factory have churned out millions of KDF Wagen to enthusiastic buyers? How would it have worked out given the unrealistically low selling price. We’ll never know the answer to the first one, but there’s no reason to think the 995 RM price wouldn’t have been maintained, given Hitler’s adamant dictates on the matter. And it’s reasonable to assume that the Volkswagen Werke would have been able to be at least self-sustaining at that price, for three key reasons:
1.) The factory was fully paid for, and did not have to be amortized in its sales price. That alone is a significant factor, and of course one that caused considerable fear and anxiety in the rest of the German auto industry. 2.) Porsche did an excellent job of designing the Beetle for mass production. After the war, the labor time to build each one plummeted for a number of years as production was fine tuned. It was almost instantly profitable and fueled VW’s rapid growth. 3.) There were zero selling or marketing costs associated with the KDF Wagen, as it was to be sold directly through the local KDF branch offices. Service was to be provided by authorized facilities.
Although there was a lot of DNA in the Beetle from many individuals and various sources going back to Rumpler’s 1903 swing axle patent, there’s no question that Adolf Hitler was the real father of the Volkswagen. The idea of an affordable car for the masses was essentially universal; Henry Ford wasn’t the first to think of that; he just figured out how to make it a reality. The same was the case in Europe, except that after Ford, it became something of a universal desire. And it was acted upon, starting in the teens, to varying degrees, although certainly not highly fulfilling ones.
Having read Ford’s book and given Hitler’s fundamental quest to elevate the German Volk above all others, he made it one of his key domestic priorities, to prove that German superiority could create a factory larger than Ford’s and a car more affordable. He made it happen; the Volkswagen is his baby.
And it’s the only one of his many crazy and demented visions that lasted and flourished after the war (save for some extremists). And today his baby has grown into the largest automobile maker in the world. Now that’s something even Hitler’s megalomania probably never envisioned.
And as to Ferdinand Porsche, he was Hitler’s chosen vessel to bear forth his baby. The willing mother of the Volkswagen, in other words.
Postscript: there’s a lot more detail about the years of the Beetle’s gestation and birth that are fascinating, at least to me, and perhaps we’ll take that up another time. But I have taken on the chapter of the Beetle’s rebirth after the war here: Curbside Classic: 1946 Volkswagen – The Beetle Climbs Out of the Rubble.
The next chapter is here: Curbside Classic: 1957 Volkswagen – The Beetle Takes America By Sturm
And there’s a number of other VW articles in the European Brands Portal in the CC Archives