Cohort Classic: VW Hebmüller Cabriolet – A Genuine Heb Or A Fake?

Nathan Williams caught a VW Hebmüller Cabriolet on the go in London. No, this is not the classic VW Cabriolet that was built for so many decades by Karmann. The sportier Hebmüller 2+2 Cabrio was available alongside the four-seat Cabriolet at VW dealers from 1949 – 1953, but only 696 were ever built, so these are now very rare and valuable.

I’ve been wanting to write up a “Heb” for years, so here goes….but then looking at this one closely makes me suspect that it’s a later conversion; a fake, in other words. But I’ll still do its history, regardless. Even really good Heb fakes (if this is one) are not exactly common either.

The 1938 KdF Wagen was intended to be built in three body styles; a sedan, a sunroof sedan and a cabriolet. The cabrio prototype was shown at the 1938 groundbreaking ceremony for the new KdF factory, and at the end of the ceremonies, Porsche drove Hitler back to his private train in it. Hitler never learned to drive, despite being a car fanatic, preferring the back seat. I’m guessing Porsche didn’t push the seat back very far, but then he was short anyway.

We’ve told the early postwar story of how the Beetle was saved from extinction by the British Occupational Forces, in the form of the very determined Major Ivan Hirst. He managed to scrape together enough old parts and a few new ones, and start up production of the sedan in 1946 on a very limited basis. It’s hard to image now, but Hirst struggle dnot only to find the parts to build them but also a market in which to sell them, as Germans were in no position to buy new cars in 1946.

Colonel Charles Radclyffe was in charge of the actual plant. After some discussions about what might sell—or was it what they personally wanted to drive?—Hirst had a team build a roadster for Colonel Radclyffe, dubbed the Radclyffe Roadster, naturally.

It was a roadster inasmuch as it was intended to be as close to a sports car as possible, and had cut down windows, a low roadster collapsible roof, and only two front seats. Colonel Radclyffe was quite happy tooling around in his eponymous roadster, but nothing came of it initially. Unfortunately, there’s no images if it on the web, or possibly elsewhere.

In 1948, after the VW factory was turned over to the Germans under the direction of Heinz Nordoff, Nordoff decided it would be a good idea to build a little sporty cabriolet very much along the lines of the Radclyffe Roadster, having seen it, undoubtedly. Nordoff hired Joseph Hebmüller to build it. His coachbuilding firm of Hebmüller and Sons, founded in 1889, was of course interested in any work they could get during this difficult post-war era.

Hebmüller used as many parts of the Beetle as possible to build the sporty cabrio; eventually three protoypes were built, including this one.

Here’s a shot of it in profile, with the top down.

And with top up. The three prototypes were extensively tested by VW and found to be lacking in structural rigidity. Strengthening members were welded to the floor pan panels under the front doors, which solved the problem. Production of the Hebmüller began in June 1949.

Here’s what the final production version looked like. The top was raised, which allowed room for a small “emergency” seat in the back, which could be folded down for more luggage room.

A year later, in 1949, Karmann was also asked to submit three prototypes for the four passenger cabriolet, essentially a production version of the 1938 prototype. These also required the same strengthening to compensate for the convertible body’s lack of a roof. Although the VW sedan body sat on a platform chassis, its body was very much designed to provide significant structural rigidity to the combined structure.  This is a 1950 production Karmann Cabriolet, which of course has its fully-padded top sticking up in the back, a feature the Hebmüller avoided, since it had plenty of room to drop its smaller top down behind the rear seat.

Hebmüller production started in June of 1949. But already in July of that year, a fire broke out in the Hebmüller shops. The company managed to get some production restarted, but was crippled financially because it was uninsured. Production at Hebmüller ended in mid-1950, but some more of them (Type 14A) were later built at the Karmann shops, on a very small scale through 1953. A total of 696 Hebmüllers were built.

Nathan caught this one out on drive in London, in a shot that includes quite a range of mobility options: pedestrians, bicycle. scooter and bus, along with the Heb. I know which one I’d take.

The Heb’s distinctive long engine lid may look like its front trunk lid, but they’re not the same. Under it putters the same 25 hp 1131 cc air cooled boxer four that came from the WW2 Kübelwagen and also used in the sedans. its performance was considered on the lively side for the times, but there were already tuners ready to hop it up with twin carb kits and other goodies if you wanted Porsche-like performance.

I noticed that this Heb does not have a correct single-outlet exhaust system; it has the twin-outlet muffler that was first used in 1955. Nathan titled these shots “1961 VW”. I wondered why. I decided to look up the plates and they say: “1961 VW 1200”. Hmm. So more than likely this is a very well done re-creation. I also noticed a few other very minor details, like the door handles being apparently slightly further forward that those on a genuine Heb. Also, the seats do rather look like they’re straight out of a 1961 VW.

So I’m betting it’s a well-done reproduction. Nothing wrong with that; I’ve lusted after a Heb for many decades, and I’d be very happy with this one.

Related reading:
Curbside Classic: 1946 Volkswagen 1100 (Type 11): The Beetle Crawls Out Of The Rubble
CC Outtake: 1971 VW Cabriolet – Can I Take It Hiking?