(first posted 2/11/2011. Updated 9/17/2023) Having the distinction of being the most built car ever (over 21 million), the Volkswagen Beetle rightfully gets a lot of CC attention. In this chapter of the VW story, we look at a rare 1946 model, and how the odds of it ever seeing the light of day (especially in Eugene) were stacked against it. The Volkswagen should rightfully have been called the Cockroach instead of Beetle.
What makes the VW stories of the two sides of the Atlantic so fascinating is that they are essentially the polar opposite of each other: in the US, the Beetle was the underdog outsider that clawed and scrabbled its way inside; in Germany and parts of Europe it was soon the Top Bug, playing the defensive role to hold on to its dominant position; the GM of Germany we might say. Running into this highly unexpected and very rare 1946 VW Type 11 at a gas station starts the story perfectly: this was the very first VW actually sold to civilians, and the first to be called by the name Volkswagen.
Update: I did a deep dive into the origins and birth of the Beetle here, to give credit (or discredit) to those whose ideas, inventions and concepts (dating back to 1903) were part of its DNA, and to establish who rightfully is its father. It’s a long and complicated (and contested) story, so let’s focus on how the Volkswagen just barely sputtered back to life from the ruins of the war, and went on to take Germany (and the world) by Sturm.
The Wolfsburg factory built in 1938-1939 to build Hitler’s KdF Wagen (Strength Through Joy Car) was the largest integrated new car factory in the world, designed to build a million cars a year, a staggering amount back then.
Only a handful (210) of the KdF Wagens were ever built though, before war broke out in 1939, and they were quickly commandeered by the military. Production was switched to war purposes, including military stoves and parts for V1 rockest and bombers, as well as other kit, the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen. A military version, the Type 87, was built with 4 wheel drive. A quite small number of Type 60 KdF Wagens were built during the war, for Nazi functionaries.
Already substantially damaged by Allied bombers, the factory’s vital equipment was further destroyed by escaping POW and other alien/slave workers when the German guards fled in the face of the advancing Allies. With much of the roof collapsed, machinery that wasn’t damaged was rusting. British forces took control from the American liberators, and set up a repair and maintenance shop for their vehicles. But with nothing else to do, some of the local workers kept assembling Kübelwagen, some 522 by the fall of 1945.
Under Major Ivan Hirst, the factory also turned out a couple of Type 1 sedans. One of them ended up in the local British military headquarters, and surprisingly, resulted in a large order for more. This was taken by Hirst as tacit approval to put the plant back to producing Type 1s. The future of the Volkswagen plant really all hinged on that unexpected little twist of fate. Well, along with one other one:
The VW factory was to be disassembled and its machinery sent to any Allied country that wanted it as war reparation and part of the massive Morgenthau Plan to de-industrialize Germany and turn it into a “pastoral state”. That job-killing plan would have essentially starved the populace, and was eventually rescinded. Wiser heads prevailed, and realized that Germany needed to be built up, not torn down.
But that’s not why the Volkswagen factory didn’t end up in England. The Brits plain didn’t want it; a delegation from the British motor industry visited and checked out the VW, and demurred: “the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car … it is quite unattractive to the average buyer … To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” Let’s just say that the VW ended up selling quite well in England some years later, to the chagrin of the authors of that report. And there’s no question that the VW was vastly more advanced in its class than anything being built (or planned) in Great Briton at the time.
So it was left to the British Occupying Forces to deal with the factory and the desperate former employees that were most eager to get back to some kind of work. Army Major Ivan Hirst gets the bulk of the credit for clearing out unexploded bombs and putting the machinery back into car production. With his order for 10,000 VWs in hand, the Wolfsburg plant sputtered back to life in 1945, but not without many great challenges.
The Morgenthau Plan decimated steel and other industrial production, and tires were particularly hard to come by. Certain suppliers were no longer in existence, or in the wrong Occupational Zone. Raw materials were in critical short supply, and much of the output of cars was bartered for steel, rubber and other inputs to keep the factory running.
Solex, which built the Volkswagen’s carburetor, was one of the missing suppliers, as they were based in the Eastern Sector of Berlin. For some time until Solex could rebuild, the resourceful Wolfsburgers had to replicate the Solex carb with their own somewhat crude effort, as seen on this car here. Its castings may be a bit rough, but the motor starts right up, and the boxer’s inherent internal balance combined with the low compression makes for a smooth runner once it warms up.
Technically, those first 1945 models still carried the KdF Type 60 identification, and only 1,785 of them were built, with many parts from leftover stock. Brian, the owner of this 1946 that he restored, also has a 1945 KdF Wagen beginning restoration (platform on saw horses). Only a handful of ‘45s still exist anywhere. Production increased substantially in 1946, to 10k units, and now finally called the Volkswagen Type 11.
When I first saw this VW in traffic going the other way on West 11th; I knew it was exceptionally old by the unusual hubcap design that soon gave way to the iconic VW baby moon cap. I made an aggressive U-turn and followed it into a gas station, where Brian was emptying his pocket change to get enough gas for a trip to visit some friends. Yes, this car gets driven like that, and a handful of change will keep it running for a while: Hitler and Porsche had agreed that the Volkswagen would use no more than 7 liters/100km (about 35 mpg) as well as cruise all day at 100 kmh (62 mph).
The 1100 cc air cooled four was rated at 25 DIN hp, but this engine only pulled 23 hp on Brian’s own dyno (yup, he’s got quite a nice little shop with some other VW goodies in it). But it runs like a top, even if it tops out at something closer to fifty-five. Maybe that home-brew carb is the culprit. Not that he’d ever change it though; it’s quite a rarity.
Volkswagen production actually dropped a bit in 1947, to 8,987 units, due to shortages and the lingering economic stasis. As a result, Ford was offered the opportunity to buy the whole VW operation lock, stock and barrel, for…nothing! Just take it off our hands! Top Ford exec Ernest Breech told Henry Ford II: “I don’t think what we are being offered is worth a damn!” That was an historic recommendation; and Hank took it and passed.
Having escaped the Allies’ bullet for the second time, it was now up to the Germans to make something of their creation. Former Opel exec Heinz Nordhoff was tapped to run Volkswagen. The timing was right, as the economy took off in 1949 on the strength of the D Mark and the elimination of certain production restrictions. The German post-war Wirtschaftswunder was now under way, and VW production exploded: 46k in 1949; 114k in 1951; 202k in 1954; 333k in 1956; 575k in 1959, and over a million in 1965. Exports accounted for an increasing percentage after 1955 or so.
But the German market had to be satisfied first, which had a huge pent-up thirst for an affordable family-sized car. Even though the VW was now a ten year old design, its inherent qualities made it unbeatable on the home market, as well as very competitive in many other European markets. Nothing could touch its combination of quality construction, reliability, economy, supple suspension, traction and its ability to cruise at full speed all day long (just try that with a Fiat of the period).
Although the basic design was still competitive, a drastic updating/refinement program was initiated, and by 1953, just about every relevant system and component had been redesigned and improved. The Beetle looked mostly the same on the outside, but much had changed. The engine gained power (30 hp net/DIN), the transmission was transformed from an unsynchronized crash box to one of the best shifting in the world at the time, the suspension was substantially revised, brakes became hydraulic, and the interior was revamped. Some of these changes took a bit longer to find themselves into the non-export Standard model, which kept the crash box and mechanical brakes like on this ‘46 for some years yet.
By 1955, the one-millionth Beetle rolled off the lines in Wolfsburg. The Beetle’s assault was now unstoppable.
Period pictures of Germany’s highways and roads show how predominant the Volkswagen was, much like the Ford Model T had been in the US twenty five years earlier. Well, it was the T all over again: Germans were packing them to the gunnels with kids and camping gear, and indulging that famous German Wanderlust. As a kid in Austria in the fifties, I vividly remember Innsbruck and all of Tirol being overrun by an invasion of German Beetles and their occupants every summer. In the most heavily invaded areas, merchants and restaurateurs would even price their wares in D-Marks. That struck us as scandalous.
Whereas the Beetle’s inroads in the US just got started after 1955 and peaked in 1970, Käfer fatigue set in much earlier in Germany. By the latter part of the fifties, the media was endlessly speculating when a modern replacement would appear. It took almost twenty years before that finally happened, in the form of the 1975 Golf.
Meanwhile, the competition started chipping away at the fortress Wolfsburg: Ford and Opel unleashed their 12M and Kadett; Fiat had been the biggest competitor with their 1100/1200 all along, now went for the jugular with both their RWD 124 and FWD 128. The Renault R4 and Citroen 2CV found favor with the younger set, who now saw the VW as “an old person’s car”. Quite the contrast from the US, where the Beetle was a rolling billboard of nonconformity and youth.
The German’s biggest gripes were the narrow 1930’s body and interior (which was also very spartan in those early years),
the limited rear seat leg room,
an almost non-existent trunk,
although the rear seat could be flipped down for a fairly roomy cargo area (later models were carpeted here),
lousy heater (those are the round heating outlets on the floor, for what they’re worth),
and poor performance. 100 km/h might have been a dream in 1938, but by 1968 it was a drag. VW, and Porsche under contract, built dozens of prototype Beetle successors. Some had radical new configurations, like the mid-engine-under-the-rear seat EA266 (above) from Porsche. But most were just contemporary boxy bodies on the tried and true VW chassis, which is essentially what the Type 3 1500/1600 of 1961 ended up being. The Type 3 was positioned above the Beetle, and although it was highly anticipated and became quite popular for a while, it never really fully satisfied the longing for something more modern.
Although the terms “Beetle” and “Käfer” might be expected to be as old the their namesake, both came along later, especially the German usage. A 1938 NYT article refers to the planned KdF wagen as a “beetle”, but it only started to reappear in America in the fifties. In Germany, the Volkswagen was called just that, until the Type 3 came along in 1961. To distinguish the two, the Germans borrowed the American’s terminology, and Käfer entered into common usage.
Volkswagen created a deep crisis for itself, especially in Europe, by dithering on a Beetle replacement. During the later sixties, exports to the US were so phenomenal, that the Beetle’s market share decline at home could be partially shrugged off. But after the Beetle hit the (Japanese) wall in the US, and the dollar was devalued in 1971, VW had a serious American problem too. The years 1971 – 1974 were the darkest days at Volkswagen since 1948.
By a desperate but fortuitous last-minute sleight-of-hand exercise, Audi engines and FWD expertise were repackaged in the brilliant Golf, and the crisis was finally over, at least in Europe. In America, not so much so. But we’ll pick up that story soon, with a genuine Pennsylvania-built Rabbit.
CC 2003 VW Beetle – The Last of the Mohicans (H. McClure)