(first posted 2/11/2011) Having the distinction of being the most built car ever (over 21 million), the Volkswagen 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.
An Automotive History unraveling the early development of the Volkswagen up to WWII will appear one of these days/years as a companion piece. (And the military Kübelwagen /Schimmwagen are here). 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 and the Kübelwagen. 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 practically starved the populace, and was eventually rescinded.
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.
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 1957 VW 1200 – The Beetle Takes America by Sturm
CC 2003 VW Beetle – The Last of the Mohicans (H. McClure)
The interior may be spartan, but it’s less so than the French 2cv. Is Solex the same company that manufactures the French motorbike? How long has Brian had the car? Fascinating account.
As per wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solex it is the same company, a French one. It was almost certainly the biggest European manufacturer of carburetors, in addition to that wonderful moped.
I think he said a few years; he’s been into VW’s since the sixties, and has a shop with some goodies I’ll show sometime. His current interest is very early ones; he rebuilt this fairly recently, and is now building up a very rare 1945 model.
Naturally I relate to this story. My own VW history is, I think, not unusual. My first three cars, all second-hand, were: a ’63 Beetle, a ’65 Beetle, and a ’70 Type 3 squareback. Affordable and simple. The first Beetle was the only car I’ve ever personally done any significant work on (clutch replacement), thanks to the immortal, the scriptural, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.”
The legend of the Beetle was that it always started right up. I’m thinking of the scene in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper”, where it’s the year 2170-something and he’s running away from the bad guys. He runs into a cave and there’s a Beetle sitting under 200 years of dust. He jumps in, turns the key, and — it starts right up! Of course!
That’s my favorite movie, every and one of my favorite parts. Great reference!
That ’46 is a gorgeous vehicle. I’m especially loving the paint job – it does those V-Dub curves all kinds of justice.
What are the best model years to look for if someone wants to step up to their first Beetle re: ease of maintenance, parts availability, driveability etc. ? For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s a summer car.
That matte finish is a careful re-do of the original finish, and is a bitch to keep up, because you can’t buff out scratches, or you’ll turn it into gloss!!
If I was looking for a fun project, with ease of parts and driveability, I would first look at models between 1958 and 1964, because they still have the classic original look, for the most part, but are very easy to get parts for.
The earlier you go, the more expensive your hobby will be. 1965 – 1967 are also nice; more power, but the bigger windows which have pros (better visibility) and cons (looks, for some folks).
The post 1968 models are most common and cheapest to buy, and have updated power, suspension, etc., but look even less like the original Beetles because of their big bumpers. That help?
Sure does, thanks!
A 67 or newer has the more modern 12 volt electrical system, which makes starting easier in cold weather and replacement batteries easier to find. Most of the 6 volt batteries I found for my 66 went bad after a year to 18 months, and cost over $100 to replace at the two suppliers available where I live. Also from a handling standpoint, try to find a ’68 or newer because of the double jointed swing axle, which helped with the handing in sudden emergencies involving unloading of the weight over the rear. The older ones had the single jointed axle like the early Corvair.
The more modern rear suspension/axle setup was only used on the “Autostick” models for ’68, the rest got it in ’69. I specifically bought a “69 Karmann Ghia for that feature, but old style lights and bumpers. It looks almost like a 1960.
Paul is right about the pre-1965 beetle for looks and not a daily driver. 12v conversions are easy for 40hp and later cars.
Love how this one has the wartime VW emblem still on the shift knob-with the gear teeth (cog in a Nazi war machine perhaps?) around the outside, just like on the ’42 Kubelwagen I saw and photographed at Don Emory’s Porsche show in Amity, OR couple of years ago. In fact this 46 has the same hubcaps, sans the gear teeth.
The cog on the shift lever originally said KdF in it, and was the symbol of the national Nazi labor union. Those shift knobs are quite rare, and are not being re-popped as far as I know.
And, by the way, that carb DOES have a choke
Of course it does, now that you’ve pointed that all-too obvious fact out. The owner, who is extremely knowledgeable, made a point of telling me it didn’t. And when he started it up, it idled very slowly, and a bit lumpy (cold engine). Yet there it is as plain as the nose on my face. ?? Maybe he meant the choke wasn’t working on his car at the time? That’s not how I understood it. Anyway, I’ve amended the text, and thanks for the correction.
It doesnt have an automatic choke is probably what he meant.
The automatic choke didn’t come until some years later. I think it had the choke plate disabled. It was cold when he started it, and idled very slowly (but steadily) after he feathered the carb a couple of times. He clearly told me that it had no choke, which made it a bit odd when I looked at the picture of the carb.
I think automatic choke came in 1961. My 60 had a manual choke and a friend’s 61 had an automatic choke IIRC.
Those B pillar traffic signals lasted through to at least 1959 on some of the export models. My father used to say that his Australian-delivery 1959 model had them. They were the latest thing at a time when people used to still use hand signals when turning the corner. It was a different time: no A/C, CD, GPS, ABS, radio, let alone a cup holder.
They were known as “semaphore” indicators. All the rage in the 50’s, gone by the 60’s.
I remember a P.E. teacher at my junior high school had a ’54 . . . was fascinated with the semaphores. I remember Morris Minors had ’em too, although they were sealed from the late fifties through ’60 (my brother’s friend had a ’60 – it is in the opening shot of American Graffiti). Junior High teacher also had a European ’63 – amber turn signals on top at the rear; speedo in km/h . . . .
I remember them being called “Trafficators”. I believe that was the English term?
That’s what we called them in Australia, too.
According to the book Small Wonder, by Walter Henry Nelson, production went down to 8,987 in 1947, from 10,020 in 1946, not ’48 as per article. 1948 production was 19,244 as per quoted reference. Just trying to help in the accuracy department, I know how you are Paul.
You’re right; I got my numbers crossed. Thank you; I count on you all to be my copy editors 🙂
“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.”Quote
One of the team that checked out the VW factory was probably the head of Morris Motors. The E-series Morris Eight of 1938 lacked independant suspension and overhead valves , but had a four speed synchromesh gearbox and hydraulic brakes. It couldn’t cruise at 60mph all day , but since Brooklands motor racing circuit was taken over by the military during the war there simply wasn’t anywhere in the UK where such sustained speed was possible.By 1946 the replacement , the Morris Minor, was already being developed , and was far superior to the VW. It was even meant to have a (front mounted) flat four engine , but financial pressures resulted in the old flat-head in-line four being retained.
Beetles eventually sold quite well in the UK , but only because they were better made and more reliable than contemporary British cars. History repeated itself because the first Japanese cars in the UK were odd-looking and mechanically out-dated , but sold well because they didn’t go wrong.
Rootes group turned down the VW but of course tried to build their own later on in the Imp which wasnt quite as successful. Being able to travel flat out was different to reality and these cars lacked enough power to go up hills they go ok on the flat only, I spent a lot of wheel time in a 53 1100 beetle and calling it gutless is being kind however it was easy to out drive the lights even in town at 30mph. I restored a 59 1200 beetle for a friend that went well but in hilly Tasmania was hardly fast you rowed it uphill with the gear lever, that particular car was perfect in every department and would be close to a new beetle to drive though hopelessly old fashioned compared to the rest of my fleet which included my 63 Holden.
I had a chance not too long ago to read a Tom McCahill road test of a Max Hoffmann loaned ’53 Beetle. Big Tom loved it – especially because he could drive it through hub deep snow in a New Jersey winter with no protest (but they did freeze their assess off!).
I am trying to find out more info, but the brief description I got was the car they inspected was an early type, with no rear window, single headlight etc
That car is absolutely diabolical. It reminds one of an SS officer in a black leather coat.
The Morgenthau plan was proposed by the Treasury Secretary of the same name, but FDR wisely rejected it. Few manufacturing facilities in the Western Zone were expropriated by the Western powers; it was the Soviets who dismantled factories and took them home.
The most reliable people’s car, best car built before WW2 still can use until today.
After WWII british Army want build some off road Beetle for their Staff, but 4 wheel drive system at Red Army control area, only 2 VW87 ( 4 wheel drive beetle been built at end of 1946 for test, one lost by France Army, one now at Volkswagen Museum, this is why it looks not like original VW 877, the one at Porsche home town museum is much better
the best one 1941 Typ 877 prtotype at Hong Kong,this car still running every month.Can not belive.
It is possible that a person with Brian’s skills has removed the choke plate, leaving the linkage to act as a fast idle cam alone. I drive daily a ’67 fitted with a 1641 dual-port, downsized Solex 30pict and late style paper element air filter, and have removed the choke mechanism entirely. I rely only on intake air preheat and heel/toe until she is warm. The practice goes back to my racing days and the theory that choked cold cylinder washdown on startup is the most egregious time for wear.
I had the pleasure of driving a Kubelwagen and a 1946 Type 60 some years ago. The Type 60 became Type 51, until October 1946 when the Type 11 finally incorporated a much lower chassis than the previous Kubelwagen-based 8-inch ground clearance transplants, a true Autobahn cruiser. Secondary roads had also been repaired by then, negating the advantages of the Kubel-chassis beetles. Still had the crashbox and very exciting mechanical brakes.
Fantastic article on a beautiful automobile, thanks
I always wanted a REALLY OLD VW, but I have not quite been successful in finding one.
So far I have only been able to find a 1947. It is 65 yrs and one month old today.
Mike, I’d say a ’47 qualifies as an old bug. If you can get it, I personally would. You may find that it has a stamping, left and right side, just ahead of the brake pedal region on the curved forward bulkhead. This was to be the inboard mounting flange for a hydraulic master cylinder. When Porsche first initiated the Beetle in the late 30’s, Lockheed still held a patent on hydraulic brakes. Being forced to hold the price at 1000 Reichmarks($360), license fees were out of reach. As the Lockheed patent neared expiration, the factory began implementing design changes to accept hydraulics. At the Mid-America Motorworks Museum in Effingham, Illinois, is an early cutaway chassis that includes a front brake-only hydraulic layout. I think kits were offered aftermarket (EMPI?) as an upgrade for people driving mechanicals.
Just looked a bit closer, that appears to be a stock single master. There are three ports, one is cutaway. That pan is 1-0113 822, June, 1949. The cables to front brakes are removed, the rear still operated as mechanical. Must have been a pipe plug in the cutaway port at one time.
I am inspired to finish fixing the heat on my ’67. First snow today.
The old ’46 is an awesome find, but what really intrigues me is the EA266. It looks better (and more modern) than the Rabbit that we got stuck with in ’75….
“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).”
I can think of one other European car that had all of the VW’s above inherent qualities – the original Volvo 444/544. Just like the Bug, those early Volvos were built from top-quality materials, had great reliability, and could cruise at full speed all day long thanks to their stoutly-constructed B16/B18 engines. Alas, they were always more expensive than VWs. I remember reading somewhere that a Bug cost something like $1,495 in 1962, whereas a Volvo P1800 would set one back $3,995.
Well, yes, in its price class. And although the Volvo was very well built indeed, I’m not sure that day-in day-out running at full top speed would agree with it very well. The VW’s engine was designed to have a low power peak (3000 rpm for the early ones), which made them suitable for that kind of use. The Volvo’s engine was tuned for more power and a higher engine speed, so that’s understandable. Apples and oranges.
There sure seems to be an awful lot of guys with VW experience on this blog – all I can really do is sit back. Reminds me of my old man’s dialogues among his friends.
That 1949 Life Magazine photo of all those VWs is kind of spooky.
A counterpart scene would be in Long Beach, CA, where my parents picked theirs up in the ’60s. I suppose they reduced or avoided the delivery charge this way.
Not sure how I missed this the first time, but you are to be recognized for this most thorough of CC treatments. I think we have another Curbie Award nominee here.
This is such a fascinating little car, and the company history is chock full of little plot twists that only a fiction writer could have foreseen.
This is the earliest VW I can recall seeing detailed pictures of, let alone in person. The matte paint finish is really unusual, and I had no idea that VW did this in the early cars.
There is an original City Golf around here I will find it again its mint.
The (his)story of the Beetle is intriguing….very intriguing, and that includes the origin of its name. http://www.ganz-volkswagen.org/books/EN/index.htm
Is this 1933 car, a Josef Ganz design, a blueprint for the Beetle or what ?
Johannes, The pre-history of the VW is a complex and fascinating one. I’ve meant to do an article on that for quite a while, and will one of these days.
Regarding the name and the Ganz design: “Volkswagen” is a generic name, obviously. This may or may not be the first use of that term, but in German it’s a natural expression for a small car for the masses, which was a huge theme there (and many countries) ever since the Ford Model T in the US.
There were many attempts at designing and building such a “Volkswagen”. The Hanomag Komissbrot from the 20s being the most successful up to that time.
There was nothing particularly unique about the idea of a “Volkswagen”; execution was the key. None of the many small German manufacturers had anything near the capital or facilities to build on on the scale necessary to obtain the production efficiencies to build it cheap enough and yet autobahn capable.
Hitler understood this clearly, which is why he chose Porsche to design it (he was considered the best) and then built the world’s largest integrated auto factory in the wold capable of building one million VWs per year.
That was the key to making it happen….scale.
Yes, it sure is fascinating ! (to say the least)
I haven’t read the book of Dutch journalist Paul Schilperoord (see the link I posted above), but he claims, more or less, that the design of Ganz was given to Ferdinand Porsche. Ganz was arrested in 1933 by the Gestapo, just after the introduction of the “Standard Superior” (pictured above). In june 1934 Ganz fled Germany and in exactly that month Hitler assigned Ferdinand Porsche to design a “People’s car”.
You see, Mr. Ganz was Jewish….and one of his early prototypes was the “Maikäfer”. Was he the man to give Nazi-Germany a true Des Volkes Wagen ?
Here’s some interesting information with pictures:
I haven’t read the book, but am familiar with the whole thing in a general way. As I said before, there was a lot of interest in a “people’s car”, and as you’ll note Ganz’s early cars have a similarity to the Hanomag I pictured above.
Ganz rightfully contributed significant ideas in the stream of thinking about small cars that was very active throughout Europe at the time. And no doubt, he was mistreated by the Nazis. But as I said, this was fertile ground at the time, and everyone was looking over others’ shoulders.
I’ve always said that the Beetle was derivative, and not very original. But it was significantly more advanced in its final conception, especially for the target selling price, simply because Hitler gave the development contract to Porsche, which meant that more resources were thrown at it, and the other possible competitors didn’t have a chance.
I’m planning a post on this subject for the end of VW Week.
Well, what about the Tatra 97? Killed off by the Germans when they invaded Czechoslovakia because Porsche and Hitler knew that Ledwinka got there first, two years before KdF-Stadt was operational. VW were sued by Tatra and 20 years later ended up having to pay a cool DM 3m for this blatant case of industrial espionnage. The Tatra 97 was a bigger car than the more plebeian VW (and had an extra couple of doors), but otherwise these really were the “origin” of the VW. Only about 500 were made in 1937-39, a few remain.
But it takes nothing away from this great article and very beautiful ’46 bug.
Yes, I’m quite familiar with the Tatra 97, and have covered it elsewhere. As I said above, I will eventually do an article chronicling the origins of the Beetle. Clearly, there were many influences, and Porsche and Ledwinka were “friends” who exchanged ideas. Porsche readily admitted to that “we looked over each other’s shoulders”.
The lawsuit against VW was not for the whole car, but some very specific details (some aspects of the cooling system, IIRC).
Anyway, the rear engined air-cooled car was the hot thing, and Porsche had been working on versions of it for some years, with his prototypes for NSU and another company. It’s a complex and fascinating story.
I knew there had been a mid-engined under-the-seat prototype in the late sixties. I did quite a bit of searching last week but didn’t find a thread leading to the EA 266. Nicely done!
EA 266 had a water-cooled inline 4 on its side driving the rear wheels. Apparently it was quite a good-driving car, and good looking too, but at the last minute they bailed and went with the Audi-based FWD Golf. Probably just as well. EA 266 was the end of the line for rear-engined VW designs.
Great write-up! For anyone interested in further in-depth reading about the Beetle’s gestation and rise from the ashes after WWII, I’d recommend the book Battle for the Beetle by Karl Ludvigson. I just finished reading it, and thought it was very thorough and well written.
“Small Wonder” tells the VW story very well.
Paul, great write-up… I’m loving VW Week. An important correction, however: the Beetle is not the “most built car ever”; that distinction belongs to the Toyota Corolla, of which almost twice as many have been produced!
I don’t buy that claim. There have been many generations of Corollas. Is there a single part from a 1966 Corolla that would fit on a 2014 Corolla?
The VW Beetle and the Ford Model T were “one car”, and many parts would interchange. The Corolla is a name plate or model designation, not “one car”. And how many “Chevrolets” (the name of the full-sized Chevrolet) were produced?
There, there…it’s just a car 🙂
The whole point of our being here is that it’s not just a car.
Often times I wish it (not specificaly the VW) were just a car and I could manage my life in a more adult fashion.
I don’t buy it, Paul. Is there one part on this ’46 that would fit on a Mexico-spec 2003 Beetle?
You ‘might’ be able to get the 2003 engine bolted onto the transaxle housing, but only John Muir would know for sure.
You could drop the whole 2003 body on the ’46 pan. Or vice versa. Does that count?
More specifically, it’s my understanding that the running boards definitely interchange on all the VW Beetles.
The fenders should fit the basic body, but possibly not line up perfectly with whatever joins them at the bottom. But that could be changed with corresponding parts. The door will fit, but the latch might not work; but that could be changed.
As far as I know the engines would interchange.
The seats might, almost certainly the rear seat cushion.
How are we doing? 🙂
I read in one of my VW books as a teenager that only one part out of the thousands was interchangeable from the early days by the end of the original German run, and that was the gasket for the hood.
Here’s an ad for Beetle running boards that they say will fit all from 1946 through 1977, which was the last year of German Beetle production, but the Mexican Beetle was no different. It will fit any from 1946-2003: http://www.amazon.com/RUNNING-BOARDS-MOLDING-RUBBER-MEXICO/dp/B003U7Q1WQ
Jeremiah: that might well be true for the German ones, but the pictures I’ve seen of the late Mexican Beetles seems to show the bottom of the hood as being a bit squared off to clear the high bumper.
The huge obvious difference between an old and new Corolla is RWD vs FWD. That alone splits the Corolla nameplate into two completely different cars.
Jack the nameplate up and drive a new car under it…..
What a great write up and what a great find on the road, Paul. Thank you. Besides being an icon of 1960’s America, the VW ad campaign was one of the most brilliant for all of time. Self deprecating, humorous, smug with a touch of cheeky arrogance are just some words that come to mind. In a way, they were a smack in the face to Detroit and everything Motown stood for.
Who in their right mind but Volkswagen would call their product a Lemon?
The VW advertising was amazingly brilliant. It’s ironic but the Lunar Lander Craft got the Apollo 13 guys “There”
Actually it didn’t. Apollo 13 never made it to the moon.
Unless “There” means back to Earth. In that case power and oxygen from the LEM certainly enabled the trip home. One of the best Advertisements of all time!
+1 I think VW’s U.S. ads in the 1960s were some of the best car advertising ever and really set the tone for the brand and contributed to its “counter-culture” popularity.
A friend of my dad’s bought one of the first Beetles to be imported into Canada in the Fifties. He said that the dealer told him to do the worst he could with the car, and in two years of regular hard use he never had a problem with it, and all it required was the regular scheduled maintenance (oil changes, tuneups, tires and brakes, things like that). After two years he took it back to the dealer and they gave him a watch. He then bought a Studebaker Hawk, and he couldn’t keep a transmission in it.
Another great write-up from Paul, with wonderful pictures. Every time I see one of these cars I am reminded of another wonderful engineering detail. This time it is the design of the control pedals-clutch, brake and throttle, all attached to the central tunnel by means of one major shaft, a housing, and a handful of bolts. And why not? It works! Before there was Honda’s “We make it simple,” there was Volkswagen.
As a teenager I had a lot of car passions but when it came down to buying my first one in 1966 they narrowed down – oddly – to US luxury cars and VWs. After trying out a number of used 50’s Cadillacs and three T-Birds (60-61-62) that were either in need of much work (the 60 T-Bird’s brakes, inadequate on a good day, were completely shot and the carburetor needed work) or out of my price range (I still remember that low mileage turquoise 62 T-Bird), my Dad and I settled on a 1960 Beetle that belonged to a friend of his and was a good deal.
Thus began several years of Beetle love that included the 1960, a 1963 and my first new car, a red 1969 with black leatherette, Bendix radio, and white walls (no sunroof – I was pushing my budget as it was). Unfortunately the 69 was a bit of a lemon and things began to go wrong after three days of ownership. After three years of wrangling with the dealership over repairs (remember how short warranties were then?), I traded it for a new Maverick LDO in 1972 and swore off VW forever.
Anyone growing up in the 50’s and 60’s was impacted by the Beetle. They were everywhere and had a market demographic that included young and old, rich and poor, educated and not. The first VW I ever encountered was a faded and dented 55 that belonged to a barely educated (formally, that is) but hellishly smart and wealthy farmer in rural Indiana. He swore by its ability to pull throw deep snow and used it as a reliable and economical utility vehicle on the farm for years. My elementary and secondary school teachers had VWs (my junior high English teacher drove a red Karman Ghia that her husband kept immaculate) and they were all over my college campus. We all have so many memories and stories of VWs.
One thing (and there were many, including safety standards, the lack of power, and the increasingly modern and capable Japanese cars that caused one to question putting up with the idiosyncrasies of the Beetle) that helped kill off the Beetle, especially in warm climates like SoCal’s, was the growing popularity of A/C. Although there were a couple of contemporary companies that specialized in units for the Beetle (I had a HeatTransfer unit installed in my 69), they were expensive, complicated to install, and took power away from an engine that had none to spare.
I see very few Beetles in SoCal today. Whenever I do spot one, it’s a great pleasure to hear that little air-cooled engine chugging away.
I had to ask – when you saw VWs in the ’50s and ’60s (I know they were everywhere), how often did you see Volvos by comparison? Were they as ubiquitous as the Bugs?
I’m a child of the ’80s so I didn’t grow up during your time – however, where I’m from (Vermont), I was told that you often saw Volvos more than you did VWs, because the Swedish cars were built for the rugged, harsh New England winters, unlike VWs.
PJ, I grew up in small town midwest where Volvos were quite rare during this era. Unlike VW, I don’t think there was much, if any, of a dealer network in the area at the time. On occasion I would see a PV sedan, especially when we went to Chicago, but they were not at all common. They were most likely far more common in the East. And when I moved to CA in 72, Volvos were everywhere.
Back when used Beetles were plentiful and cheap, I bought one that had been driven by a bulldozer operator and then left parked several years under a tree. Apparently the bug was treated like a bulldozer, because the steering gear was loose as a goose with almost a 1/4 turn of play. But I got the thing running by sundown, and headed home. My wife was following me in the Chevy, and noticed something odd about me in the VW. It looked as if fireflies were floating around my head! Well, I knew there were no fireflies but rather bits of dry leaves that had caught fire in the heating system (which relied on engine exhaust for heat). Glowing embers were emanating from the heater and defroster outlets. By the time I reached home, the car’s “fireplace” had run out of kindling.
Germany is amazing in its recuperative powers. A couple of decades after a great war, and it was as if the destruction never happened. I think many Americans–at least in the South–are more aware of a conflict that ended in 1865 than Germans are of one that ended 80 years later.
My first new car was a beetle. My mother bought the book “small wonder” for me when she first saw the car. That was enough to start a long chain of the little critters.
Very good article. I appreciated it and enjoyed it.
There are bugs still being used as daily transportation in Albuquerque. Also still some transporters and fastbacks and squarebacks. Actually, if you are out in the middle of the day on a weekday, snowbelt people would see CC’s that would make your eyes pop!
My bro-in-law had a ’52 Beetle with semaphores, a cool but impractical device in modern America! People would stare & laugh at them but as far as realizing they were turn signal indicators? Nein!
I do remember Volvos in New England in the early 1960’s but only owned by Doctors and so on .
Plenty of VW Beetles and vans back in the 1950’s & 1960’s as they were affordable new ($1,500) and dirt cheap once two or three years old and scuffed/dented .
Volvos OTOH never really lost their value until rusted out or wrecked beyond repair .
The shift knob of this ’46 is nice , in the 1970’s thousands of these were made in black or ivory plastic , the originals were Bakelite and so were a sort of ‘ soft ‘ black color .
They also had a raised , casted in part number underneath few of the repops have .
Notice the stamped metal plate on the fuel reserve lever , it has three positions ” Z , A & R ” as I don’t speak / write German (High School was 40 + years ago so I forgot it) I’ll let Paul correctly spell out the words they represent .
Terrific article .
In about 1979 I realized the used car lots were filling up fast with cheap ($1,500) Japanese cars that head _real_ automatic trannies (Yes , I love the VW’s Saxomat AutoStickshift (Mr Code IIRC) but Americans want 100 % automatics) and AC ~ I saw the writing on the wall and folded my tent , closed up the Indie VW Shop and went back into Mechanical Servicing of anything with wheels .
Who came home from the Hospital in Pops direct imported 1954 # 211 Kombi
I w.as in the US army in Frankfurt in 1946. The stars and stripes ran a ad that said there was to be a lottery and winners could buy a VW for $600..My roommate Sgt Ted Spandau signed up and won. We got the VW with no instructions. Drove it everywhere including Paris. While going around the Champs Elysee the shift knob broke off at the bottom. We were towed to a garage where they fed us and wined us for 2 days while lots of other mechanics came to look at it
I think we owned the first VW type 11 inUSA. My cousin John Hennessy brought it here from Germany in 1947, together with his Germany bride. See the book. The Bride and the Beetle. My mom purchase it from John for $100
hello, great! where is the beetle now, hope still in your family…
I started driving in 1980, and by that time the last Bug was already five years old. Lots of my high school buddies had Bugs. Their main topic was always how they fixed their Bugs. It also seemed that said Bugs spent a lot of time under repair.
When one adds the lack of heater, pretty any car was preferable to a Bug. To me, anyway.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Paul chose to re-run this post on the same day that 2003 Mexican Beetle was featured. Now compare and contrast this car with the newer one featured earlier today.
This is a great article!
Would be fabulous to see this car and the 2003 Beetle side by side, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Lots of improvements, but still so much the same.
There’s actually only one part that would certainly still interchange between the 1946 and the 2003: the running boards. I’m quite sure the doors are still the same basic shape, but it’s likely that the lock/catch aren’t the same. But it would probably be easy to adapt the doors to swap them. Other than that, every part was changed over time. I suspect the pans are still similar, and might be interchangeable, but maybe not. The 1953 Beetle (Type 111) was practically re-engineered from the ground up.
I’m sure there’s more, but here is a few parts that interchange from ’49 to ’77 US standard Beetle and all until ’03 Mexican Beetle. (part number first, then description) Most if not all would apply to ’46 model as well, I’m pretty sure.
111813705 rear deck lid seal
111813741G engine to firewall seal
113821509 left running board
113821510 right running board
111501153A swing axle boots (Mexican Beetle retained swing axles) (up to ’68 stick shift US)
111209147A fuel tank screen
111701123A body to front beam pad
111701165 floor pan gasket
111701259A gear shift rod bushing
111701263 clip for gear shift rod bushing
211711149 gear shifter plate
443711189A gear shift couple screw
111821707B 041 fender beads, black
111899119B rear shock tower pads
111129921 heater and throttle cable barrel connector
111501229 rear axle nut
Thanks for reposting this great article, Paul.
Some years ago I saw what I think was a genuine Kübelwagen parked in Seattle. It was 3 blocks from my place, and if I had owned a digital camera, or any camera, at the time, I’m sure I would have gone home and gotten it. What a cohort photo that would have been! I’ve never seen it since.
While it may seem unbelievable that Ford turned down free ownership of VW in 1948, they did make the right move. Ford was no. 3 in sales behind GM and Chrysler and had to put it’s resources into its own factories and models. Besides, had they taken over VW, we’d have had a Ford version of what ever they dreamed up and the story would have played out very different than it did.
More than 10 years after WW-II ended, my uncle (recently deceased) was stationed in Germany, with the Air Force. Tales abound about what a rebel he was — as he & my aunt purchased a ’58 Bug & drove it all over tarnation.
When his European tour was completed, he had the ‘audacity’ of bringing the VW back home to skeptical family …… who were observant Jews, not terribly interested in anything German.
A growing family & rugged NYC conditions did their numbers on the Beetle …… which survived until being replaced by a ’65 Chrysler 300.
Fantastic article! I will forward to my VW freak friends. I knew of Ford and others turning down VW after WW 2, But few of the other details. Always learning something new by reading CC and the comments are interesting as well! Thanks.
As a longtime driver of a 1956 oval, I appreciate the brilliant detail advancements made in the 10yrs since this 1946 was produced. Ha! Like more carpet and a couple chrome trim pieces! 60mph still never felt so fast……
Henry Ford II is alleged to have called the VW a “little sh*t box”. Western manufacturers disinterest in taking on the factory may have been a bit inspired by the “not invented here” mindset, but on the face of it, the Bug was absolutely nothing like what their vision of a motor car should be, or indeed what they were building. It did look like a weird utilitarian contraption.
Billy Rootes (of the Hillman/Humber/Sunbeam/Singer company) recommended the Wolfsburg factory flattened and the car abandoned. He thought it too “ugly, too noisy, too unattractive to the private buyer”.
If things had worked out differently, BMC could have wound up building the bug instead of the mini. I’m sure they would have still managed to screw it up somehow. “See, this car is aircooled, and we’ve got a deal with the radiator manufacturers, so we need to make it watercooled. Also, the foundry shop steward is concerned about the alloy content in the engine, so we need to make it out of iron. While we’re at it, it’s really wasteful setting up a new line boring section for cylinder barrels when we have extra production capacity available on our 4 inline plant. Of course, that won’t fit in the back, so we’ll put the engine in the front and make it RWD. And the styling…doesn’t look much like an Austin, we have to do something about that”. And before you know it, you have an Austin Cambridge.
After HF1s death there was probably a feeling at FoMoCo NOT to be connected to ANYTHING endorsed by Hitler.
My first car, a 1966, pictured here on Kirk Drive in Ferguson, summer of ’76 or ’77.
Interesting side-story to the Beetle in the US…there is a huge luxury car dealership in St Louis called Plaza Motors. It’s corporately-owned now, but the Capps family founded it. Supposedly, Mrs. Capps’ family was part of the Peabody Coal organization, and after WWII, they shipped coal TO Europe, and needed something to fill the ships on the way home, so they started shipping VWs to the US and selling them in the Midwest. Not sure how true it is, but I was told that story by several people.
A blurb I found about George H. Capps:
“from coal to cars…”
Yes, that explains it better. Your previous comment about Capp importing VWs directly on his coal ships did not sound right.
First (Plunkett) and second (Foothill) VW dealerships I worked for in the ’70’s. Mr. Plunkett passed late last year.
Third VW dealership I worked for in the ’70’s, Allred VW. About halfway down has a picture of the ’49 Beetle in the showroom. Foothill VW had a ’51 Beetle in it’s showroom. All these dealerships are long gone today.
Not really a surprise HFII and Breech turned down the VW operation in 1947 even for no cost, they already had their hands full righting the listing ship that was Ford Motor Company in the wake of Old Henry’s late mismanagement. The ’49 Ford in development was a critical make-or-break product, anything that distracted from that effort was to be avoided. Its a good thing the Mercury and Lincolns were largely a settled issue, otherwise one or both might have been scuttled.
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