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The story behind the Volkswagen Beetle

VW rose from the ashes of WWII to become one of the most innovative car makers in the world. Pictured here are the 1938 (top) and 2009 convertible models of the Beetle. (©Volkswagen) VW rose from the ashes of WWII to become one of the most innovative car makers in the world. Pictured here are the 1938 (top) and 2009 convertible models of the Beetle. (©Volkswagen)
By Jack Nerad
If the history of the Volkswagen Beetle were presented as fiction, no one would believe it was plausible. What is now the most popular car the world has ever known suffered so many false starts and survived so much hardship, that it is difficult to imagine a harder road to success. Yet, somehow, the Volkswagen Beetle not only survived but prospered.

The roots of the Volkswagen date back to 1912 when Dr. Ferdinand Porsche designed a horizontally opposed four-cylinder aircraft engine that bore a remarkable similarity to the Beetle's powerplant. The Volkswagen saga doesn't really begin, however, until 1931, when Porsche was granted an assignment from Zundapp, a German motorcycle manufacturer that was giving thought to entering the automobile business.

Porsche seemed the perfect man for the assignment, because, after serving with Daimler through its merger with Benz in 1926, the good doctor was on his own as a Stuttgart, Germany-based engineer-for-hire. So successful was Porsche's enterprise that it employed about a dozen engineers and auto craftsmen, and it served as a "skunkworks" for several car companies' experimental projects. By the time Porsche and Zundapp got together, the Austrian-born engineer had already completed assignments for Horch, Wanderer and Mercedes-Benz.

The Porsche-designed Zundapp car featured a central frame, "streamlined" body and rear-mounted engine, the latter two, of course, hallmarks of the Volkswagen Beetle to come. A working prototype of the car was ready for testing in 1932, but with the motorcycle market heating up at the time, Zundapp lost interest in the project.

Disappointed and a little angry, Porsche then shopped the project to another motorcycle maker, NSU. That company was exploring the possibility of building a car in the 1.5-liter range, and Porsche's proposal filled the bill. Several more prototypes were built, including one with a two-stroke engine, and suspension was changed to a torsion bar-system before Porsche's boxer engine concept resurfaced. Porsche saw a great deal of promise in the final prototype, but NSU decided not to go into production with it.

At this point a less determined person, particularly one who was well off and well respected, might have dropped the whole idea and gone on to the next commission. But instead, Porsche sent a letter to the German government, extolling the virtues of his design and suggesting that it would be the perfect "People's Car." In fairly rapid fashion he got a reply from the German leader, a fellow by the name of Adolph Hitler, who challenged Porsche to develop and build a five-passenger car capable of all-day running at a 62 mile-per-hour top speed. To make certain it was true to its People's Car concept, Hitler also specified a low price target.

Under the watchful and not particularly cooperative eye of the Reichsverband der Automobilindustrie (the German motor industry association) work proceeded. Delays stretched the original 10-month contract to nearly two years, as the Porsche team set out to break new ground in the construction of a light, inexpensive automobile.

Despite the temptation to specify a more conventional engine, which might also have been cheaper, Porsche was convinced that his air-cooled rear-mounted flat-four was the right powerplant. He similarly believed that all-steel construction, including a torsionally rigid belly pan, would produce a high quality car equal to the task of high speed travel on Germany's new autobahns.

The first prototype was completed in 1935. Though it is definitely recognizable as a Volkswagen, the prototype did have some notable differences, including "bug-eye" headlights perched on the hood (actually the lid of the luggage compartment) and rear-hinged "suicide" doors. Designed by Erwin Komenda, the prototype did have the distinctive "beetle" shape, but it lacked running boards that would be a bow to tradition in the final design.

The Volkswagen concept evolved through two more prototypes -- a two-door sedan and a convertible - that were exhibited at the 1936 Berlin auto show. The German industry association was critical of the design, in part, because it threatened the status quo and, in part, because it failed to meet the established price bogey. With the Fuhrer behind the project, however, their efforts to de-rail the program failed, and a plan was instituted to build a "greenfield" factory to manufacture the car. With a planned production volume of one million units a year, none of the contemporary German factories had nearly enough capacity.

As construction of the factory proceeded, new prototypes of the vehicle were shown to the press and in the July 3, 1938 edition, the New York Times referred to the car, somewhat derisively, as the "Beetle." Hitler, however, had another name for it, dubbing it the KDF-Wagen, with the acronym KDF standing for Kraft Durch Freude (Strength Through Joy.)

With development testing finally behind it, the design was ready for production, and, though years had passed since Dr. Porsche first conceived it, the car was still ahead of its time. At the heart of the car was an 1131 cubic centimeter flat-four cylinder engine that droned out 24 horsepower. A fan forced air over the external ribs of each cylinder for cooling, and oil pump cum oil cooler also ensured proper lubrication. The engine was light enough that mounting it behind the rear axle did not prove too deleterious to handling, and it was tough enough to run all day at full throttle.

The compact engine was mated to a four-speed-plus-reverse gearbox built with an integral differential. Independently suspended half-shafts (so called "swing axles") transferred the power to each wheel. The shafts were located by trailing arms and sprung by torsion bars. The bars were firmly attached to the stamped steel body pan, which years later, would be the basis of many a dune buggy.

Atop all this was the bug-like body, actually larger and roomier than one might guess at first glance. The car could transport five passengers in relative comfort. By start of production the headlights had found their way onto the front of the fenders, flanking the droop-nose cargo hatch.

By 1939 the construction of the factory was proceeding smoothly, and more than 170,000 thrifty German citizens had signed up for the "Strength through Joy" savings program, which, they believed, would soon assure them delivery of a new KDF-Vagen. The German populace was hungry for the vehicles, since fewer than one in 30 owned a car.

But their hopes were dashed by the dreams of Hitler, who ordered the invasion of Poland in September 1939, starting World War II. By 1940 the still-uncompleted Volkswagen factory was converted to war production, building Kubelvagens, a Jeep-like vehicle. When the war ended in 1945, the British administrators of the area helped the factory get up and running again, building the Volkswagen for a variety of military, relief and governmental organizations.

The car didn't go on sale to the general public until 1947, and that same year Volkswagen signed its first export contract with a firm in the Netherlands. It was the start of what would be millions of units in exports. Finally, after hiring Heinrich Nordoff as managing director in 1948, the British relinquished control of Volkswagen the following year, and the company was free to pursue its own destiny. That destiny would result in sales of some 20 million Volkswagen Beetles worldwide, as VW rose from the ashes to become Europe's biggest car maker and one of the most innovative car makers in the world.

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