In 1938, the Stadt des KdF-Wagens had been built around the village of Hesslingen, as a town to house workers at the KdF-Wagen factory.
By the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, only a handful of consumer cars had been produced, and all customer orders had been cancelled as production was switched from civilian vehicles to that of military vehicles.
The main two vehicles produced during the war period were both Beetle based variants, the flat 4 air cooled engine and rugged suspension being ideal for the harsh desert environments of Africa.
The first was the Type 82 Kubelwagen, a utilitarian off-road vehicle of very basic construction. German military officials had stipulated that the fully laden Kubelwagen (including 4 battle dressed troops) shouldn’t weigh more than 950kg, this left the unladen vehicle with a maximum weight of 550kg. The experienced military coachbuilder Trutz was subcontracted by Porsche to assist with the body design.
Initial testing began in 1938, with successful results, and continued in Poland in 1939. The resulting tests had the German military request some important changes. Whilst the vehicle had impressive off-road credentials, even when compared to some of the existing 4x4s already in service, it was felt it could still be improved, and the vehicles slowest speed of 5mph needed to be reduced to that of marching troops, around 2.5mph.
Porsche responded to these requests by installing “reduction boxes” (effectively a 2nd gearbox, resulting in more torque), larger wheels, and revised suspension. The reduction boxes alongside the self locking ZF differentials increased the vehicles off-road ability, as well as allowing a lower speed to stay level with the troops. Kubelwagens were mass produced as soon as the factories in Stadt des KdF-Wagens had been completed.
The second vehicle produced during the period was the Type 166 Schwimmwagen, based on prototype 4x4 Kubelwagens, the Schwimmwagen was produced as an offroad amphibious vehicle, utilizing an extended crankshaft to drive a folding propeller mounted to the rear of the vehicle.
Due to the simple nature of the propeller coupling, the Kubelwagen could only use propeller power for forward motion, reversing was done by either rowing, or using the land wheels to slowly reverse the vehicle. Steering was controlled by the steering wheel on both land and water, with the front wheels acting as rudders when in boat mode.
The basic 4x4 system was only available to use in 1st gear (and on some models reverse). There was a third military variant of the Beetle, which was called the Kommandeurwagen, or Type 87. This was the rarest of the military models, reserved for German Military VIPs with only 669 rumoured to have been produced. The Kommandeurwagen was a hybrid of a 4x4 Kubelwagen and Beetle, using the Kubelwagen chassis, with a conventional Beetle body on the top.
It is suggested that a lot of the Beetles design features were influenced by that of the Czech manufacturer Tatra, and their chief engineer Hans Ledwinka. It is cited in the book “Car Wars” that Ferdinand Porsche admits to having “…looked over Ledwinka’s shoulder” whilst penning out the initial ideas for the Beetle.
The rear mounted air-cooled engine could also be said to have been borrowed from Tatra as well. Air cooled technology was demanding in the 1930’s, and only subsidies from the Nazi Government meant the development of such a method could be continued by Porsche. In another quote from “Car Wars” Adolf Hitler is quoted as saying “the [Tatra] kind of car I want for my highways”.
The similarity between the two designs clearly hadn’t gone unnoticed by the likes of Tatra, who launched a lawsuit, which was then swiftly dropped following the Third Reich’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, later to be persued by Tatra following the end of the war. The ensuing 1961 lawsuit ruled in favour of Tatra, and resulted in Volkswagen being ordered to pay a sum of 3,000,000 Deutsch Marks to Tatra.
This swallowed up a sizeable portion of VW’s development budget and led to the Beetle being one of the longest running production vehicles of all time.
Whilst some civilian Beetles had been produced during the war, predominantly for high ranking Nazi elite, production was minimal, though some unusual fuelling options became available, in part due to all available oil, and fuel being directed towards the Luftwaffe and Panzer divisions.
One of the more abstract models was the Holzbrenner; essentially a wood powered Beetle. The way this worked was that wood was heated until it began to break down chemically. When wood burns in a normal fire, the wood decomposes chemically due to the heat, and some of the gasses produced by the wood are flammable, and they burn as they are released. That is the flame that you see.
With the world war 2 era wood burning cars, however, wood was heated to a temperature hot enough to decompose the wood, but the gas was not allowed to burn. It was stored in a chamber, and injected into the cylinders of a regular internal combustion car. Some of the German made wood-burning cars were the VW Kdf Wagen (postwar Beetle), and the German Army Kübelwagen.
Following the end of the war, allied forces followed the Morgenthau plan, with the aim of “pastoralizing” Germany, preventing them building up any sort of armaments. As a result German car production was not allowed to exceed 10% of that of 1936 production. The VW plant was taken under the control of the US armed forces.
Opinion in the United States was not flattering, however, perhaps because of the characteristic differences between the American and European car markets. The Ford company was offered the entire VW works after the war for free. Ford's right-hand man Ernest Breech was asked what he thought, and told Henry II, "What we're being offered here, Mr. Ford, isn't worth a damn!" With that, the Ford Motor Company lost out on the chance to build the world's most popular car since their own Model T.
In 1945 the Americans handed control of the factory to the British, the initial plan had been to disassemble the entire factory, and ship it to Britain, however no British company was interested in the company. "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."The re-commissioning of the VW factory is heavily credited to British Army Officer Major Ivan Hirst, who was ordered to take control of the factory, which had suffered heavy bomb damage during the war. One of the first tasks Hirst was given was to remove an unexploded bomb, which having fallen through a roof, had lodged itself between some essential and irreplaceable parts of production equipment. Had Hirst failed in this task, the Beetle would have been consigned to the history books, and things would have been very different.
Following the Allied bombing of Fallersleben, damage to the factory was estimated that 38% of the factory had been rendered useless, of the 17,000+ residents of Fallersleben were over half were VW employees, Hirst soon permitted the Germans to return to work, and by May 1945, they had produced 2 Beetles from various parts gathered from the remains of the factory, a further 56 cars were produced in 1945, not vastly different to that of the pre-war cars, save for different inner front wings, front beam, and the newer 1131cc engine that had been used in the Kubelwagen.
Convinced by Hirst, the British Army ordered 20,000 Beetles, his goal for 1946 was to achieve production levels of 1,000 cars per month. This was not an easy task, as well as limited materials and resources to contend with he also had to feed the workforce, following on from the harshness of the wartime years, the simple lunch that Hirst provided for the workers was more often than not the only meal they received.
By the end of 1946 10,020 Beetles (including a few Kommadeurwagens) had been made, so he was close to the original target. Changes over the year were minimal, mostly simple manufacturing changes with production methods being changed. Tyres however did gain ½” in width, and cardboard sound deadening was fitted to the engine bay.
In 1947 the Beetle was debuted at Hannover fair, and was met with a excited reception, previously the majority of the cars had been for military use, with only a few exceptions going to civilians. It was around this time that Dutchman Ben Pon appeared on the scene (Pon is credited with coming up with the concept for the VW Type 2). He saw a future in exporting the new VW to the Netherlands, and ordered 6 cars.
When time came for him to collect the cars, he and 5 other staff traveled to Wolfsberg to bring them back, however one of the 6 cars failed it’s final inspection, and couldn’t be taken away. Production numbers for 1947 were less than 1946, as whilst efficiency was up, and the factory was being constantly repaired, there was simply not enough coal to keep the factory running over the winter months, causing a three month closedown.
Again changes were minimal for the 1947 model year, with bearing and bearing cap changes on the front and rear axles, an improved spare wheel chain and bracket, and a change to the cooling air throttle ring. 1948 saw the ex Opel manager, Heinz Nordhoff was take full control as director of the Volkswagen factory, and plans for a redesigned Beetle were hatched.
In the same year, the Reichmark was replaced by the Deutschmark, and East and West Germany were split up. West Germany implemented the Marshall plan, pouring millions of dollars into the West German economy to stimulate growth. Changes for the little car were again fairly minimal, a steering column lock was added, the front and rear axles underwent minor modifications, and the engine no longer featured a spring loaded cable, and the flywheel centrebore was changed to 48.5mm.
Production had risend to twice that of the previous year, with 19,244 Beetles rolling off the production line. Two coachbuilders came to the factory’s aid, to produce cabriolet versions, in the form of Karmann and Hebmuller. In the Autumn of 1948 owners of the Sparkarte began a lawsuit against VW, trying to obtain the cars which they’d paid for before the war, a situation that wouldn’t be resolved until 1961.
July 1949 saw a new model of Beetle released, the aptly named “export” model had been created with the idea of having a higher specification variant for foreign markets. Distinguishing features between the two models were; chromed curved bumpers, chromed hubcaps, chromed headlamp rings and chromed door handles. There was a new steering wheel, the dashboard came with a removable radio blanking plate, so it was no longer necessary to cut the dashboard if a radio was installed.
A high gloss paint finish was offered, and the overall quality of the materials used were of better quality on the export model. Karmann released its 4 seater cabriolet.
Changes on the rest of the range included; new heater controls, axle changes, with torsion leaves being removed from the upper tube and added to the lower tubes, the bonnet was now opened from the inside via a Bowden style lockable cable, the decklid was no longer lockable, export models featured the two spoke “batwing” style steering wheel, and lighter colour interior fittings, the glove compartment materials were changed from metal to plastic, head gaskets were introduced, the clutch lever was reinforced, and a larger accelerator roller was fitted.
The rear decklid no longer featured a separate pressing for the license plate. Alongside the introduction of the export model, VW made a whole range of accessories available from either the factory as part of a new car, or via the dealer as aftermarket fittings. These included; chrome mirrors, handles, trims, bumpers and lamps, bud vases, luggage and cleaning products. The 1950 model Beetle was largely unchanged from the previous year, though Bosch headlamps replaced VW’s own brand versions.
In 1951, VW produced 93,709 Beetles, and of those 35,742 were exported to 29 countries. The biggest buyers outside of Germany were Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Finland and Brazil. Export models were distinguishable from the domestic market counterparts by the crotch cooling vents in the front quarter panels (specific to ’51 only models) as well as a chrome trimmed windscreen seal.
The rear seats did feature armrest cushions (again, a ’51 only part) but these were dropped after VW executives commented that “they gave passengers the feeling of being in a boudoir.” VW also changed the battery box lid, as the previous cardboard model had caused several fires.
One of the notable changes on the 1952 model cars was the introduction of the opening ¼ light window in the front doors, this replaced the 1951 models crotch coolers, and were adjustable to allow increases in airflow. Bumpers were now fitted with overriders, and the horn grilles were now round in shape, body coloured on standard models and chrome on exports.
The export models now featured more chrome/aluminium accents in the form of door trims, side and rear window trims. A new decklid handle had also been fitted. On the inside, there was an all new dashboard, the interior light had moved to the B pillar above the door, from between the rear windows, the export model now had a black horn push with a gold Wolfsburg crest, lights and wipers were now operated by pull switches.
Engine wise; the inlet manifold was now pre-heated, export models featured a syncromesh on 2nd, 3rd & 4th gears. Wheel diameter went from 16” to 15”. Of all the Beetles made in 1952, 41.4 were exported, and by the end of the year, daily production was at 734.
There are certain model years along the Beetles’ timeline which heralded major changes, 1953 was probably the first of these. March 10th 1953 saw the last split window Beetle produced, alongside it on the production line was the first of the oval windows. The new rear window design was 23% larger than the previous. There has been debate as to why VW used the split window design in the first place, with people speculating that it was for strength reasons amongst others, whereas it was simply because it was cheaper to produce two smaller pieces of glass than it was to produce one larger one.
On July 3rd 1953, the 500,000th Beetle rolled off the production line, and VW’s employees were given a 2.5m Deutschmark bonus to split between them, a decent sized bonus at the time. 68,784 export models were produced, and VW’s domestic market share was 42.5%. Daily production was 673. Volkswagen de Brasil SA was formed in 1953, with a view to making CKD (Complete Knock Down) kits. In December the 250,000th visitor (since the war) walked through the doors of the Wolfsburg factory. 1953 also marked the introduction of the “oil-bath” type air filter.
1954 brought a new engine for the Beetle, top speed was increased to 68mph, and power was increased from 25hp to 30hp. The majority of the rest of the vehicle remained the same as the previous years.
The second “Hunderttausender” meeting took place, a club specifically for Beetle owners whose cars had covered more than 100,000km on their original engine, attended by Nordhoff, he announced “ We are still convinced that I will say it over and over again, since again and again absolutely senseless rumors arise of a new Volkswagen – that blessing lies not in bolder and more magnificent new designs, but in the consistent and tireless redevelopment of every tiny detail until perfection is achieved, which is the mark of a truly astonishing car and which truly brings astonishing success.”
1954 also marked the birth of VW Mexico, who like the Brazilians, began production of CKD kits. The 1,000,000th Beetle was first made in 1955, and Nordhoff announced another price cut, the basic car was now 3790 DM, and the export 4700 DM with the range topping cabrio at 5990 DM. 279,986 Beetles were built in 1955, a gain of over 87,00 on the previous years production, 35,581 of these were sold to the US.