The idea germinated in the mind of Ferdinand Porsche, born in what is now Czechoslovakia, former technical director of Austro-Daimler. From his youth he had been interested in small cars and in 1930 he opened a design office under his own name in Stuttgart. It was here that he made the first drawings of a small cheap car, and it was here that he did the preliminary drawings for a remarkable ‘Porsche’ 16-cyl engine which ultimately powered the famous Auto Union racing car.
In 1934 came the demand from the German government for a design for a real ‘People’s Car.’ Dr Porsche’s prototype, made in his garage at home, had the characteristic flat-four aircooled engine at the back; with a 985 cc capacity it developed a modest 23.5 bhp at 3000 rpm. During 1937 there were 30 more prototypes running in a punishing test program, built by Daimler-Benz and in Porsche’s new workshops at Stuttgart.
The final production version appeared in 1938 (the VW38) with 704 or 984 cc engines, and in the same year construction began on the new factory with the car then being called the KdF-Wagen. The people, of course, did not get their car, for it was destined in various forms for military use in World War II.
In 1945 two-thirds of the VW plant at the so-called town of KdF-Stadt (now Wolfsburg) was in ruins. It was right at the eastern edge of the British zone and what tiny output the factory had maintained went mostly to the British Army. Just 1,785 VW Beetles were made that year.
The Allies discussed the future of the Volkswagen plant. The British took a Beetle home, looked down their noses, and said no thanks. The Ford spokesman from the USA said ‘Not worth a damn!’ and the Russians said ‘We wouldn’t mind it if you would kindly move the border back a little.’ So it stayed where it was.
A major turning point came in 1948 when ex-Opel executive Heinz Nordhoff was appointed to run VW. His dynamic example helped 7000 VW workers to cut the time of around 300 hours per car to 100, and that was done while they worked standing in pools of water up to their ankles, with rain dripping through the roof, and with ‘shaky legs and empty stomachs’ as one worker said. Nordhoff himself spent six months living in the factory, sleeping at night on a camp bed. By 1949 he had proved his worth with a range of standard and deluxe model Beetles and the cabriolet — an open version of the deluxe introduced by Karmann.
Through the next years a program of improvements continued; but the range of three main models remained the Standard Beetle, deluxe version and the Cabriolet. For the US market there were a few extra changes, mainly confined to different bumpers for greater protection against four-wheeled US hardwear. By 1967 the range was 1300 cc, 1500, and a new 1500 cc cabriolet. 1971 saw the 1.6 liter ‘Super Beetle’ with extensive suspension changes, including McPherson strut at the front. On 17 February 1972 Beetle broke the Ford Model T record when it passed the 15,007,033 production figure.
The Beetle was discontinued at the Wolfsburg plant in 1979. European demand was now for more sophisticated vehicles, but the People’s Car, transformed over the years in mechanical specifications though not much in shape, had sold more than 19 million.
VW had in 1969 introduced the unitary construction 411 followed by deviants which now bring much commercial success, such as the K70 derived from the Ro80 following acquisition of the Audi-NSU combine. The water-cooled front wheel driven Audi 80-based VW Passat appeared in 1973 with 1.3 or 1.5 liter engines, beam rear axles and servo-brakes, from which the logical development was the stylish Scirocco, followed by the best-selling Golf/Rabbit It had a transverse-mounted engine originally of 1093 cc, but today it has five engine sizes, giving from 45 to 112 bhp, and includes a convertible. In 31 months one million examples had been sold, and it remains the current VW best-seller.
The Polo arrived in 1975 to fill the growing market for the three-door hatchback market and there is now a larger sedan and a coupe version and the Jetta was introduced to extend the market for the Golf/Rabbit by having a four-door sedan body. The latest model is the Santana, flagship, of the fleetwith a choice of engines up to the 115 bhp fuel-injected 2 liter.
Although Europe may have grown out of it, Ferdinand’s Porsche’s little Beetle, the People’s Car that brought modest transportation to so many millions all over the world, is still alive and well – and rolling off the assembly lines in Brazil and Mexico.