The History of the Beetle-The Earliest Beginnings pt.1


Three people are responsible for the Volkswagen Beetle being the most purchased vehicle in the history of the automobile. Adolf Hitler, who conceived the idea of a car cheap enough for the German working man to afford, Ferdinand Porsche, who created the distinctive air-cooled rear engined design and, in the post war years, Heinz Nordhoff who turned the Hitlerian dream into a reality.

Porsche goes alone with the Volksauto

After working for Daimler Benz and Steyr in the 1920s, in 1930s Ferdinand Porsche founded his own design and engineering firm, he received his first commission, from the German automaker Wanderer.

Oddly enough, the design for this 1800cc sedan bore the designation Type 7- some assert the number was meant to impress clients with the experience of the firm's design team, although it hardly seems likely that Porsche's credentials could be suspect after his successes in the preceding decade.

The Zundapp type 12, a scaled down Wanderer

The design of the Wanderer was not revolutionary; in fact, it was similar in appearance and size to other small sedans of the time. It was certainly more conventional than the car design Porsche developed for the German motorcycle manufacturer Zundapp in 1931, the type 12.


Anxious to broaden Zundapp scope, Dr. Fritz Neumeyer commissioned Porsche to build a prototype car What emerged was the Type 12, a small sedan with a five cylinder 1.2 litre radial aircooled engine mounted in the rear, a stipulation demanded by the motorcycle manufacturer that proved less than ideal. Neumeyer soon realised he had grossly underestimated the costs of creating a new car and pulled his support from the project before Porsche had made any real progress with the design.

Porsche was fortunately able to resurrect the Zundapp design in 1932 when another motorcycle manufacturer, NSU, approached him about producing a car. With the hard-won experience of the Type 12 project, Porsche was soon able to build the Type 32, a fully functional prototype that avoided many of the mechanical problems of the earlier car. The NSU car retained the same layout as its Zundapp predecessor, but in place of the radial five-cylinder engine was a horizontally opposed four cylinder 1 litre unit. Unfortunately for Porsche, contractual agreements with Fiat forced NSU out of the carmaking business, leaving Porsche only the prototype to show for its efforts.

The NSU Type 32

Bboth the Zundapp and NSU cars foreshadowed the later Volkswagen design-indeed, the visual similarity between these two and the Peoples' Car? prototypes is unmistakable. Dr Porsche was certainly aware of other experiments similar to the VW design. Other manufacturers, notably the Czech company Tatra, had already combined an air-cooled four cylinder engine on a central-tube chassis in the T11 and T12 cars produced in the twenties and early thirties, and Edmund Rumpler had patented swing axle designs as early as 1903. Even Mercedes-Benz had experimented with a rear engined car-the TA 20H in 1927 while Porsche was employed there.

Ferdinand Porsche must certainly receive credit for refining in these various ideas into an affordable mass-production car.

The NSU Type 32 earlier shot with no rear window


Porsche gains Hitler's backing

Below, Ferdinand Porsche shows the model to Adolf Hitler of the car which was to eventually become the VW. What Hitler wanted in his Peoples Car?: it should have a top speed of 100km/h (62mph), a fuel consumption of 7 litres per 100km (approx 42mpg), it should be able to carry 2 adults and 3 children, it must be air-cooled and above all should cost no more than RM (Reichsmarks) 1000 (£86).

Hitler views the people's car - and what is thought to be a sketch by him

PPorsche's first reaction was to turn the idea down, however he accepted and it was allotted the Type 60 number in his design register and the first drawing were dated 17th April, 1934. Hitler disliked them, with the NSU Type 32 inspired front and bonnet-mounted headlights, so he sketched a new front which was subsequently adopted.

Hitler, a keen car enthusiast himself (though he didn't drive) said: It should look like a beetle, you've only got to look to nature to find out what streamlining is?.

Hitler's sketch and the 1933 Type 32 Porsche created for NSU with a 4 cylinder air-cooled boxer engine, (horizontally-opposed) and Porsche's patented torsion bar suspension (from which the Porsche company has drawn royalty payments ever since). This car was to be the basis of what was to become the VW although Porsche experienced great difficulties with the design. The backbone chassis (originally with a wooden floor, but this evolved into a proper metal platform ), torsion bar suspension and general body profile were quickly resolved.

A chassis from the VW30 prototype
inspired - the flat 4 E engine

The main problem lay with designing a cheap, satisfactory power unit. The Type 32 motor was dispensed with on the grounds of cost, weight and fuel consumption. A series of unsuccessful engines were built. A Vertical four, a variety of twins with sleeve and overhead values found to be excessively noisy. However a new Austrian recruit Franz Xavier Reimspiess came up with a four cylinder boxer motor which was relatively quiet and cheaper than the twins in development. This 984cc over-square four is substantially the same design, refined and used to power over 20 million Volkswagens. Reimspiess was also responsible for the world famous VW monogram.

In 1935 two Prototypes, The VW3s were built in the double garage of Porsche's home at 48-50 Feuerbacherweg, Stuttgart. Because he had no workshop facilities at 24 Kronenstrasse where he had set up his consultancy business in December 1930 after a long and distinguished career in the motor industry. He worked there, with a team of collaborators as a consultant and constructor for other companies, such as the recently formed Auto Union (Horsch, Audi, Wanderer and DKW) and Mercedes-Benz. To give his business the all-round technical expertise it needed, he made sure that certain key people were with him, people he had worked with and grown to respect using his long years in the motor industry.

The VW3 (1935) - in Wolfsburg

Under the new order, Porsche was to lay down the ideas and rough concepts, while the rest of the team filled In the details and made it work. His colleagues included Josef Kales, an air cooled engine specialist; Karl Frohlich, a transmission expert; Karl Rabe, who had been his chief engineer at Austro-Daimler; Josef Zahradnlk for axle and steering design, and Josef Mickl, his aerodynamics adviser. Mickl at 45 was the oldest member of the team and Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand's son, was the youngest at 21. For a short time, there was also a business manager by the name of Adolf Rosenburger but being Jewish, he was forced to flee the country in 1933.

The two 1935 prototypes, the VW3s, were joined by three further experimental ones in 1936 and this trio powered by Reimspiess's new engine, were handed over to the German Automobile Manufacturers Association for a punishing 30,000km test programme. This meant covering 750km (466 miles) every day, with the varied route including parts of the Black Forest, the Alps and a long stretch of the new Autobahn between Stuttgart and Bad Neuheim.

The demanding schedule soon revealed some shortcomings in the design. The most serious being, fractured cast iron crankshafts (adopted because of cost). These were replaced by stronger ones from Krupp; but they also fractured. It was decided to dispense with the feature and conventional forged crankshafts were ordered from Daimler-Benz. Less seriously, some gear levers broke and there were problems with electric fuel pumps, so a mechanical one was later standardised.

January 1937 the Manufacturers Association issued a report generally favouring the VW design, however it believed the car couldn't be manufactured for the projected RM 990, and to be honest „ the association, made up of well known German motor manufacturers who usually made luxury cars, rather hoped this mad people's car idea would quietly go away.


The VW30 from front and rear. This model really tested the mechanics and shape of the peoples car

Hitler had other ideas and from May 1937 the Volkswagen became a state-funded project and the responsibility of the German Labour Front, an organisation which had taken the place of the abolished trade unions. The Front immediately made available RM 500,000 and Daimler-Benz was commissioned to produce a further batch of 30 cars, the VW30s, at this point. The bonnet mounted headlights were gone and the true beetle shape was formed.

On their completion a second series of tests similar to the one supervised by the Manufacturers Association were undertaken by members of the SS. Once these tests were successfully completed Erwin Komenda finally refined and simplified the car's styling.

Next month we move on to the final prototypes of the people's car.


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