The Weird and Wonderful pt4
Military VWs

Having its earliest history so tied in with the Nazi state, the KDF Wagen was inevitably steered towards military ends. Immediately after the war all things military were soon abandoned, but once the German Federal Republic became a cornerstone of NATO, VW was again set the task of producing military vehicles. VWs have seen action with the German war machine in WW2, and on peace keeping missions in Bosnia.

The Type 82 Kubelwagen

It is hardly surprising that very early on, the Nazi sate began to look at a military version of the KDF Type 60 "Kafer", the "peoples car". As early as 1934 military prototypes were being built for a rugged off road Volkswagen, but the idea was given a luke warm reception by the German Army.

By 1940, after much delay, Hitler himself was said to intervene and sanctioned the production of the bucket car - cutting through the bureaucracy and departmental in fighting of the army.

Kubelwagen at Stanford Hall
courtesy of Herts VW Club

The Kubelwagen was basically a jeep like version of the pre- war peoples car, built on the same floorpan and like the Kafer, 2 wheel drive from the rear wheels. It had four doors, a fold down windscreen and a retractable canvas roof. The rolling chassis and mechanics were made at KDF Stadt (Wolfsburg) while the boxy bodied were built by an American owned firm, Ambi Budd, in Berlin. The Kubelwagen (or "bucket car" as it was nicknamed) was given a greater ground clearance with redesigned front spindles and reduction gears on the outer rear axles. It featured a locking differential, to give the wheels more handling in off road conditions, and 4 forward and 1 reverse gear. In 1st it could potter along at a troops walking pace (an adaptation requested after trails in Poland) while in 4th it could cruise the open road at 80 km/h. Initially supplied with a 985cc engine, this was later uprated to 1131cc.

Kubelwagen in action
courtesy of Olive-Drab


Around 59,000 Kubelwagens were produced during wartime and saw action with all sections of the military and civil defence from the sands of N.Africa to the bitter cold of the Russian front. The "Bucket car" proved very popular with German troops, being easy to maintain, rugged - with good off road performance for a 2 wheel drove, and even if it did get stuck, was light enough to be lifted out of a rut by two men.

A special Tropenfest version of the Kubelwagen was produced for Rommel's Afrika Korps, with better dust protection for the mechanics, no heating, wider wings and special bulbous sand tyres. Most of these saw service in N Africa, but a batch was mistakenly sent to the Russian front! (Some sources say all of the Tropenfest Kubels went to the Russian front while Rommel just got standard Kubelwagens with sand tyres)

While only a few hundred Kafer (Beetles) were produced during the war, exclusively going to Nazi officials rather than the people, a over 500 Kafer bodied Kubelwagens (Type 82E) were produced and an few are still in existence. These high clearance Beetles are distinct from the Kommandeurwagen - which was a unique 4 wheel drive vehicle (read on).

When the British took over the factory in 1945 they made the last of the Kubelwagens from what was left, and 800 plus Type 82Es - Kafer Bodied Kubelwagens. Kubelwagen production ended forever when the Ambi Budd factory stopped sending bucket bodies, as the Russians started closing off their sector of Germany from the west. Now it was time for Wolfsburg to turn to post war civilian production, but that's another story.


The Schwimmwagen

Perhaps the most intriguing Volkswagen ever built was the wartime Schwimmwagen, a few of which still exist today.

Schwimmwagen afloat

A very advanced vehicle for its day, the Schwimmwagen was initially produced as the Type 128 (1949-1940, production only 30), than improved as the Type 166 (1942 - 1944, production 14,283) making it the first and perhaps most numerous production amphibious car. It is interesting to note that the Americans built an amphibious Jeep that was a steel boat body married to the vehicle - but was said to start taking on water as soon as the things started to get a little choppy.

The Schwimmwagen was also a full 4 wheel drive vehicle, having the forward 4 and reverse gears in 2 and 4 wheel drive modes as well as a especially low 5th 4 wheel drive only gear (some sources say only one gear was 4WD - one of them is true?). The body was essentially a sealed steel bathtub, supplied from Berlin and assembled to the mechanics in Wolfsburg. It had an especially high ground clearance, and had locking differentials (like the Kubelwagen - but on both front and rear). The 1131cc flat four engine sat in a watertight tray, with a chain from the crankshaft pulley to engage the retractile rear propeller when the car was afloat. The Schwimmwagen could reach 80 km/h on the autobahn and 10km/h when water born. When afloat steering was achieved by turning the wheels, using the steering wheel. It also came with two oars, to manoeuvre silently when needed and also for reversing (the propeller had no reverse).

Schwimmwagens were initially offered exclusively to the notorious Waffen SS units, but some also saw service with regular army units. After the war the British showed just how amphibious the Schwimmwagen was by driving one at 40mph off a wharf straight into the Mittleland Canal, the car would rather ungracefully land in the water, stay fully afloat and drive back up onto land. It is estimated that about 150 Schwimmwagens survive today.

The Type 87 & Kommandeurwagen

Although the Kubelwagen was a 2 wheel drive vehicle (unlike the American Willis Jeep) - that is not quite the end of the story.

During the war just over 560 4 wheel drive versions of the Kubelwagen were built. With similar 4WD mechanics to the Schwimmwagen, the 87s had Kubelwagen bodies and 2 and 4 wheel drive in all gears. There were 2 versions of this bucket car, Type 87 0 (4 seats) and Type 87 1 (3 seats). Furthermore 382 of these were adapted to desert condition (the Tropenfest spec) and sent to the Afrika Korps. A few of these 4WD Kubelwagens still exist.

One of the rarest of all "Beetles" has got to be the Type 87 7, known as the Kommandeurwagen, a Kafer Beetle body on the 4WD Type 87 base. Only 3 of these were built in wartime, 2 at Wolfsburg and the remaining one at the Porsche works in Stuttgart. None of these 3 survived the war.

The only remaining Kommandeurwagen is in the Wolfsburg museum from 2 that were built under the British at the end of 1946 from what was at hand. A Kubelwagen base, Kafer body and Schwimmwagen 4WD system. One was used by the British as a staff car, the other assessed by the French army, who wanted a further 100, unfortunately the tooling had been destroyed. This second car was eventually broken for parts.

Next month we'll leave the war behind, and see that from the 1960s Volkswagen began producing military cars again.


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