Historically Speaking

from Thoroughbred and Classic Cars,

June 1982, sent in by Monty Sheppard

ELSEWHERE in this issue, Mike Taylor has chronicled the fascinating story of the evolution of the rear-engined prototypes that led to the appearance of the Hillman Imp in 1963. The arrival of this completely new small car was destined to play a crucial role in the future fortunes of the Rootes Group but, in a broader context, was the Imp's arrival a belated attempt to make up lost ground after Rootes let the opportunity of manufacturing the Volkswagen Beetle slip through its fingers immediately after the war? In truth, history is seldom that clear cut but the circumstances of the Rootes/ Volkswagen connection is an interesting one and we'll worth recounting with hindsight '

German crowds admire the unattainable 1938 “Kafer”

Rootes first significant involvement with the Beetle came when its Humber company produced a report on the military version (the Kubelwagen) which was captured in North Africa, probably after it ran out of petrol in the wake of Montgomery's victorious campaign. This 1941 example (number 1339) was taken to the Rootes factory at Ryton on Dunsmore, Coventry in January 1943. It was completely dismantled and appraised to form the subject of a document Report on Examination of German Light Aid Detachment Vehicle Type V. W. 82 "Volkswagen", published later that year.

Today it makes revealing reading and in many respects it is far more interesting for what it doesn't say than for what it does. It appears a highly detailed and thorough work; for instance, all the metals used in the Kubelwagen are carefully recorded and analysed. But while this industry is undoubtedly commendable the report is virtually worthless because it completely fails to interpret the ingenuity of Ferdinand Porsche's skilful, light, highly cost-conscious design.

The 1946 Beetle evaluated by the British

The documents oft-recorded statement that: we do not consider that the design represents any special brilliance, apart from certain of the detail points, undoubtedly cast a long shadow and, unfortunately, the Humber evaluation was re-printed in a Subsequent investigation of the car produced by the British Intelligence Objective Sub-Committee (HMSO, 1946) just after the end of the war. It also contained a comparative road test between a Beetle and Hillman Minx.

With the benefit of hindsight, Rootes was probably the least qualified British car company to undertake such an investigation. Its contemporary cart-sprung Hillman Minx with front-mounted, side valve engine was about as traditional as the Volkswagen was unconventional, with its all-independent torsion bar suspension and rear-mounted air cooled flat-four, ohv engine. But Rootes involvement with the Beetle was destined, by chance, not to end there.

Set against the Hillman Minx (this is a 1950s model)

When the Volkswagen factory was operating under direct British control in 1945-1947 one of the officers who played a role in getting the car back into production was Wing Commander Richard Berryman man, Although Berryman died in 1968 he had earlier been sought out by the late Robert Wyse, editor of the independent Volkswagen magazine, Safer Motoring and his story initially appeared in that publication in 1965-66.

Berryman recounted that in 1941 he had joined the Ministry of Supply, then operating under Lord Beaverbrook's control. The Beaver's deputy was none other than William Rootes (knighted in 1942) and although Berryman later left Supply and returned to the Air Ministry, in 1947 on his first British leave, he telephoned Rootes. After reminding him of the days when they were both at the same ministry, Berryman arranged a meeting and this duly took place at the Rootes Group's impressive headquarters at London's Devonshire House, with Sir William's brother Reginald also in attendance. Berryman told Rootes of the production problems that were being experienced at Wolfsburg but, despite this, having driven many miles in the Beetle, he was convinced that the car was a tough, durable product and virtually unbreakable. He was certain that Volkswagenwerke was a viable proposition and suggested that Rootes buy the plant.

But, it seems, Rootes was not interested. He told Berryman that his company had a Beetle to evaluation and his engineers did no believe that the noisy, rear-engined German car had much of a future At the time Rootes had more orders, both on the home front and from overseas, than they could cope with. They didn't much like

the Volkswagen's over square 6 engine (British engine design has ~ been constrained by taxation to produce long-stroke units). S Berryman departed after providing Rootes' Advertising Manager with the VW specifications he had brought with him from Germany.

This is by no means the end of the story because some years later f Berryman happened to met Rootes again, this time at a London ' motor show. He immediately recognised the now retired Wing Commander and recalled his Volkswagen involvement. Rootes with remarkable candour, conceded that he should have listened to Berryman back in 1947. Beetle production figures tell their own story,( In 1947, the year of the Berryman interview, just 8,987 VWs left the Wolfsburg factory BY the end of the Fifties, in 1959, that year Beetle production stood at 575,407and it was well on its way to becoming the world's best-selling car

failure? 1955 sees the 1 millionth Beetle (see Hienz Nordhoff smiling)

Whatever the impracticalities of Berryman's suggestion, Rootes dismissal of the Volkswagen must have rankled in future years. May, the Beetle did, even indirectly influence the Rootes design philosophy. Can anyone tell more?

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