It’s the anniversary Volkswagen doesn’t promote, but led to the company’s creation. This week in 1934, the Reich Association of the German Automobile Industry commissions Ferdinand Porsche to design a Volkswagen, or peoples’ car, subsidized by the state under the name “strength through joy,” which just happens to be the name of the Nazi’s Organization for Leisure Activities.
It would lead to the production of the Volkswagen Type 1, aka the Volkswagen Beetle.
Origins of a bug
The story of the Beetle doesn’t start with Hitler, but with Ferdinand Porsche.
Born in Bohemia in 1875, Porsche is first noted for his work with Viennese coach-building firm Lohner, which produced coaches for the court of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria. There, he develops electric wheel hub motors for what is among the earlier gas-electric hybrid cars ever built. He would go on to work at German automakers Steyr and Austro-Daimler, as well as create sports cars for Daimler.
Mercurial and endowed with a bad temper, Porsche establishes his own automobile design firm in 1930 with his son Ferry, his son-in-law Anton Piëch, a Viennese lawyer, and Adolf Rosenberger, a former race-car driver for Mercedes who becomes the new firm’s financial backer and fundraiser. The company is soon developing their own working prototypes for German automakers Zündapp and NSU, as well as various race cars.
But it’s the NSU Type 32 developed for NSU that would come closest to approximating the car that would become the VW Beetle. Boasting a rear-mounted, air-cooled horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine and familiar styling, it is never produced.
Burning through cash and nearing insolvency, Rosenberger resigns from Porsche in January 1933. With its main fundraiser gone, the company is in trouble. As luck would have it, it’s about this time that Jakob Werlin, a politically connected Mercedes-Benz official, sets up a 1934 meeting between Ferdinand Porsche and Adolf Hitler.
A historic meeting
Hitler loved cars, even though he didn’t have a driver’s license. Certainly, he admired Henry Ford, the antisemetic businessman who’s mentioned by name in Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf.”
Now in power, Hitler espouses the need for a new national highway system as well as the need for a Volkswagen, a peoples’ car, one far more affordable than those produced by Adler, Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. The industry gets the message, soon automakers once intent on building luxury cars shift gears to produce more affordable mainstream vehicles. Even Mercedes-Benz participates, developing the rear-engine 130.
Porsche proposes a car capable of carrying two adults, three children and their luggage, with a top speed of 100 kph (62 mph), return 40 mpg, have an air-cooled engine that’s easy to repair, and employ a platform that could be used for a variety of purposes, including military ones.
Hitler agreed, adding one more requirement: it must cost no more than 1000 Reichsmarks, or $394.
Porsche grudgingly agrees, signing the contract this week in 1934. Working with the Reich Association of the German Automobile Industry, work begins on developing the Type 32 prototype into the first Beetle prototype: the Type 60. It would develop into three prototypes unveiled at the 1935 Berlin Motor Show, where Hitler proudly announces Kraft durch Freude Wagen, or Strength through Joy Car, although the official name is KdF-Wagen.
The car would undergo another three years of development before its debut as the Volkswagen Type One, or Volkswagen Beetle.
But doubts remain
However, it is still debatable how much of this car’s innovation may be attributed to Porsche. Some claim that Porsche’s work is simply cribbed and updated from designs created by an obscure Jewish Austrian automotive engineer, designer, and critic named Josef Ganz. Ganz, a mechanical engineer, served as editor in chief for the influential German auto industry, Motor-Kritik.
He was employed as a consultant by Adler, Mercedes-Benz, and Standard to create prototypes for vehicles such the Standard Superior and the Adler Maikafer or May Bug.
The Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka, who Hitler greatly admired, had created multiple design patents that the Czech automaker Tatra alleged Porsche violated. Tatra filed a lawsuit, but Hitler invaded Austria, took control of Tatra’s factory, and forbade Ledwinka from displaying his VW-like prototypes.
But Hitler didn’t want his prize car to have any Jewish connotations.
Adolf Rosenberger, the man who had secured Porsche’s funding, was arrested by the Gestapo near Stuttgart on September 5, 1935, ten days before the Nuremberg Racial Laws were implemented. He was accused of “race defilement” for dating a gentile girl and imprisoned.
Ironically, once the Volkswagen Beetle was brought to the United States after World War II, it was the work of the brands second advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, was founded by two Jews and an Irishman, which would help propel its success.