Volkswagen’s dubious beginnings


Posters such as this fired the imagination of German workers for the “People’s Car,” with more than 330,000 workers signing up for the
government’s installment purchase plan.

MOST automakers devote at least some of the online and other marketing resources to their brand’s history, but when one browses the websites of German giant Volkswagen, the story of how the iconic marque was born is a little hard to find.

Of course, if your car brand owed its existence to the enthusiastic ideas of Adolf Hitler, you might be inclined to be a bit circumspect, too.

The influence of Ford
Volkswagen, in a sense, was really a creation of Henry Ford. The story of the “people’s car” began in Landsberg Castle in Southern Germany, where Hitler found himself comfortably imprisoned for a few years after leading a comically-failed coup attempt against the Bavarian state government. With little else to do but read and write, Hitler digested many books, among them Ford’s 1922 autobiography, which had been translated into German.

By Hitler’s own admission, he had always been fascinated by automobiles and Ford’s world-changing production innovations, which had lowered the cost of the Model T from $1,000 when it was first introduced in 1908 to about $360 in 1916. This inspired Hitler to wonder whether German industry could achieve the same success. Ford’s work appealed to the amateur motorhead on philosophical grounds as well; Ford, who was embarrassingly anti-Semitic, had written extensively on what he saw as the threat Jews posed to the civilized world, validating Hitler’s own misguided beliefs.

Government project
Sometime during the early 1930s Hitler – ever the artist – sketched his vision for a car for the German masses: A small, roughly egg-shaped car that he wanted to be mass-produced and sold for less than 1,000 Reichsmarks. What concerned Hitler the most after taking power in 1933 was Germany’s crushing unemployment; at that time, about half of the German workforce was out of work, and if Hitler and his upstart Nazi Party hoped to stay in power, something needed to be done about that quickly.

Hitler’s dream car was part of a plan to put Germans back to work. The key to the plan was the construction of new highways: 7,300 miles (11,680 kilometers) of four-lane roads that would give Germany a modern road infrastructure and, not coincidentally, ease the movement of military forces. Handing the task to his construction was Fritz Todt, who put 125,000 men to work building highways by 1935. The next step was to fill those roads with German cars and that is where the “Volkswagen” came in. Not only would it put the new roads to good use, its manufacture would provide thousands more jobs.

Germany’s leading industrialists were not impressed with Hitler’s doodles, however, and even less enthusiastic about his request that the little car be produced for 750 Reichsmark (at the time, a little less than $400, about the same price as inexpensive cars in America). Undeterred, Hitler declared that the car would be produced by the state, passing the task to his labor minister, Robert Ley, and asking Ferdinand Porsche to turn his sketches into a real car design. The project to produce a “People’s Car” – a Volkswagen ¬– was announced to the public in 1935.

Another advertising poster for the Volkswagen, from 1938.

Almost at once, the initiative began to be a little uncertain. Government budget concerns led Hitler to demand that Ley’s German Labor Front find the 50 million Reichsmark funding needed to erect a factory and begin production. Although a daunting task, it was eased somewhat by the fact that for a long time, there wasn’t actually anything to produce; Porsche’s prototype design wasn’t available until 1937.

To fund production, Ley devised a novel scheme that noted historian William Shirer described as one of the biggest scams ever perpetrated by the Nazi regime. Through the German Labor Front’s Kraft durch Freude (KdF, or in English ‘Strength through Joy’), Ley promoted an installment plan for German workers. For as little as five Reichsmarks per week, any employed German could arrange to own a Volkswagen. Once the 750 Reichsmarks was made, the future owner was given a number that entitled him to a new Volkswagen as it rolled off the (still unbuilt) assembly line.

A huge marketing campaign was launched and more than 330,000 German workers signed up for the program – some of them involuntarily, Shirer noted in his landmark 1959 history The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. With the funds thus collected and with Ferdinand Porsche’s functional design finally in hand, in 1938 Ley built a factory in Fallersleben and built a town – called KdF-Stadt – to house the workers. That town would eventually become Wolfsburg, Volkswagen’s present-day headquarters.

Car, interrupted
For something that didn’t actually exist, the Volkswagen fired the German imagination. A report by an undercover operative for Germany’s Social Democrat Party (which had been banned, along with all others, by Hitler) and collected by US intelligence officers after the war related:

“For a large number of Germans, the announcement of the ‘People’s Car’ is a great and happy surprise…. For a long time the car was a main topic of conversation in all sections of the population in Germany. All other pressing problems, whether of domestic or foreign policy, were pushed into the background for a while. The gray German everyday sank beneath notice under the impression of this music of the future. Wherever the test models of the new Strength-Through-Joy construction are seen in Germany, crowds gather around them. The politician who promises a car for everyone is the man of the masses if the masses believe his promises. And as far as the Strength-Through-Joy car is concerned, the German people do believe in Hitler’s promises.”

A 1960s-vintage Volkswagen poses before a modern iteration.

How many “test models” were produced is not known for certain, but the figure was likely less than 100. The Volkswagen was formally introduced in October 1938 in Munich and Vienna, at the height of the Sudeten crisis – in hindsight, not a promising time for new auto models. The Fallersleben plant was still presumably making Volkswagens as late as February 1939, when one was presented to Hitler at the Berlin Auto Show (he in turn gave it to his girlfriend, Eva Braun), and another example, a special cabriolet version, managed to survive until April 1944, when it was given to Hitler for his 55th birthday.

What is known for certain is that not one of the more than 330,000 German citizens who signed up for the Volkswagen purchase program received a car; soon after the Sudeten crisis, the Fallersleben plant switched to producing military vehicles (the Kübelwagen and the amphibious Schwimmwagen) and later also built parts for the V1 flying bomb.

Britain to the rescue
The modern Volkswagen company has the British Army to thank for its existence, for it was an enterprising Army officer, Colonel Charles Radclyffe, who was responsible for resurrecting Hitler’s brainchild. Radclyffe was one of a number of officers tasked with restarting industries in the British-occupied part of Germany in the summer of 1945, and the Fallersleben works – or at least what was left of them – fell under his control.

Radclyffe’s first idea was to salvage what equipment and tooling he could from Fallersleben and ship it back to England as reparations, but English auto manufacturers were no more impressed with the Volkswagen than their German counterparts were before the war. An official Army report said, “The vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor car… it is quite unattractive to the average buyer… To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.”

Unable to rid himself of the Volkswagen, Radclyffe turned to Major Ivan Hirst of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers to do something with the operation. Locating the original 1938 plans, Hirst directed the repair of the factory buildings, refurbished or replaced the original machine tools, body presses and jigs, and focused on improving the quality and marketability of the car, setting up a sales and service network in a few locations in Germany.

Adolf Hitler (center) inspects one of the few
Volkswagens actually built under the Nazi government program with his Labor Minister Robert Ley (without hat).

Hirst’s efforts did not go unrewarded; after one of the original Volkswagens that had somehow survived the war was demonstrated to the British Army’s Rhine Group Headquarters staff, the Army put in an order for 20,000 vehicles.

With Volkswagen now a live business, Radclyffe decided that it should be led by German managers and on Hirst’s recommendation in 1947, he recruited Heinrich Nordhoff, who had been the production manager at Opel during the war. In 1949, Nordhoff was formally appointed managing director of Volkswagen. He would lead the company for the next 20 years and turn it into one of the world’s leading automakers.


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