The unlikely resurrection of Volkswagen

Contrary to popular belief, Germany has historically been a small car manufacturing country. The offer was important at the beginning of 1930. DKW, Adler, Hanomag offered several, which were more or less successful. Even BMW got its start in the automobile by producing a small engine, the Dixie, an Austin Seven under license. The engineer Ferdinand Porsche was also interested in this, working from the beginning of the decade on a small car with proper aerodynamics, only to reduce the size of the engine, which was installed at the rear as in the Hanomag Kommissbrot.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power and in 1934 launched a call for tenders. His idea? Allow the Germans to motor in bulk, therefore at a lower cost. Porsche was chosen to design a car capable of transporting 4 passengers at a speed of 100 km/h in new vehicles, while costing only 990 RM. A people’s car, a “Volkswagen” literally, although in the beginning, this was not its official name. It will be KDF-Wagen, KDF standing for “Kraft durch Freude”, “strength through joy”.

The final KdF-Wagen, in 1938. It wasn’t called a Volkswagen yet, and even though it was designed for people, none of the Germans who bought it with stamps could get them.

It appeared in 1938, and was produced by Volkswagenwerk GmbH in a large dedicated factory, built near Fallersleben in Lower Saxony. A town was also built to house the factory staff, KdF-Stadt. The price of the car, which is incredibly low, is unsustainable for the industry, so everything is supported by the state. Germans will be able to pay the KdF by buying stamps, up to the value of the sale price (which represents about 6 months average salary).

Only… Hitler, like all dictators, was a cheat and a liar (more so than any leader of a democratic country, no offense to those who admire poor leaders). Also, none of the 340,000 subscribers who paid enough to buy the Kdf-Wagen will receive their car. The money would be diverted for the war effort, and very quickly, the factory would produce in particular the K├╝belwagen, Jeep types ahead of time that came from the KdF.

The US army in April 1945, just in front of the bombed KdF factory.
The US army in April 1945, just in front of the bombed KdF factory.

Shortly before the end of the war, on April 11, 1945, in a devastated Germany, the Americans took control of the remains of the KdF factory and renamed it KdF Stadt Wolfsburg, after the medieval castle of Fallersleben. They installed a democratic system, then the installations fell into the hands of the English conqueror. Who knew that the military vehicles (about 66,285 units) were mostly made by forced laborers but also by Jewish slaves, who were gathered in a concentration camp built nearby. We thought the rest of the installations would be destroyed, but pragmatism took over: they would be more useful as war reparations.

And the one with the idea was Major Ivan Hirst, only 28 years old. Landing at the factory in August 1945, he found a KdF under a tarpaulin, restarted it, realized its enormous potential and presented it to a British General Staff short of liaison vehicles. Hirst, supported by his superior, Colonel Michael McEvoy, proposed ordering 20,000 for army use. The industrial equipment, which was badly damaged but irreparable, did not allow such a large number to be produced.

March 1946 was the first month in which more than 1,000 Volkswagen Beetles were produced.  At the wheel, Major Ivan Hirst, who was responsible for putting it into production.
March 1946 was the first month in which more than 1,000 Volkswagen Beetles were produced. At the wheel, Major Ivan Hirst, who was responsible for putting it into production.

However, production of the KdF began permanently at the end of 1945. The car was officially renamed as Volkswagen. Despite the very difficult social and material conditions, the monthly 1,000 cars were passed in March 1946, and the following October, 10,000 were produced. Yes, but now, when his Majesty’s army is given up, what will be done with this factory and this car?

Ivan Hirst in 1999. "I was appointed to Wolfsburg by chance.  What I did, anyone can do." A great lesson in humility!  He died in 2000, at the age of 84.
Ivan Hirst in 1999. “I was appointed at Wolfsburg by chance. What I did, anyone could have done.” A great lesson in humility! He died in 2000, at the age of 84.

Several manufacturers on the Allied side offered to take everything. Henry Ford II was told by Ernest Breech, chairman of Ford’s board of directors: “Sir, the car shown to us here is not worth the tripette.” The same negative reaction from William Rootes, boss of the English group which bears his name: “the car is too ugly and noisy for buyers. And if you think you can produce it here, you are a poor fool, young man,” he told Hirst. French manufacturers also refused to take the brand.

Are they stupid? In reality, the factory still had to be rebuilt, and the assembled Volkswagens, far from perfect, also suffered from a truly deplorable overall quality. It would still take a lot of effort for Hirst to reorganize production, get acceptable working conditions for the workers and make the Beetle a viable car. Fortunately, the order of the British army formed a wonderful springboard for the small car that, quite simply, exceeded the numbers produced, all other Germans.

On January 1, 1948, Heinrich Nordhoff, a former senior manager at Opel, took over VW production.  He would remain at the head of the brand until his death in 1968.
On January 1, 1948, Heinrich Nordhoff, a former senior manager at Opel, took over VW production. He would remain at the head of the brand until his death in 1968.

In 1947, Volkswagen paraded its first motor show, in Hanover. A lot has changed. Each copy actually performs 1,000 km of tests before delivery, just to prove that it is reliable. The customer should benefit from a stable and durable car: this is the basis of the quality image of VWs. Hirst also demands that the appearance of the car be a minimum clean. Exports begin to the Netherlands, then Switzerland and the USA.

In 1949, Hirst left a modern factory assembling a well-built car.
In 1949, Hirst left a modern factory assembling a well-built car.

On January 1, 1948, Hirst was assisted by Heinrich Nordhoff in charge of production management and succeeded in duplicating it. In 1949, after the introduction of the Deutsche Mark, the management of the factory was transferred to the German Government, then partly to Lower Saxony. Volkswagen could begin its extraordinary rise, under the leadership of Nordhoff, who replaced Hirst. That’s a hair’s breadth from what would have been the world’s most-produced car remaining only a faint prototype rotting away in a factory wreck!

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