Contrary to what is often assumed, Germany is historically a country that produces small cars. What is important is the offer. At the beginning of the 1930s, DKW, Adler and Hanomag offer some that are more or less successful. Even BMW began producing a small machine in the automobile, the Dixie, an Austin Seven under license. The engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who has been working on a small car with neat aerodynamics since the beginning of the decade, is also interested in this, only to downsize the engine, which is installed at the rear like in the Hanomag commission bread.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power and in 1934 launched a tender. his idea? Allow the German people to motorize en masse, therefore at a lower cost. Porsche was chosen to design a car capable of transporting 4 passengers at 100km/h on brand new autobahns while costing only RM990. A people’s car, a “Volkswagen” in the truest sense of the word, even if it won’t be its official name at first. It will be the KDF car, KDF means “Strength through Joy”, “Strength through Joy”.
It appeared in 1938 and was manufactured by Volkswagenwerk GmbH in a huge special factory near Fallersleben in Lower Saxony. A town was also built to house the factory staff, KdF-Stadt. The price of the car, unbelievably low, is unsustainable for the industry, so everything is subsidized by the state. The Germans can afford the KdF by buying stamps up to the amount of the selling price (which roughly corresponds to an average monthly salary of 6 months).
Only…Hitler, like all dictators, is a crook and a liar (much more so than any leader in a democratic country, no offense to admirers of tough leaders). Also, none of the 340,000 subscribers who have paid enough to be able to afford the Kdf car get their car. Money will be diverted to the war effort, and very quickly the factory will be producing mostly Kübelwagen, a type of jeep made by the KdF before the hour.
Shortly before the end of hostilities, on April 11, 1945, the Americans took control of the remains of the KdF factory in devastated Germany and renamed it the KdF-Stadt Wolfsburg after the medieval Fallersleben Castle. They install a democratic system, then the facilities fall into the hands of the English occupying forces. Those who are aware that the military cars (about 66,285 units) were mostly made by forced laborers, but also by Jewish slaves, gathered in a nearby concentration camp. We envision destroying what’s left of the facilities, but pragmatism takes over: they’ll be more useful as war reparations.
And the one who has the idea is Major Ivan Hirst, only 28 years old. Landing at the factory in August 1945, he finds a KdF under a tarpaulin, restarts it, understands its vast potential and presents it to a British General Staff lacking in liaison vehicles. Hirst, supported by his leader, Colonel Michael McEvoy, proposed ordering 20,000 for Army use. The industrial tool, badly damaged but not irreparable, does not allow to produce such a large number.
Nevertheless, production of the KdF finally started at the end of 1945. The car was then officially renamed Volkswagen. Despite extremely difficult social and material conditions, the 1,000 cars per month were handed over in March 1946 and 10,000 were manufactured the following October. Yes, but now that His Majesty’s Army is supplied, what to do with this factory and this car?
Many manufacturers on the Allied side are offered to take over everything. Henry Ford II is told by Ernest Breech, Ford CEO: “Sir, the car we present is not worthy of a triple. “Same negative reaction from William Rootes, head of the English group that bears his name: “The car is too ugly and noisy for buyers. And if you think you can produce it here, you’re a poor fool, young man,” he says to Hirst. French manufacturers also refuse to take over the brand.
Were they stupid? In reality the factory had yet to be rebuilt and the assembled Volkswagens were far from perfect and also suffered from a really deplorable general quality. Hirst will still have a lot of trouble reorganizing production, achieving acceptable working conditions for the workers and turning the Beetle into a usable car. Fortunately, the order from the British Army represents a fantastic springboard for the small car, which incidentally already outnumbers all other German ones.
In 1947 the Volkswagen presented itself at its first motor show in Hanover. A lot has already changed. In fact, each example undergoes 1,000km of testing before delivery just to prove it’s reliable. The customer must benefit from a robust and durable car: that is the basis of VW’s image of quality. Hirst also requires the car’s appearance to be at least neat. Exports start to the Netherlands, then to Switzerland and the USA.
On January 1, 1948, Hirst was supported by Heinrich Nordhoff, who took over production management and managed to double it. In 1949, after the introduction of the D-Mark, the overall supervision of the factory passed to the federal government, and then partly to the state of Lower Saxony. Volkswagen can then begin its extraordinary rise under the rule of Nordhoff, who replaced Hirst. It was a hair’s breadth from what would become the world’s most produced car, remaining just a vague prototype rotting in a factory in ruins!