History of Volkswagen

Volkswagen imageLiterally, the word "volkswagen" means "people's car." In Germany, the idea of a people's car wasn't exactly a new one. Before the 1930's, there had been many efforts to create simple cars that everyone could afford, but none met with profound success. Almost all cars before 1930, even if they were designed to be simple enough for the average person, ended up costing more than the average worker's yearly wage.

Meanwhile, the year is 1930, and Ferdinand Porsche had just set up an automotive design company, which became known as the Porsche Büro. The company patented a sophisticated independent front suspension system, which consisted of transversely mounted torsion bars connected to two trailing arms on each side. At the time, this was lighter than most other common types of suspension. In 1931, a German motorcycle company, Zündapp, asked Porsche if he could design a suitable car for them. Porsche came up with a streamlined 2 door sedan, which had lines similar to the Beetle. It was designated the Type 12. Zündapp wanted to put in a 1.2 liter radial engine from one of their motorcycles...this was the end of the line for this design, as it didn't make it any further.

Porsche then designed a car for NSU in 1933 that was known as the Type 32. This car looked even more similar to the upcoming KdF Wagen than the Type 12 did. This car looked similar to the Tatra V570, and shared many mechanical similarities. After World War II, the Volkswagen company paid Tatra for compensation, since Tatra believed its technology and design was pirated in development of the KdF Wagen. Eventaully, NSU dropped the Type 32 project.

Later in 1933, Adolf Hitler met with Ferdinand Porsche to discuss Hitler's idea of a volkswagen. Hitler proposed a people's car that could carry 5 people, cruise up to 62mph, return 33mpg, and cost only 1000 Reich Marks. This was an opportunity for Porsche to push his idea of a small car foward, as was it to help Hitler get a real people's car for the citizens of Germany.

Initially, Porsche designated this design the Type 60, but it was soon changed to the V1 (experimental 1). Hitler also proposed to have a convertible version produced: it was designated V2. Porsche was not able to make the deadline to finish the first two prototypes, as there was not enough time to physically design the cars and to built them. In any case, they were completed and driving by 1935. Soon, the V1 design was updated, and three cars were produced. This new design was the VW3. These cars were put through rigorous testing in 1936.

These cars looked very similar to the KdF Wagen, that was to appear later. Eventually, the VW3s had metal floors, swing axle rear transmissions, Porsche's front independed suspensions, and backbone floorpans. Several engines were tested, and eventually a flat four cylinder aircooled four stroke engine was chosen. Surprisingly, the engine that was chosen was cheaper and more reliable than some of the four cylinder two stroke engines that were tested. This 22.5 hp four cylinder "boxer" engine was roughly the same as the engines that would later be incorporated into Volkswagen Beetles that are still produced today.

After data was collected from the tests of the VW3s, the next version, the VW30 was created, and in all, 30 were produced. Due to Hitler's regime, control of the company and testing of the VW30 was given to a government organization called the DAF. Now, members of the SS were required to drive the VW30s to confirm that all the problems of the V3s were fixed. For the most part, these tests showed that most of the problems in earlier cars had been fixed.

In 1938, construction began on the KdF Wagen factory, and on the town that was going to be next to the factory. In 1939, several VW38s (pre-production) and VW39s (demonstration cars) were produced just to show that the factory did work, and to show what the final version of the car would look like. These cars were different from their predecessors in that they had front hinged doors (all the VW designs before had "suicide" doors), split windows in the rear, larger hoods, and many other minor differences. This edition of the car was the basis of the Beetle after the war was over.

When the V38s were introduced, Hitler abruptly changed the name of the car to KdF Wagen. KdF stood for "Kraft durch Freude" which meant "Strength through Joy." This upset Porsche, as he was not a member of the Nazi party, and he didn't support Hitler's use of propaganda when advertising the car.

The German government sold special stamps that could eventually be used to purchase a real KdF Wagen. In theory, as soon as 200 stamps were collected, they could be redeemed for a car. However, the KdF Wagen was not to be, and it never progressed beyond the prototype/demonstration stage. In later years, many people who collected these stamps took Volkswagen to court seeking compensation, since VW never made good on the KdF stamps. The KdF Wagen factory was busy pumping out Type 82s: Kübelwagens. The Kübelwagen was a simple looking military vehicle that basically used the same parts as the KdF Wagen, but had a flat-sided body, and increased ground clearance. It was essentially the Germany's "jeep" in WWII. During the war, the company also produced an amphibious vehicle, which was known as the Type 128, and later as the Type 166: the Schwimmwagen. This vehicle was powered by a 25hp engine, and had a retractable ducted propeller in the rear for water use. In the water, the Schwimmwagen could achieve up to 5mph, and surprisingly steered in the water with its front tires. There were over 50,000 Type 82s produced, and less than 16,000 Schwimmwagens produced during the war. There were several military off-shoots of the KdF Wagen produced during the war:

Kommandeurwagen: KdF Wagen with ragtop sunroof, four-wheel drive, increased ground clearance

Papler: The Papler company built several four door versions of the KdF Wagen for use in parades and for police

Hebmüller: Hebmüller produced hundreds of custom two seat KdF Wagen convertibles

Porsche even experimented with very unusual powerplants, such as a wood-gas engine, compressed CO2 engines (very short range), and more.

The KdF Wagen factory was a prime target for allied forces during the war, and before long, it was partially destroyed. After the war was over, the British Army took over the factory. The British were interested in the factory, because they needed light transportation: what else could they do? The factory was brought back up (it was still damaged, however) with leadership provided by Major Ivan Hirst of the British Army, and by the end of 1945, had produced more than 2000 cars. Most of them were produced from spare parts that were left in the factory. Within a year, the factory had produced over 10,000 cars, all thanks to assistance from the British government. Sometime after 1945, the company was named Volkswagen by the British, who also renamed the town at the factory "Wolfsburg", which was the name of a local castle. The British sought to give control of the company to able hands: the Ford company turned the offer down because it thought it would be a waste of money, the French government refused; nobody seemed to want the company. In 1949, the British government was finally able to relinquish control of the company to the German government. Heinrich Nordhoff was appointed as the senior executive of Volkswagen, a move which proved to be a very good one.

After 1949, production at Volkswagen steadily increased. Nordhoff's experience and knowledge proved invaluable for the company. Late in 1949, an idea for a utility/transport vehicle was developed, and by 1950, the VW transporter was born.

Volkswagens were being exported to neighboring European countries such as Denmark, Sweeden, Luxemburg, Belgium, and Switzerland. As early as 1950, Volkswagen began producing Beetles in South Africa (They were now known as Beetles) as well. Volkswagen comissioned an old German coach building company, Karmann, to build their Beetle convertibles. Every single convertible Volkswagen Beetle was completed by Karmann: hence the special badges on VW convertibles. In 1952, a Volkswagen dealership was opened in England: which was the first there. A few Volkswagens were imported into the United States in 1949 by Ben Pon, but they didn't immediatley gain popularity. Very few were sold in their first year in the US.

The Hoffmann company of New York, which imported Beetles in the early 1950s, eventually abandonded Volkswagen, and imported Porsches instead. Volkswagen did not sell many cars in the United States until later in the mid-1950s.

In 1951, Volkswagen began to export a deluxe version of the beetle. There was already a "standard" Beetle, which was only available in a dull gray color. These standard Beetles were spartan: they lacked synchromesh transmissions, exterior and interior chrome, and other special extra options that one might expect to have as standard in cars today. There were also regular export cars, that were available in several colors. The export cars also had chrome and more options as standard, such as a radio. The American export cars had even more chrome than regular export cars, and were generally the most elaborate with options and features. The American deluxe Beetles got hydraulic brakes in 1952, and lost their semaphores (flag-like turn signals) in 1955.

Volkswagen transporters were not as popular as Beetles, and in the first 5 years of production, there were 4 times fewer Buses built as Beetles. The Buses (and all other transporters) produced before 1955 had characteristically large engine access doors. Today, they are largely known as "barndoor" buses. Some people think that barndoor is supposed to be a reference to the side doors, but it is a misconception. These early barndoor transporters are very rare today.

Still in the 1950s, Volkswagen had already acted on its global goals by building factories in several countries. A factory began building Beetles in England, the plant in South Africa was building them, and a plant in Brazil provided a South American connection. Later, in 1960, a plant in Australia opened up, but never ended up being as successful as the other factories.

Beetles built before 1953 (and some during that year) looked almost identical to the KdF Wagen designed before WWII. Midway in 1953, Volkswagen changed the rear split windows of the Beetles, and added a slightly larger oval window. This oval window was said to increase visibility out of the rear of the car up to 33%. By 1955, Volkswagen came out with a new model called the Karmann Ghia. It used many parts from the Beetle to keep production cheaper, and less complex. The Karmann Ghia was a joint venture by companies Karmann (builds VW Beetle cabriolets) and Ghia.

Volkswagen production kept increasing through the late 1950s. In 1958, the larger rear window that most people see in Beetles today (Ovals and Splits are much more rare than the larger window Beetles) was adopted. In each year, minor changes were made to the Beetle, and the other cars in Volkswagen's lineup, but nothing very drastic. Different turn signals were added, slightly improved engines, and other small things were common in the year to year changes. Volkswagen also had a very successful advertising campaign in the 1960s which helped contribute to its success in the United States. The Disney movie, Herbie, also helped promote the Beetle. The Herbie movies portrayed the Beetle as a "love bug." Later in the 1960s, Volkswagen produced over one million Beetles each year. 1969 was the most productive year for Volkswagen.

After the Beetle's boom years in the late 1960s, its sales began to decline. In 1967, the transporter underwent major design changes, and in 1969 on US Export Beetles, VW added CV joints in the rear of the car in an effort to improve high speed stability on American highways. The traditional swingaxle system worked Ok, but at high speeds tended to lose stability. In 1971, Volkswagen developed a *new* car called the Super Beetle. The Super Beetle had modern MacPherson struts in the front instead of the older transverse beam arrangement it had since the 1930s: this new suspension allowed the trunk to be deeper, thus creating more luggage space in the front trunk. The Super Beetles of '71 had the same windshields as the standard Beetles did, but from '72-'74, a wrap around curved windshield was implemented. These were the only Beetles to have anything in the way of a real dashboard. Super Beetles were smoother cruisers on the highway, but did not make good Baja Beetle platforms. Ever increasing US government regulations on safety and emissions controls pushed the Beetle to its limits. The Beetle could not be adapted to keep up with the other cars in the industry. Volkswagen stopped production of the Beetle sedan in 1977, and stopped production of the cabriolet in 1979.

However, the Beetle was still thriving in Mexico and South America. Volkswagen of Brazil continued building Beetles and VW Vans until 1993. Volkswagen of Mexico still hasn't stopped building Beetles! In fact, the Beetle is by far the most popular car in Mexico. Take a look at the picture to see a common view of a Mexican street: count the Beetles.

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