On this date in 1936 German Chancellor Adolf Hitler unveiled the “people’s car,” later called the Volkswagen. It is often erroneously stated that Hitler designed the car: he did not. Sometimes it is also stated that he sketched the design on a napkin. If so, he was certainly copying designs that were already being offered. The ethos, and history, of the Volkswagen beetle is fascinating, going from the pride of the Third Reich to the quintessential hippiemobile in less than 30 years.
In the early 1930s, the German auto industry was still largely turning out luxury models, and the average German could rarely afford anything more than a motorcycle. As a result, only one German out of 50 owned a car. Seeking a potential new market, some car makers began independent “peoples’ car” projects – the Mercedes 170H, Adler AutoBahn, Steyr 55, and Hanomag 1.3L, among others.
The trend was not new; Béla Barényi is credited with having conceived the basic design in the mid-1920s. Josef Ganz developed the Standard Superior (going as far as advertising it as the “German Volkswagen”). In Germany the company Hanomag mass-produced the 2/10 PS “Komissbrot”, a small, cheap rear-engine car, from 1925 to 1928. Also, in Czechoslovakia, the Hans Ledwinka designed Tatra T77, a very popular car amongst the German elite, was becoming smaller and more affordable at each revision.
Ferdinand Porsche, a well-known designer of high-end vehicles and race cars, had been trying for years to get a manufacturer interested in a small car suitable for a family. He felt the small cars at the time were just stripped down big cars. Instead he built a car he called the “Volksauto” from the ground up in 1933, using many of the ideas floating around at the time and several of his own, putting together a car with an air-cooled rear engine, torsion bar suspension, and a “beetle” shape, the front hood rounded for better aerodynamics (necessary because it had a small engine). His design became the VW Beetle.
In 1932, with many of the above projects still in development or early stages of production, Adolf Hitler got involved, ordering the production of a basic vehicle capable of transporting two adults and three children at 100 km/h (62 mph). The “People’s Car” would be available to citizens of the Third Reich through a savings plan at 990 Reichsmark (€ 3826.35 today)—about the price of a small motorcycle (the average income being around 32RM a week).
Despite heavy lobbying in favor of the existing projects, it soon became apparent that private industry could not turn out a car for only 990RM. Thus, Hitler chose to sponsor an all-new, state-owned factory using Ferdinand Porsche’s design (with some of Hitler’s design constraints, including an air-cooled engine so nothing could freeze). The intention was that ordinary Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme (“Fünf Mark die Woche musst du sparen, willst du im eigenen Wagen fahren” – “Five marks a week you must put aside, if you want to drive your own car”), which around 336,000 people eventually paid into. However, the entire project was financially unsound.
Prototypes of the car called the “KdF-Wagen” (German: Kraft durch Freude – “strength through joy”), appeared from 1938 onwards (the first cars had been produced in Stuttgart). The car already had its distinctive round shape and air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine. VW Type 82E
Erwin Komenda, the longstanding Auto Union chief designer, part of Ferdinand Porsche’s hand-picked team, developed the car body of the prototype, which was recognizably the Beetle known today. It was one of the first cars designed with the aid of a wind tunnel—a method used for German aircraft design since the early 1920s. The car designs were put through rigorous tests, and achieved a record-breaking million miles of testing before being deemed finished.
The building of the new factory started 26 May 1938 in the new town of KdF-Stadt (modern-day Wolfsburg), which had been purpose-built for the factory workers. This factory had produced only a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. None was actually delivered to any holder of the completed saving stamp books, though one Type 1 Cabriolet was presented to Hitler on 20 April 1944 (his 55th birthday).
War changed production to military vehicles—the Type 82 Kübelwagen (“Bucket car”) utility vehicle (VW’s most common wartime model), and the amphibious Schwimmwagen—manufactured for German forces. As was common with much of the production in Nazi Germany during the war, slave labor was used in the Volkswagen plant, for example from Arbeitsdorf concentration camp. The company would admit in 1998 that it used 15,000 slaves during the war effort. German historians estimate that 80% of Volkswagen’s wartime workforce was slave labor. Many of the slaves were reported to have been supplied from the concentration camps upon request from plant managers. A lawsuit was filed in 1998 by survivors for restitution for the forced labor.
The company owes its post-war existence largely to one man, British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst, REME. In April 1945, KdF-Stadt, and its heavily bombed factory were captured by U.S. forces, and subsequently handed over to the British, within whose occupation zone the town and factory fell. The factories were placed under the control of Oldham-born Hirst. At first, the plan was to use the factory for military vehicle maintenance, and possibly dismantle and ship it to Britain. Since it had been used for military production, and had been in Hirst’s words, a “political animal” rather than a commercial enterprise—technically making it liable for destruction under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement—the equipment could be salvaged as war reparations. (Allied dismantling policy changed in late 1946 to mid-1947, though heavy industry continued to be dismantled until 1951.) Hirst painted one of the factory’s cars green and demonstrated it to British Army headquarters. Short of light transport, in September 1945 the British Army was persuaded to place a vital order for 20,000. The first few hundred cars went to personnel from the occupying forces, and to the German Post Office.
Some British Service personnel were allowed to take their Beetles back to the United Kingdom when they were demobilized, and one of the very first Beetles brought back in that way (UK registration number JLT 420) is still owned by Peter Colborne-Baber, the son of the original proprietor of the UK’s first official Volkswagen Importer, Colborne Garages of Ripley, Surrey.
The post-war industrial plans for Germany set out rules that governed which industries Germany was allowed to retain. These rules set German car production at a maximum of 10% of 1936 car production. By 1946, the factory produced 1,000 cars a month—a remarkable feat considering it was still in disrepair. Owing to roof and window damage, production had to stop when it rained, and the company had to barter new vehicles for steel for production.
The car and its town changed their Second World War-era names to “Volkswagen” and “Wolfsburg” respectively, and production increased. It was still unclear what was to become of the factory. It was offered to representatives from the U.S., Australian, British, and French motor industries. Famously, all rejected it. After an inspection of the plant, Sir William Rootes, head of the British Rootes Group, told Hirst the project would fail within two years, and that the car “…is quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer, is too ugly and too noisy … If you think you’re going to build cars in this place, you’re a bloody fool, young man.” The official report said “To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” In an ironic twist of fate, Volkswagen manufactured a locally built version of Rootes’s Hillman Avenger in Argentina in the 1980s, long after Rootes had gone bankrupt at the hands of Chrysler in 1978—the Beetle outliving the Avenger by over 30 years.
Ford representatives were equally critical. In March 1948, the British offered the Volkswagen company to Ford, free of charge. Henry Ford II, the son of Edsel Ford, traveled to West Germany for discussions. Heinz Nordhoff was also present, and Ernest Breech, chairman of the board for Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford II looked to Ernest Breech for his opinion, and Breech said, “Mr. Ford, I don’t think what we’re being offered here is worth a dime!” Ford passed on the offer, leaving Volkswagen to rebuild itself under Nordhoff’s leadership.
As we now know, Volkswagen did rebuild itself. The Volkswagen Group is now a German multinational automotive manufacturing company headquartered in Wolfsburg. It designs, manufactures and distributes passenger and commercial vehicles, motorcycles, engines, and turbomachinery and offers related services including financing, leasing and fleet management. In 2012, it produced the second-largest number of motor vehicles of any company in the world, behind Toyota and ahead of General Motors. It has maintained the largest market share in Europe for over two decades. As of 2013, it ranked ninth in the Fortune Global 500 list of the world’s largest companies. In 2014, it reached production output of 10.14 million vehicles. Volkswagen Group sells passenger cars under the Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda and Volkswagen marques; motorcycles under the Ducati brand; and commercial vehicles under the MAN, Scania, Neoplan and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles marques.
Lower Saxony, where Wolfsburg is located is famous for a number of dishes including Hochzeitssuppe (literally: “wedding soup”). It is a clear soup based on chicken broth, filled with small meatballs (Fleischklößchen), asparagus heads, noodles and savory egg custard garnish (Eierstich). Various versions of hochzeitssuppe are now eaten throughout Germany by the bride and groom and guests, traditionally after the wedding ceremony, and it is usually served as the starter on the menu at the wedding reception.
Preparing the soup is a bit of a rigmarole. All of the ingredients should be prepared separately, not in the broth, and kept warm before serving. To serve the soup, arrange the warm ingredients in bowls, and then pour hot broth over them, then garnish. This method guarantees that every guest has a fair mix of all the ingredients. Here’s the basics with proportions for about 8 servings.
Begin with a rich, clarified chicken broth, brought to a simmer.
You can use a number of vegetables if you wish, but white asparagus and carrots are traditional. Cut them into small pieces and simmer until al dente. Keep warm.
Take equal quantities of spicy German sausage meat, such as Thüringer Mett, and ground beef, and mix it thoroughly with a beaten egg and some breadcrumbs. Roll the mix into small meatballs, and poach them gently in water or stock (not the soup stock). Keep warm.
You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.
If you like you can also cook some flat egg noodles.
Serve the soup in wide bowls. Arrange the vegetables, meatballs, custard, and noodles (if used), in individual bowls, pour over the hot broth, garnish with chopped chives or parsley, and serve.