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No present-day company is more a product of military might than Volkswagen. On May 26, 1938, just outside the new town of Fallersleben in lower Saxony, Adolf Hitler spoke at a cornerstone dedication ceremony for a new factory. The factory, and Fallersleben itself, were created to house a state-of-the-art automobile production facility to manufacture the KdFWagen. Only a week after the annexation of Austria, the Führer’s boisterous speech declared that the automobiles would bring joy to all of Germany’s citizens. In little more than a year, however, the country would be at war. Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the Type 60 KdF-Wagen, hated the name, preferring to call his creation a Volkswagen, or “people’s car.” Almost from the moment it was unveiled in 1939, the Germans who saw the little vehicle gave it another informal name: the Käfer, or beetle.

With the bloodless “victories” of the past few years—the occupation of the Rhineland, Austria and the Sudetenland—many within the Third Reich expected the September 1939 invasion of Poland to end quickly, after which Germany’s enemies in Europe would come to terms. Nazi Party officials and Volkswagenwerke managers therefore hesitated in switching the factory to war production. But Germans soon woke up to the fact that they were yet again embroiled in a world war.

The transition to war production, however, was slow. The Fallersleben factory operated at only 20-25 percent of its anticipated capacity from 1940 to 1942. These disappointing numbers were attributed to the fact that Volkswagenwerke, the most modern auto-making facility in the world at that time, did not have procedures in place to run a factory at peak wartime production. There was a considerable lack of communication among the factory’s various departments and management, and the uncertainties of a war effort being run by the profoundly chaotic Nazi Party administration made the situation even worse.

The auto manufacturer should not have found itself in this position. As early as 1934, Nazi officials approached a design team led by Porsche and asked it to adapt the KdF-Wagen for military use. The KdF-Wagen had grown directly from the fertile minds of the party. The peculiar little car received its designation from the initials of the organization that had pushed for its creation. Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) was a Nazi Party organization created to improve morale among Germany’s workers and, in the words of Dr. Robert Ley, prove to the German worker that “we [the Nazi Party] are serious about raising his social position.” In addition to subsidized vacations and cultural activities, the KdF organization pushed for development of a car that workers could purchase with modest weekly installments. While the KdF-Wagen was trumpeted as a civilian vehicle, there was never any real doubt among higher-ranking party members about its possible military applications.

Franz Reimspeiss, who had originally designed Volkswagen’s still familiar “V” over “W” symbol and was closely associated with the KdF-Wagen, had sketched an all-terrain vehicle based on the Käfer. Called a Type 62, it had 19-inch wheels, very little bodywork and no doors or roof. Intrigued by Reimspeiss’ drawings, Porsche produced a prototype of the vehicle that was dubbed the Type 82. It was a Spartan vehicle, only slightly more developed than Reimspeiss’ original. Lacking virtually all amenities, the Type 82 was soon dubbed the Kübelsitzwagen (bucket-seat car), which was eventually shortened to the more familiar Kü- belwagen.

First produced on December 21, 1940, 1,000 Kübelwagens were made before the end of the year. The pace of production increased even further as the war progressed, and under the direction of men like Albert Speer, German industry became fully committed to wartime production. By the end of the war, nearly 50,000 examples of Porsche’s Kübelwagen had rolled off the assembly line. Before 1943 the car featured a 985cc engine that generated 22.5 hp, giving it a maximum speed of 80 kph. The bodies were made by AmbiBudd in Berlin, shipped to Fallersleben, and the chassis were assembled in one part of the Volkswagenwerke. The car featured a folding windshield, a canvas top and four doors, with the front pair hinging at the back so they could swing on a common post with the rear doors. A shovel, spare tire/wheel and blackout light were mounted directly on the hood, under which there was no storage space aside from a spare 5-gallon fuel tank that slid into place behind the pedals.

Ingeniously designed, the rear light cluster was geared for wartime with a green plastic cover that had differing thicknesses. This enabled a driver in a following car to judge the distance to the lead car by how many lights were visible. Its air-cooled engine was indestructible in either the intense heat of Africa or the bitter cold of Russia. As Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel advanced deeper into North Africa in 1941-42, Porsche designed a special model for desert use that featured protected electrical systems, extra cooling equipment and a larger air filter—not to mention balloon tires for sand crawling. Unfortunately for the Axis, a miscommunication sent these special Kübels into the snows of the Russian Front, while Rommel had to make do with ordinary ones. Even with the lesser models, however, he was not disappointed with their performance—nor were his opponents.

A Kübelwagen that fell into British hands was sent to England and dismantled for inspection. The research team quickly discovered more than 100 pounds of sand lodged in the body. Despite this added weight, the vehicle still ran perfectly.

In March 1943, Porsche returned again to the drawing board and redesigned the Kübelwagen to incorporate lessons learned on the battlefield. He boosted the engine displacement to 1,130cc and the horsepower to 25, redesigned the body and increased the vehicle’s road clearance. Porsche’s son Ferry improved the drivetrain with a gear-reduction system at the end of each swing axle that allowed the vehicle to drive at a walking pace for parades and troop movements.

Another innovation springing from the KdF-Wagen and Reimspeiss’ drawings was the Schwimmwagen. The prototype, Type 128, was developed in 1940 as an amphibious vehicle with a maximum speed of 80 kph on land and 9 in the water. Intended to be a new scout vehicle, 30 were built at the Volkswagen plant and delivered to the army’s engineer units.

Additional modifications following the army’s field tests led to further improvements and the official designation as Type 166, although it was better known to soldiers of both sides as the Schwimmwagen. The “swimming” Kübel was 40cm shorter and 10cm wider than the Type 128 but was powered by the same 1,130cc engine used in the landbound Kübelwagen. More than 15,000 of the vehicles were produced between 1942 and 1944.

Issued mainly to Waffen-SS divisions, Wehrmacht engineer battalions and other elite troop formations, the Schwimmwagen had extraordinary off-road capabilities coupled with its obvious amphibious talents. Just a sealed tub on wheels with no doors and a rolled up canvas for a top, its exterior sported a blackout light, a paddle and a shovel. The exhaust system was located above the hood, higher than on the Type 128, and mounted horizontally across the width of the car.

Propulsion in the water was provided by an externally mounted three-blade propeller that hinged just below the rear-engine lid and could be extended and raised as needed. The propeller was surrounded by a metal shield to prevent bottoming, and the housing was designed to break away from the coupling in case it was snagged in shallow water. The intermediate shaft, which was connected to the main drive shaft, engaged the propeller when it was in the down position. The upper shaft drove the lower shaft (which turned the screw) via a chain drive, and because of the direct link between the prop and the drive shaft, the speed could only be regulated by the gas pedal in one direction—there was no reverse.

Although the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen remain the two most recognizable German vehicles that originated from Volkswagen’s first prototype, 58 other models were designed and built during the war. Though most of these examples never made it past the prototype phase or even the testing track, a few found their way into production and saw service late in the war.

Most notable was the Type 87, an allwheel-drive Volkswagen that drivers would not find out of place today. Later, a variation of the Type 87, the Type 187, or Kommandeurwagen—which combined what we know today as the “Beetle” body with the Kübelwagen’s high-riding chassis—was built. Modified for dust protection and fitted with balloon tires and rollers on the nose to help navigate rough terrain, the 600 that were eventually sent to the Afrika Korps received high marks.

At the opposite extreme was another example that grew out of the particular demands of service on the Eastern Front. The especially rough Russian winter of 1941-42 had prompted the government to contract with Porsche to develop a car capable of operating in the snow. Simple enough, a Schwimmwagen was used because of its smooth tub shape, and attached to it were protruding gripping tires built by the Rieger and Dietz firm. The tires spun too easily, however, and tended to bury themselves in the snow. After that, designers turned their attention to a track-driven device, similar to a tank. The front tires were soon replaced with skis, and although this addition was promising, the vehicle never made it into widespread production.

Another Volkswagen variant developed by the Porsche company was a six-wheeled version of the Kübelwagen designated the Type 164. This vehicle was intended to be driven in both directions, have two steering wheels and two engines. The designs never made it past the drawing board and were abandoned in 1941.

Even a dummy tank was constructed and fitted onto a Kübel frame. Though it was built primarily as a training vehicle, it was also used in an attempt to fool the Allies. The panels that covered the wheels could be removed to imitate a scout car and the top turret was fitted with vision slits and could accommodate a small machine gun. Entry was through the top hatch in the turret.

By 1945 Germany was on the verge of defeat, and resources available to produce multiple variants of the Kübel—or even the basic model of the vehicle—were running out. Production was further complicated by the fact that the Volkswagenwerke at Fallersleben lay in ruins from Allied bombing. With the end clearly in sight, the future of the company that produced the people’s car was slipping toward oblivion.

To prevent it from falling into enemy hands, Hitler had ordered that all machinery be removed from the Fallersleben plant and hidden in mines near the Belgian border. The first trainload of 200 machines, however, arrived just in time to be captured by the advancing Americans. After hearing the news, Porsche ordered the remainder of the equipment left where it was.

On April 10, 1945, as the Americans closed in, SS troops guarding the forced laborers who worked at Fallersleben decided to save their own skins and flee. Free of their guards’ brutality for the first time in years, the laborers sacked the plant and were soon threatening to burn the town itself.

Antonius Holling, a Roman Catholic chaplain attached to the plant, drove an abandoned ambulance to meet with the Americans. What he found was a small detachment of 11 enlisted men and one young lieutenant. At first, the lieutenant seemed inclined to let the liberated workers burn Fallersleben, but after Holling convinced him that there were 20 American-born German children stranded in the town, the American officer relented. Order was restored, and the next day two dozen M4 Sherman tanks and 200 soldiers arrived to keep the situation under control.

Fallersleben had been saved, but in the first days of peace, the future of the factory remained very much in doubt. The entire area fell within the British Occupation Zone. To facilitate their own operations, a unit of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers arrived at the factory to set up a maintenance shop and eventually produced small numbers of the KdF-Wagen.

To strip the site of some of its former Nazi associations, the British renamed the facility the Wolfsburg Motor Works after a nearby 14th-century castle belonging to Count Werner von der Schulenberg. They also dropped the original KdF-Wagen designation and officially renamed the little car with the moniker Porsche had preferred all along—the Volkswagen.


Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here