Business World

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Adolf 'drive my car' Hitler and the Beetles

Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle

Wesley Boyd

Adolf Hitler would not be amused. The Nazi dictator was the driving force behind the creation of Volkswagen's most famous product, the Beetle - a fact, naturally, not much publicised by the German manufacturer.

Hitler was a motor-head. His first car was a Mercedes, bought in 1923 with money purloined from the funds of his fledgling Nazi party. (I wonder did he know Mercedes was named in honour of the daughter of a Hungarian rabbi?).

Paradoxically for all his enthusiasm about cars, Hitler was not able to drive but he enjoyed being chauffeured at speed around the German countryside.

While serving a nine-month sentence in prison for an attempted putsch in Bavaria, he read a biography of the Irish-American car manufacturer, Henry Ford, who also happened to be a notorious anti-semite with fascist tendencies.

He was much impressed by the success Ford had had with the Model T (or the Tin Lizzie), the first mass-produced small car, which had brought motoring to the reach of the middle and lower classes.

"Ford has done more than anyone else to obliterate class differences in America," he declared.

After being elected Chancellor in 1933, he approached manufacturers with the request that they should develop an inexpensive small car. They had little enthusiasm for the idea, believing the working classes, had no money to buy and run cars.

But they could not dismiss Hitler's request completely and put forward a project for a three-wheeled model, a sort of covered-in motorcycle (a model which was to enjoy much success in post-war Europe as a 'bubble car'). The Fuhrer angrily rejected the project.

"So long as the motor car remains only a means of transportation for especially privileged circles," he said, "it is with bitter feelings that we see millions of honest, hard-working fellow men cut off from the use of a vehicle, which would be a source of yet unknown happiness to them, particularly on Sundays and holidays."

Then Hitler heard that a fellow Austrian, Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of racing and sports models, was working on plans for a small car. At a meeting in Berlin in 1934 Porsche outlined to Hitler his ideas for a car with a one-litre engine, capable of 100 kilometres an hour.

Hitler threw in his own ideas. The car must be a four-seater to carry a family, be fuel-efficient and have an air-cooled engine to combat Germany's harsh winters. The 'people's car' was on its way.

Concerned at the development, the big manufacturers offered to produce the car if the government paid a subsidy of 200 marks per unit.

Hitler wanted a million cars a year. He did his sums.

With 200 million marks, he could build his own plant. The Volkswagen Development Company was set up and based north of Hanover.

Hitler laid the foundation stone in 1938 for the Volkswagen factory and the new city of Wolfsburg to accommodate the workers. He was driven from the site in a prototype Beetle, proud as a new father.

Soon the Beetles began to roll off the production lines. Fewer than 200 had been produced when the war intervened. The factory was converted to manufacture equipment for the war effort.

It was bombed, almost destroyed, but was restored and handed over to the new West German state in 1949 as a going concern. The Beetles started to roll again.

The first to be built outside Germany was in a former tram depot on the Shelbourne Road, Dublin in 1950 by Stephen O'Flaherty, who obtained the Volkswagen franchise for Ireland and Britain and became a millionaire.

No trouble with toxic emissions in those days.

Sunday Independent

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