KdF & VOLKSWAGEN
“It is for the broad masses that this car has been built. Its purpose is to answer their transportation needs, and it is intended to give them joy.” Adolf Hitler, 1938
The KdF - the People's Car - the Beetle - the Dub - the Bug. This distinctive saloon has had what is arguably the most unusual, convoluted, and occasionally controversial, history of any European production car. It's aerodynamic shape alone made it stand out out amongst its mostly boxy, sit-up-and-beg styled contemporaries.
Much has been written about the VW Beetle, but this is It's My Classic's look at the circumstances surrounding and genesis of one of the most widely known and globally recognisable of classic cars.
In June 1934, Ferdinand Porsche was contracted by the Reichsverband der Deutschen Automobilindustrie to design a state-subsidised, inexpensive ‘People’s Car’. Porsche didn't waste any time getting to work. The first two prototypes were completed the following year with a concept that had enough design features in common with the Czech Tatra V570 and 97 for Porsche to be sued for copyright infringement.
Presented in July, 1935, the first prototype (consisting of a traditional wood-steel construction) was immediately distinctive for the aerodynamic shape that is readily recognisable as what would eventually become the iconic VW Beetle. A number of improvements to the design followed in swift order, and the Series 3 convertible prototype (known in-house as the V2) was ready by the end of the year. The prototypes would undergo extensive road trials on both the autobahns and in the mountains of the Black Forest.
Within two months, pilot production vehicles (with bodies built by Reutter in Stuttgart) began mountain trials. There were a few teething problems reported, but the design proved robust enough for the project to take another significant step towards becoming a production car.
The thirty vehicles built for the pilot scheme undertook a promotional tour in towns and cities across the German Reich.
Hitler forgave Porsche being born in Bohemia (today part of the Czech Republic) and urged him to apply for German citizenship. In 1937, now a naturalised German, Porsche joined the Nazi Party, though it was likely to have been more on commercial pragmatism than ideological grounds. Porsche would go on to be named a ‘Pioneer of Labour’ on May 2nd, 1942 on the orders of Adolf Hitler.
Germany invading Czechoslovakia in 1938 ended Ferdinand Porsche’s legal worries, though Volkswagen made a settlement in respect of the copyright infringement some years after the end of the war.
On May 28th, 1937, the Articles of Association forming the ‘Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mit beschränkter Haftung’ (Corporation to Prepare the Way for the German People’s Car) – or 'Gezuvor' for short – were signed before a public notary in Berlin. The signatories were representatives of the German Labour Front (DAF), the Nazi organisation that had replaced the banned German trade unions.
Ferdinand Porsche (designer), Bodo Lafferentz (DAF department head), and Jakob Werlin (business executive) were appointed directors of the new company. Gezuvor formally joined the Register of Companies in Berlin on June 2nd, 1937.
Later in the month, the three directors, with some of the staff from Porsche KG, headed off to Detroit to buy the specialist machinery that they’d need to make the car possible. They also planned learn more about mass production methods from Ford and headhunt some of Ford’s German-American employees, including Fritz Kuntze, the power plant manager of Ford’s River Rouge factory. It would be Kuntze's job to begin the designs for Gezuvor’s new manufacturing facility.
On May 26th, 1938, at the grand foundation-laying ceremony for the Fallersleben Wolfsburg factory - intended to be the most modern car manufacturing facility in the world - a saloon, a roll-top saloon, and a convertible were displayed to a 50,000-strong audience. In his hour-long speech, Hitler named the car the ‘KdF-Wagen’ after the DAF subsidiary organisation ‘Kraft durch Freude’ (Strength through Joy).
Hitler needed the support of the huge number of working people, but the massed might of the trade unions was too great a threat to be permitted.
The State, henceforth, would look after the working classes through the auspices of the patriotically-branded German Labour Force (DAF), headed up by Robert Ley. DAF provided the stick – strikes became illegal, working hours increased, and anyone who was deemed work-shy could be imprisoned. The KdF scheme was the carrot that was intended to distract the workers’ attention away from the civil liberties they had lost.
The purpose of the KdF scheme was, essence, to bribe workers through a series of bonuses and incentives to give greater allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi Party. These incentives included cheap and even free holidays, theatre visits, mass sporting events, and a savings scheme to enable workers to buy their own ‘People’s Car’ through instalments.
DAF used money seized from the dissolved trade unions to help finance the construction of the new car factory.
In 1938, Gezuvor was renamed Volkswagenwerk GmbH. By the end of the year it had 1,127 employees, 44 KdFs had been built, and the company recorded a sales revenue of zero. By the following year, the workforce had leaped up to 4,826, around 50 KdFs were built, but sales revenue had rocketed up to around 900,000 Reichsmark (RM).
There is an old adage that observes that “turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”. The company actually made a loss of 8.5 million RM. Cars for the people, especially with war looming, clearly wouldn’t plug so great a hole.
In September 1939, following negotiations with the German Air Force, Volkswagenwerk became an independent subcontractor for the Ju88 programme within the Junkers manufacturing network. If cars couldn’t fill the budgetary gap, then maybe making aircraft wings, repairing aircraft, and producing bombs, furnaces, and military vehicles would. The mass production techniques learned from Ford had taken a very military turn.
1940 saw the company 12.8 million in the red, despite having begun the use of forced labour. Three hundred Polish women had been allocated to the factory by the Labour Office of the State of Lower Saxony. Soon they would be joined by more than a 1,000 German military personnel who were serving prison terms. By 1941, production of the Kübelwagen (the militarised derivative of the KdF) had almost completely displaced car manufacturing, and the trading loss had diminished to a mere 200,000 RM. 1942 saw the balance sheets hit the black at last.
In 1944, two-thirds of the factory production halls were destroyed or seriously damaged by Allied daytime air-raids, and all production at the Wolfsburg factory ceased.
Hitler examines a KdF car at the Berlin Automobile & Motorcycle Show, 1939. Dr Ley is to the left of the picture, and Ferdinand Porsche to the right.
"So far, the orders placed with the factory have not been predictable and systematic. With slight exceptions ... constant
changes in order type and order volume have kept the highly qualified workforce from getting beyond the machine set-up and start-up phases and accomplishing productive armaments work.
This is why very large areas of excellent factory floor space are still standing idle today."
Rüstungskommando Brunswick, July 1940
Volkswagenwerk GmbH wartime production
1,006 military utility vehicles
41 saloons, 4,609 military utility vehicles
157 saloons, 8,549 military utility vehicles, 511 amphibious personnel carriers
303 saloons, 17,029 military utility vehicles, 8,258 amphibious personnel carriers
129 saloons, 15,005 military utility vehicles, 5,507 amphibious personnel carriers
4,329 military utility vehicles
The amphibious Schwimmwagen (nicknamed "the Frog"), using the engine and 4WD from the Type 86 Kübelwagen utility vehicle and originally based on the KdF platform, became was is possible the most numerous mass-produced amphibious vehicle ever.
By the end of the war, around 37,000 Kübelwagens - the lightweight, off-road capable car using as many KdF parts as possible - had rolled off the production lines, with barely a car in sight for the supposedly happy German workers, around a third of a million of whom had been dutifully making their deposits for their very own joyful KdF-Wagen.
The curious tale of what happened to turn the KdF into a world-recognised car after American forces captured the area in 1945 is a story for another time.
Post-war VW Beetle.
Picture by Emslichtter.
THE ROOTES GROUP
William Rootes (senior) opened his first bicycle sales and repair business in the High Street in Goudhurst, Kent. It was a small shop below the Temperance Hotel and Coffee Shop, yet it was the first step towards the creation of an engineering and automotive empire.
Bicycles may have been the order of business, but William snr. had discovered a passion for cars. It's believed that he even attended one of the first motor shows ever to be held in Britain, staged by Sir David Salomons at Dunorlan Park, Tunbridge Wells in October 1895. Within very few years Wm. Rootes, Motor Engineer, was an agent for Darracq, Napier, Swift and De Dion Bouton, selling and repairing cars.
William and his wife had seven sons, including William (Billy) junior and Reginald. Billy was bright and popular (though probably not so much so when he took his father's car when his parents were out and crashed it), and his father arranged an apprenticeship for him at Singer & Co. in 1909 - a company Billy would later go on to buy. Billy's mechanical and racing skills (he earned occasional extra money by motorcycle racing in his spare time) were combined with a strong nose for business, and he was selling Singer cars even before his apprenticeship was over. Younger brother Reginald went to work in the Admiralty.
The subsequent years would see him take over his father's Maidstone branch as manager before the onset of World War 1. During the war, Billy served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, attached to the Royal Naval Air Service, further broadening his engineering experience and vision.
The possibility of government contracts clearly alerted Billy's business sense, as on being demobbed in 1917 he established Rootes Ltd for the repair and manufacture of aero engines and aircraft parts.
After the war, Billy turned his attention back to the motor industry, joined by his younger brother Reginald. The two made a dynamic and effective team. By the late 1920's, Rootes Ltd was the largest distributor of cars in Britain.
Selling multiple marques gave the brothers a considerable insight into the car-buying public, what that public wanted, and what the market was doing to satisfy the demand.
The Rootes Group was born out of that vision, and out of the acquisition of the control of Humber Ltd, Hillman Motor Car company, and Commer Cars. Now they would use their marketing knowledge to sell the cars the public wanted.
Other interests and assets were drawn into the group, including Karrier Motors (manufacturers of light commercial and municipal vehicles), Darracq, Sunbeam, and Clement-Talbot.
In the years leading up to WW2, the British government made plans to ensure that the country would be able to meet the need for aircraft and other weapons of war - the 'Shadow Factories'.
Because of its experience in mass-production, in being able to turn out complex equipment within the deadlines demanded by commercial imperatives, the motor industry was chosen to take the lead. Quantity was important, but consistency and the flexibility to adapt to changes in the fortunes of war would also be prerequisites of the shadow factories.
In 1942 William 'Billy' Rootes was knighted for his work as Chairman of the Shadow Factory Group and as head of the Supply Council of the Ministry of Supply. He had also led the committee responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of Coventry after the German bombing of 1940.