Tuesday, February 18, 2014

VW Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ferdinand Porsche, Adolf Hitler, and Hermann Goering (in a rare use by him of the SS uniform) look at a model of the Beetle. For anyone who remembers the Beetles of the '60s or '70s, that is just a weird time-tripping kind of photo.

The Volkswagen Beetle became the "hippie car" of the 1960s and was featured in "feel-good" Disney films such as "Herbie the Love Bug." However, many at the time did not realize that its roots extended to Nazi Germany.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Hitler inspects a VW convertible with Ferdinand Porsche. He looks happy.

Adolf Hitler decided that he wanted a cheap car that ordinary people could afford. This was one of those instances where the "Socialist" part of his party's name came into play.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Hitler's sketch of his concept of the "People's Car"

He sketched out an early concept for the car in a meeting with car designer Ferdinand Porsche at a Berlin hotel in 1935.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Volkswagen of 1941.

The production model of 1941 very closely followed Hitler's original 1935 sketch and was a practical sedan. The rounded roof was in the hard top version.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Adolf Hitler - gearhead.

Anyone seeing these early versions would instantly know they were looking at the same car that eventually evolved into Herbie the Love Bug, that is how little the design changed from the early 1940s to the 1960s.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Adolf Hitler appears amused as he finishes a visit to the Volkswagen factory, 1938. Attending are Reich Labor Leader Dr Ley (in uniform) and Professor Porsche.

Hitler stipulated that the vehicle would have four seats, an air-cooled engine and cost no more than 1,000 Reichsmarks. This would put it within reach of ordinary workers. These requirements were met.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Mr. Porsche, widely considered Germany's greatest car designer of all time, went to work. He produced a lightweight, low-riding vehicle. His company also later produced a number of tanks and other things for Hitler, but that is another story. Truth be told, he was a far better car designer than tank designer.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The VW Beetle's official introduction in 1938. June 1938: Adolf Hitler makes a speech during a cornerstone-laying ceremony to mark the start of construction of the Volkswagen factory at Fallersleben. In the foreground is the prototype Volkswagen car designed by Prof Dr F Porsche and handmade by the Mercedes Benz car factory.

The car went into production. Within three years, it was complete and ready for mass production. As with all things in Nazi Germany, there was a dark side to the affair: the used of offensive construction practices. But although VW admits to producing military parts and using slave labour, Porsche was never tried for war crimes.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
VW Beetles passing through the Brandenburg Gate in 1938

The war interrupted production, but it resumed thereafter. Volkswagen Beetle only ceased production in South America in 2013. It became one of the most-produced vehicles of all time. That is a lasting effect on society.

Berlin 1945 VW Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A few years later in Berlin

Previous Ideas: Josef Ganz

The car concept that Hitler came up with which turned into the Beetle was not completely original. The idea of a sleek air-cooled coupe had been floating around in German automative circles for years. It is worth looking at one such possible source for Hitler's idea, though by no means the only one. By providing this alternate explanation for the Beetle, I hope to prove that there is no attempt being made here to glorify Hitler for designing the Volkswagen Beetle. You may draw your own conclusion as to the extent to which Hitler "stole" the idea for the Beetle, though I also will provide my own take on the issue.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Josef Ganz with one of his designs

Paul Schilperoord claims in his book, "The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz - the Jewish engineer behind Hitler's Volkswagen," that Hitler stole the idea from a contemporary Jewish car guy, Josef Ganz. Ganz fled Germany during the pre-war years and died in 1967 - just long enough to see "Herbie the Love Bug." There are some surface and other similarities between Ganz's ideas and the Beetle. If a clear link could be established - Schilperoord would say it has been - then Volkswagen would have some 'splainin' to do about its automative history. The case basically is made by the accompanying pictures.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ganz with another of his designs

So, there is at least a possibility that Josef Ganz was the original source of the Beetle. VW puts the doubt over the car's origins down to the fact that many people at the time were talking about the concept of a small and low-priced car. It claims that through Hitler, Mr Porsche found the funding that Mr Ganz lacked and was able to make something real out of what was a popular idea. Let's look at that for a moment.

Nobody these days has any interest in defending Hitler, least of all me. However, there are two sides to every question, and not giving people who deserve it proper credit (even if they are brutal dictators) is as bad as stealing it. It may be true, as author Schilperoord claims, that Hitler saw one of Ganz's designs at a car show in 1932, and that Hitler shut down Ganz's operation not long after Hitler's meeting with Porsche in 1935. A Ganz car also had the interesting name of "May Bug." Those are mighty coincidental facts.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Ganz drawing of his proposed vehicle

However, simply seeing a car does not prove design theft - every car designer has seen cars. Some of Ganz's cars had more of a resemblance to the later Beetle than others. There is no evidence that Hitler saw any of Ganz's sketches or design notes. None of his final vehicles looked identical to Hitler's sketch or the final Beetle product. Ganz seemed more interested in designing a roadster, while Hitler had something more utilitarian in mind. Whatever else you might think, it seems clear that Hitler at least added his own input to wherever he may have gotten the larger idea for the car - and that is exactly what a car designer does.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Ganz technical sketch

If Hitler indeed shut down the Ganz operation in 1935, that would not have been unusual in Nazi Germany. Ganz was Jewish, and sadly that was happening to more and more Jews in those days. The name "May Bug" of the Ganz car certainly sticks out to modern ears, but it is unclear if the VW Beetle ever was called "the Bug" until the hippie generation of the '60s. Sometimes there are just coincidences in life.

Volkswagen Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A Ganz drawing

One could analogize it to the the development of the computer mouse. Many claim that Steve Jobs stole the mouse idea from Xerox for his Apple computer, which had a similar design in the mid-1970s and to which Jobs may have had access. However, Jobs defenders will quickly point out that the origins of the mouse actually extend decades before Xerox as well. He simply perfected the idea, added a little something to it, and made it his own. That's how design works in the real world.

Let's take one last look. First the early prototype VW Beetles, then the Ganz car. Decide for yourself.

First, the Hitler car.

VW Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com

VW Beetle worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Next, the Ganz car.

Joseph Ganz car worldwartwo.filminspector.com

Joseph Ganz car worldwartwo.filminspector.com


The truth is that designs build on each other, and no complex technical design springs to life from scratch. Car designers do not re-invent the automobile with each new model. So, even if Hitler did see the Ganz car and it stirred his thoughts, that does not mean he necessarily "stole" the idea of a lightweight, air-cooled car for the people. However, it also can never be proven that he didn't, aside from the differences in the cars themselves.



2014

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