Two names emerge in the origin that comes from the official history of the Volkswagen Beetle: Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche. Genocidal was the ideologist of having a popular car as part of Nazi propaganda. An engineer, Porsche was responsible for shaping the Führer’s mandate.
Both Austrian-born, the two were friends, much so that while one committed suicide at the regime’s fall, another was imprisoned. Yet a third Austrian was important in constructing one of the great myths of the automotive industry. Hans Ledwinka was his name.
Born February 14, 1878, in Klosterneuburg, near Vienna, the engineer, unknown to many, could be considered the grandfather of the Beetle if you take Porsche as the father of the model. It is not that there was a respectful relationship between the two, but that the car designed by Hitler’s friend was the product of a copy that even led Volkswagen to lose a lawsuit two decades after its launch.
This is the prehistory of the European vehicle par excellence of the 20th century, competing in popularity with the Ford T; even though if the Beetle prevails in something, it is its longevity: no car has remained on the market for 74 years until its discontinuation in 2020.
But even its presence is superior if we take as a reference that it was presented in society in 1938 and that its production was delayed by the beginning of World War II. This chronicle is precisely about that previous stage.
Beetle, a global symbol
That a car has its own celebration is the product of a tradition of many years of success. Every June 22, therefore, is celebrated as the International Day of the Volkswagen Beetle, one of the most iconic vehicles in the automotive industry. Though related to its origins in Germany, the initiative came from Brazil, one of the countries where it took root the strongest, along with Mexico.
This holiday began in 1995. Alexander Gromow, president of the Volkswagen Club of Brazil, suggested it. This date was chosen because on that day, in 1934, a contract was signed between the Association of the German Automobile Industry and Ferdinand Porsche to create the model. And that’s where the other story begins.
Volkswagen is now threatening to sue a Chinese manufacturer, the Great Wall because it has released a line of electric models that are a faithful copy of the Beetle. So far, the threat has remained just a pretense.
However, German car giant Great Wall has already had experience in court over issues related to plagiarized patents. Tatra, an obscure firm from the former Czechoslovakia where Hans Ledwinka was one of its brains, won the trial.
Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche agreed that Germany needed a popular car. Hitler wanted to use it as a propaganda tool for his populist and criminal machinery. Still, he also thought of it as a war variant. The engineer had, in fact, been commissioned to design a modular car: the body, when removed, had to be able to carry three men, one machine gun, and a good amount of ammunition to be used as a battle vehicle if necessary.
Porsche was instructed by the German Association of the Automotive Industry in 1934 to create a popular car called “Kraft Durch Freude” (Kdf, for Strength through Joy), after the Nazi organization for recreational activities. Indeed, he was one of a trio of candidates for the project, two of which were vetoed by the regime because of their Jewish origin: Joseph Ganz and Edmund Rumpler.
Hitler did not know how to drive, but he followed the project’s development closely. Hitler saw in mass production the possibility of offering employment and giving the workers the feeling that they were making cars for themselves.
Ford applied the same concept when he mass-produced the Model T: the vehicle had to be within reach of those who produced it. This is how the originally intended Joy Car (Kdf Wagen) came to be called Volks-Wagen, or the People’s Car.
The other brand behind the Beetle, Tatra
Hans Ledwinka, at 29, developed a four-cylinder, 3.3-liter engine, christened NW Type S. In 1912, he was appointed head of the design office and created the Type U, which became the Tatra 10 in 1920, after the Nesseldorfer-Wagenbau company where he had worked since 1906, renamed Tatra.
Its successor, the Tatra 11, became the model with which production was resumed after the First World War. Following the spirit of that successful car, Ledwinka worked on a prototype that was to be revolutionary. Ledwinka worked with the Austrian Paul Jaray, an engineer trained in Prague who was a pioneer in aerodynamics and the creator of the Graff Zeppelin and Hindenburg airships, among others.
They both focused on a compact and economical automobile. The Tatra V570 prototype was born. This was a 3.8-meter-long compact with a 0.8-liter air-cooled rear engine, designed by the Czechoslovak company as a “people’s car” for their country. Ledwinka knew Hitler; in fact, they even shared a dinner, in which Porsche was also present, and discussed projects.
Both continued on their parallel paths, the one in Czechoslovakia and the other in Germany. During that time, Porsche communicated to the German Ministry of Industry its vision of a famous car: an air-cooled rear engine with four flat cylinders, independent four-wheel drive and torsion bar suspensions. Same concepts as the Tatra V570, the final version of which, under the 97 name, was released in 1936, just two years before the Beetle.
When Hitler set the price for VW Beetle
On May 26 1938, Adolf Hitler was present at laying the foundation stone for the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg. The Fuhrer wanted the new car to have the approximate value of a motorcycle, around 990 marks. However, Porsche had warned him that the cost should be close to 1,500 marks because of the level of investment required.
KdF-Wagen was developed thanks to the contribution of 340,000 investors who put money on account for their car’s construction but never got to drive it. With World War II’s outbreak, the Wolfsburg factory was used for the construction of vehicles for military use and for high-ranking Nazi officials.
Only after the war ended did the Volks-Wagen production for private customers begin in December 1945. Ledwinka was already furious as soon as the Beetle prototype became known in 1938. Tatra denounced Volkswagen for plagiarism, and Hitler intervened in the conflict in his own way: He stopped the production of the T97, and only 508 units were produced.
The suit went to court after the war, by which time Tatra was already an industry of a communist country amid the Cold War. The lawsuit was settled in 1961 in favor of the Czechoslovak company, which received 30 million marks in compensation from Volkswagen.
By then, Porsche had already set up his company, a reference in German sports cars, after two years in prison in France for his collaboration with Hitler. Ledwinka, who spent five years in prison in Czechoslovakia, also accused of collaborating with the Nazis, was similarly charged.
Only after the fall of communism were his contributions to the automotive world recognized, and he was inducted into the European Automotive Hall of Fame in 2007. Hans Ledwinka died in 1957 in Munich, away from the lights of success that his talent deserved.
Beetle, the car with curved lines that became an icon recognizable only from its silhouette, lived a life of 81 years and 24 million units was built. From 1938, upon the presentation of the first model, until the last unit of the New Beetle, a modern version that replaced the original in 2003, rolled out of the Mexican plant in Puebla in July 2019. A legend on wheels.