Volkswagen Was Founded by the Nazis, and the Cute Beetle Was Hitler’s Dream Car
In 2016, Volkswagen took the lead from Toyota as the world’s biggest car manufacturer, producing over 6 million automobiles, and employing 626,000 people worldwide. The company, whose iconic VW Beetle is so cute and popular it became the star of Disney’s Herbie the Love Bug movie franchise, came a long way from its Nazi origins. Indeed, the VW Beetle owes its creation to two men: engineer Ferdinand Porsche, and Fuhrer Adolph Hitler.
In the 1930s, Germany’s automobile industry was geared towards luxury cars that were beyond the means of most Germans. There was no domestic equivalent of the mass-produced and affordable Ford Model-T, so average Germans had to make do with motorcycles for personal transport, or do without. Most did without, and only 2 percent of Germans owned a car.
Such a low rate of car ownership made Germany a huge potential market for an affordable automobile, and many sought to take the lead by launching “people’s car” projects (volks wagen in German). One such was Ferdinand Porsche, a well-known racecar and luxury automobile designer, who sought to interest manufacturers in his design for a small and affordable family car. In 1933, Porsche built his concept car, a forerunner of the VW Beetle, which he named the Volksauto. It had a torsion suspension, and a beetle shape, with a rounded front hood for better aerodynamics to compensate in part for a small air-cooled rear engine.
After the Nazis came into power in 1933, Hitler jumped on the “people’s car” bandwagon, and in February of 1933, just weeks after becoming Reich Chancellor, he announced plans for a “people’s motorization”. In 1934, the Fuhrer issued a decree for the production of a basic car capable of transporting two adults and three children at 62 mph, while costing only 990 Reichsmarks – about U$ 400 in the 1930s. Hitler fell in love with Ferdinand Porsche’s design, but Germany’s auto industry could not produce a car for that price in its existing plants. So Hitler ordered up a state-owned factory to produce the Volkswagen.
Paid for through a savings plan of about 5 Reischmark a week at a time when the average weekly income was about 32 RM, the new car was within the financial means of most Germans. Construction of the new factory began in May of 1938 in a new town purpose-built for Volkswagen workers, Wolfsburg – Germany’s richest city today, with a GDP per capita of about U$130,000 because of its thriving auto industry. However, only a few cars had been built when WWII began in 1939, and the factory retooled from consumer cars to military manufacture.
After the war, Volkswagen resumed civilian production. The company was offered to American, British, and French car manufacturers, all of whom rejected it – including Ford, who declined even though it was offered to them free of charge. By 1946, VW was producing about 1000 car a month, and by 1948, it was becoming an icon of West Germany’s economic revival, and beginning its rise to global automotive dominance.