Articles

Hitler’s Car makes a Comeback

PETER C. NEWMAN February 1 1955
Articles

Hitler’s Car makes a Comeback

PETER C. NEWMAN February 1 1955

Hitler’s Car makes a Comeback

The Führer’s “people’s car” laid a gigantic egg for the Nazis. Now in an astonishing postwar comeback, the Volkswagen is blanketing world markets and even claims it’s crowding the powerful U. S. “Big Three”

PETER C. NEWMAN

THE ONLY popular survivors of Adolf Hitler’s vision of a thousand-year Third Reich are Lilli Mar schmaltzy song about a slender dream girl, and a chubby little automobile called the Volkswagen.

The song is now seldom heard but the car is firmly established aeross the world as a sort of up-to-date Model T.

The Volkswa^ e into its own in a way its late sponsor ni have expected. Instead of becoming a mf ster for Der Führer's all-conquering Herççr car now is a symbol of democratic West y’s meteoric postwar recovery. lo bnooae

Adolf’s little autii .ttdtaee basic design was completed in 1934, ;tjfe dbegng turned out at the rate of a thousand pi*éàtÿ*in a giant factory at

Wolfsburg, just ten Curtain. An egg-shap the assembly lines of t! sixty seconds.

side of the Iron s car” now leaves us hatchery every

Today Volkswagen Arctic exploration and winners in rugged Aust of New York bank robb stand-by of nearly a ninety-three countries.

d equipment for gpafari, speed-test sings, favorites ¡11 as the sturdy inary folk in Bimotor is being

u5ed to power aircraft, speedboats and milking machines.

Volkswagen now claims it ranks after the U. S. Big Three in number of vehicles produced. Since it was introduced on this continent in 1952, Volkswagen has sold sixteen thousand vehicles in North America, including five thousand in Canada.

In Canada the car’s price ranges from about $1,600 for the custom coach to more than $3,40J for the ambulance. In spite of persistent rumors, plans for building a Canadian assembly plant aren’t beyond the “close study” stage.

“We are here,” says Werner Jensen of Toronto, head of Canadian VW sales, “to get our fair share of Canada’s small-car market, which we believe will grow as economy becomes more important to car purchasers.”

“I have just devised a plan for giving every thrifty German worker the opportunity of owning a cheap car to be known as the Volkswagen,” Hitler told a bewildered audience of German car makers at the opening luncheon of the 1934 German National Automobile Exposition. “The clear duty of all good Germans is to purchase a Volkswagen.”

The Deutsche Arbeitsfront, a Nazi Party organ which had taken over assets of the expropriated free German unions, was ordered to launch the

Volkswagen savings plan through its membership. Prospective car owners were issued special savings stamps for a five-Reichmark ($2) weekly pay envelope deduction. Price of the Volkswagen was set at RM 990 ($395). The nationwide installment plan eventually collected more than $100 millions, with nearly three hundred thousand German burghers smugly pasting up their VW savings booklets. Not a single “people’s car” was destined to get to the people who saved for it.

To design the Volkswagen Hitler picked Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, inventor of the highly successful Auto Union racing cars, and a long-time experimenter in small-car construction. Der Führer was unusually specific in his demands.

Porsche was to build a people’s automobile with a cruising speed of sixty miles per hour (to be fit for Hitler’s new superhighways called Autobahnen); it must give at least thirty miles to the gallon (gasoline had to be imported); it should hold four (so that parents could take their children with them); the engine should be air-cooled (so that owners could leave their cars outside without fear of frost). Porsche a few months later produced a working model that met the stringent specifications.

By 1937, Porsche had assembled about sixty experimental Volkswagen.

Troopers slammed them through every conceivable test around j^htee hundred thousand miles of countryside. Hitler ordered German ¿ArTactoriefr^o make sect ions of the nevf vehicle for assembly at. eleven small plants outside the country’s large cities The disgruntled automjjcers íiliHústered^fflSout who would „uild my own plant „Justry!” sputtered the

-j drew up plans for a VolksÍ works geared to an annual it of three hundred thousand. The little town of Wolfsburg on Germany’s boggy northwest plain was picked for plant and company town construction, largely because of its strategic accessibility to the prewar Reich’s main highways, rail lines and canals. At the time, Wolfsburg was little more than a castle suriounded by a few wretched huts and miles of mosquito-infested swamp.

Graf von der Schulenburg, the castle’s owner, a stiff-necked Prussian cavalry commander, paced his gloomy corridors ranting that Hitler’s auto plant would block his western exposure and spoil his sunset panorama. He never forgave the dictator and was one of the 4,980 Germans executed in the blood bath which followed the 1944 attempt on Der Führer’s life. The castle is now a state-run orphanage, but it did gain immortality. Its main battlements form the centrepiece of the VW crest which decorates the stumpy nose of every Volkswagen.

On May 26, 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone of the new plant and town. Construction, largely by Italian labor, was under the personal direction of Dr. Robert Ley, morose boss of the Strength through Joy organization.

The new plant’s executives were better Party members than car builders. Only two hundred and ten Volkswagen —all for their own use—-were completed before Hitler’s troops stormed into Poland to start World War II.

During the war the factory turned out aircraft wings, torpedo parts, searchlights, mines, bazookas, and components for VI missiles. Part of the plant became the main overhaul centre for Jupker 88s and another section was rented to Alfred Krupp of Essen for making tank hulls and turrets.

Its most important wartime activity was production of fifty thousand jeeplike Volkswagen, called Kübelwagen (bucket cars), including submersible and amphibious models. While many Nazi soldiers on the Russian front owed their lives to the little vehicles—the only transportation faster than a horse that could be started in the sub-zero temperatures;—the car’s major exploits were as part of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Unaffected by heat and resistant to sand, the Kübelwagen, painted bright yellow, formed a fast-moving advance fleet of radio scout cars, machine-gun carriers, ambulances and field-kitchen conveyors that spearheaded Rommel’s desert fighting machine.

“The Volkswagen is giving a magnificent account of itself in the desert . . . Rommel’s victories have been made possible by my timely recognition of the fact that desert warfare is a battle of machines,” Hitler modestly admitted at a general staff conference on June 22, 1942.

“I think our wartime experience justifies us in saying that the Volkswagen is the car of the future,” he later remarked. “When all the modifications dictated by war experience have been incorporated in it, the Volkswagen will become the most popular car in Europe. I should not be surprised to see annual output reach a million and a half.”

An ingenious camouflage device saved the huge Volkswagen factory from airraid damage until the spring of 1944. Raft-mounted units producing artificial fog were floated on the canal paralleling the plant and the prevailing east wind did the rest. On April 29, 1944, a crewless B bomber, hit in a night of Hamburg, crashed in laboratories, starting a roof heavy daylight raids by Eighth Air Force followed, fifty-five persons were killed Major wartime damage .uv to io tâie plaat, however, resulted from i revo® by slave laborers after prod UJBB2L,{^9| almost halted. The day after the Nazi High Command cut off iff all all terials—on Feb. 16, 1945 1945 slave Jaborers staged a short bitter iit ter : i aek on the older Gestapo guards replaced younger Army to the front. The attack was and the laborers were im When the Second British Arm\ reached Wolfsburg early y in in Apr», Üfepjj remaining slave laborers, supp irted by a wave of starving refug ffugeesBe» the Russians, attacked the the pl^^Ka ad wrecked the remaining ig macflser v. They had heard rumors Nazis had cached stores of 11 oarded food in the factory. After the British arrived all slave laborers in he, town were freed.

Too Noisy for Britain

Invading British troops few outlying sheds as a depot. Almost immediately, ful of unemployed German brought out the prewar V dies and with the lone press secretly hand-tooled a roofless corner of the In spite of the Four Power mobile construction, officials flew one of England. Government dared the vehicle too tainly too primitive ever to compete with British products.

After U. K. car manufacturers had turned up their noses at the plant’s crumbling machinery MBrar reparations, the Ruasians dqtoaBe^|permission to dismantle the ftuBuH ^«setting up in East GermanyA Ooihpbl Radclyffe, the U. K.’s indxratrodization officer for the district, realizing that his army would soon l»e cqt off from spare jeep parts by the end of U. S. lend-lease, stopped the Reds and called in an unemployed German automobile executive, Dr. E. H. (Heinz) Nordhoff, to reactivate the plant.

Nordhoff is a 'Cértíphífct, blue-eyed engineer-sale&W*h,fc has since blended a cosmopolitan business outlook with Geu»anlCfj|fficiency to become one of osuccessful car makers. won

In 1947 Npïdbofï was part of the wreckage of poster Germany. Because of hi^j.pqpLr^dtions to the Nazi war machinées head truck

factory at Brandenburg, U. S. occupation autTipmié^'had forbidden him to do atlÿthhi^' but manual labor in their zo^d&V

The second of three sons of a smalltown bawtw, Nèrdhoff was born near Wolfsbfdg-tin Ii399. Shot through the kneeanwMs ymrving in the Kaiser’s army„fte J&p&r attended the Technical Univprai^y a$ Charlottenburg. In 1930, he joi^ih*Males organization of Opel, the German General Motors subsidiary andwisited Detroit and Oshawa for a firstháttd l(jók at North American sales artd !fyrtkJèétion methods.

^At'Wolfsburg, I inherited a wrecked faetíHJy, a helpless town, and an uttwly tiiiiirganized group of half-starved wptk*r»,^painfully turning out a few cars a day,” Nordhoff recalls. “There was only one chance; the Volkswagen as a car.”

For nine years people had no cars; they lined up at the factory for Volkswagens

“A factory like Volkswagen,” he says, “just couldn’t stand still. My daily job was to keep it evolving in the right direction.” He admits reluctantly that progress has been “somewhat spectacular.”

When Nordhoff arrived in Wolfsburg be called his shabby working force together: “If we work hard enough,

we can make over this plant and this dead town. If not, we’ll die with them,” he warned.

The biggest obstacle was lack of raw materials. Suppliers balked at being paid in the fluctuating Reichsmarks. The major sheet-metal producer would deliver only in exchange for cattle, and only potatoes sent to textile mills would obtain upholstering fabric. Because Wolfsburg had been planned as a self-sufficient community, there was a large factory farm at hand to provide the barter articles and feed productionline workers. Finished cars were also traded for food, with the first postwar Volkswagen bringing twelve pigs.

With nine years of pent-up automobile demand in Europe to fill, Volkswagen salesmen waited at factory gates every night to drive away their quota of the rising output. But Germany’s 1948 currency reform, which supplanted ten Reichsmarks with one new Deutschemark, nearly wiped out the struggling plant. Finding he couldn’t meet his payroll, Nordhoff telephoned his dealers for help. They arrived next morning carrying all the cash they could raise and VW survived its last major crisis.

Germany’s state railway still remembers the rush to Wolfsburg. All Volkswagen-bound passenger trains now have at least two compartments per coach fitted as compact offices where dealers can dictate correspondence to railway-employed stenographers. The Wolfsburg plant sprawls over 770 acres, with floor space covering five million square feet.

The factory has its own foundry, textile mill and machine shops. Unlike North American car building, there’s almost no subcontracting. It takes exactly twenty hours to convert incoming sheet metal into a shining Volkswagen. The job requires 3,900 machines, 20,900 men and 2,100 women.

The company is so certain of its manufacturing techniques that finished VWs aren’t put through any major preshipment test3. Technicians trained to hear, feel, see and smell defects drive each car over a seven-mile course between its final assembly point and the railway station. On the quick drive, they run through a four-page, 129point check list. Inside the plant, a 1,500-man inspection team checks on each of the vehicle’s 5,500 parts. There’s also a roving crew of superinspectors inspecting the inspection staffs.

To hurry production, Nordhoff keeps raw material constantly flowing into the plant, but completed cars are never stock-piled. “This pressure-vacuum principle exerts a psychological speedup influence on assembly lines, which has been mainly responsible for the reduction to a hundred man hours per car now needed, from the four hundred when I took over,” he claims.

Nordhoff now lives quietly with his blond wife and two teen-age daughters in a company-owned house on the outskirts of Wolfsburg. A collector of

first editions and modern art, he is serious about his hobbies-—hunting, gardening, building ship models—but finds little time for them. Up at 6.30 every morning, he drives his own Volkswagen to work. His salary, never officially revealed, has been estimated at $25,000 a year.

Has the Wolfsburg venture been a financial success? Guessing Volkswagen’s balance sheet has become a favorite parlor game of West German industrialists. Financial statements are not published, but a nominal asset value of DM 60 ($15) millions is believed to have been put on the plant, with a four-percent dividend set aside annually for the hypothetical owners. Sales are thought to be running at more than DM 600 ($150) millions a year, with probably ten percent being salted away for depreciation.

But Hitler’s twenty-year-old political promise of transportation for his trusting followers today keeps the company in a state of permanent receivership. The Deutsche Arbeitsfront was dissolved in 1945 and its funds, held by the Bank of German Labor, confiscated by the Russians. The 300,000 prewar Volkswagensparer (and their heirs) promptly organized themselves into The Society for the Relief of Former Volkswagen Savers. They went to court on Dec. 1, 1952, to demand cars at production price, minus their initial investment. One judge ruled the claim legitimate, but VW appealed the decision and last December the West German high federal court threw out all claims against the company.

A Down Payment on Freedom

The courts will also have to rule whether the plant belongs to the Bonn Government (as the Nazi regime’s heirs) or to the men who have built up the present factory. This legal dispute dates back to October 1949, when the British refused to decide the tricky problem and simply handed the Volkswagen plant to the federal German government for administration. Chancellor Adenauer delegated management authority to the state of Lower Saxony, where Wolfsburg is located and set up a nineteen member board of control which still runs the company.

Right after the war, Volkswagen’s labor turnover was nearly a hundred percent. East Zone refugees, including priests, doctors and even one deposed state minister, streamed in just long enough to earn a down payment for their continued flight westward. Today only fifty-two employees qualify as alte Hasen (old hares), an affectionate term for those with the company more than ten years. The plant has never had a strike and did not participate in the recent German labor flareups, although Red propaganda is aimed at Wolfsburg in a constant effort to stir up trouble.

Monthly pay of assembly-line workers now averages DM 460 ($115), five percent above the prevailing industrial wage. Nordhoff' last year paid employees a four-percent wage bonus —one of Germany’s first industrial profit-sharing plans.

Employees have a company-supplemented government pension scheme and many extras such as medical treatment, daily lunch at the 9,500place factory banquet hall, a duck at Christmas, and a free two-week holiday at Volkswagen-owned resorts in the Harz Mountains and on the North

Sea. The firm sends a cheque to employee weddings and for each new baby. Every possible labor situation is covered by regulations. Three days off are granted at the death of a relative, but only two days for a honeymoon.

An integral part of the Volkswagen setup is the town of Wolfsburg, built by Hitler as a dormitory for the works. At the war’s end it looked like the Hollywood version of a derelict Texas ghost town. Now prosperous, Wolfsburg remains a town planner’s nightmare.

There are streets without houses and homes checkered over the roadless countryside. Only sidewalks of Der Bummel—the main street—were completed before the war. Wolfsburgers today take their Sunday strolls along Der Bummel, watching frogs playing in the surrounding muskeg, intended for their luxury stores and theatres. There’s little incentive for private housing because, like the plant, Wolfsburg’s ownership is in dispute and no land titles are permanent. The company has built four thousand employee apartments, two churches, a 540-bed hospital, a swimming pool, a sports stadium and a theatre. VW apartments rent for twenty dollars a month (two bedrooms); all dwelling blocks have communal reading, music and games rooms. Staff buildings and their furnishings suggest usefulness more than comfort.

Wolfsburg’s main topic of conversation is the Volkswagen. It’s a peppy little pup, surprisingly roomy and comfortable. With its thirty-horsepower air-cooled engine in the rear, the car weighs only 1,565 pounds, can hold four and does up to sixty-eight miles per hour at thirty-eight miles to the gallon.

“This car is not only a wonderfully efficient roadworthy little machine, but it is additionally entertaining to the motoring enthusiast because of its unique mechanical delights which he keeps discovering as he drives,” U. S. auto expert Ralph Stein commented after a recent test drive. The London Economist declares: “The Volkswagen provides most satisfactory motoring.”

The car’s worst feature is its slow acceleration—zero to fifty miles per hour takes twenty-four seconds. Probably its chief selling point is the aircooled engine, requiring no anti-freeze.

The 943^-inch wheel base leaves little extra room but there’s a luggage compartment behind the back seat and storage space under the hood between the gas tank and the spare tire. A speedometer and five colored warning lights are the only dashboard instruments. The lights show when the ignition is on, whether the lights are bright and whether the turn indicators are in use.

The dying cough of the motor is the only indication there’s no more gas in the tank, but there’s a cut-in valve at toe level to switch the motor to a small emergency tank. For those who like tea while traveling, a new water-boiling gadget is available that fits on the engine’s exhaust pan.

Though it was not designed for racing, the car keeps winning world speed tests. Last June a Volkswagen made a record crossing of Australia, covering the tough two thousand miles in just over thirty-eight hours. At the Coronation Safari in east Africa, fiftyone cars began the 8,000-kilometre desert course; only fourteen finished. Of the half-dozen VW starters, all finished to claim the first six prizes in their class.

In the Netherlands, farmers run their milking machines with VW engines. A Hamburg firm has started producing speedboats with the VW motor and a

French manufacturer is turning out a single-seat aircraft powered by VW engines. A Saskatchewan farmer has adapted the engine to run the vibrators of his harvester. In northern British Columbia, log-hauling winches are being operated with VW motors and an Ontario firm will soon start producing snowmobiles, using VW power units.

Most unforeseen has been the car’s rising popularity with New York bank robbers. Their fondness for the Volkswagen arises from its ability to weave in and out of traffic where large police cars can’t follow. Manhattan policemen now keep close tab on VWs parked outside banks with their motors running.

VW’s dealer setup now numbers twenty-five hundred outlets in ninetythree countries, with exports accounting for forty percent of factory output. Assembly plants, turning out eighteen hundred cars a month, have been set up in Mexico, Brazil, Ireland, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The Volkswagen now is not only the most popular vehicle in Germany but tops its class also in Belgium, the

Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Portugal, Peru and Indonesia. Sales this year are being extended into Thailand, Kenya, Burma and the Belgian Congo. A Brussels department store made merchandising history last February by filling part of its street sales floor with a fleet of VWs. Customers drove out a hundred a week.

Selling this unorthodox vehicle is a sort of sport among dealers. A guidebook tells them exactly how to deal with forty-one types of potential customers, including bullies and absentminded professors. Nordhoff has already given away thirty thousand of the gold-plated pocket watches he promises to any VW buyer who drives his car sixty-two thousand miles (a hundred thousand kilometres) without a major repair. A Toronto musician expects to get the first golden timepiece in Canada.

While demand for the twenty-yearold design shows no sign of slackening, the Volkswagen has not yet become a true people’s car. In Germany it now costs the equivalent of ten months’ work. Only one of twenty-three VW employees can afford to drive his own handiwork.

Will Nordhoff convert the 1934 design to a bigger, more powerful auto or will he slash overhead, throw out the few remaining extras and produce a real “car of the people” to make the Hitlerian dream come true?

It’s rumored that a well-guarded concrete garage in Wolfsburg already holds the Volkswagen of tomorrow. But Nordhoff is impatiently blunt about the future. He says: “When

the time comes for a new model we’ll have one.” ★