America had Ford, Chrysler and Buick, but Adolf Hitler also wanted a car that would transform his nation. The desire to create a ‘People’s Car’ was symptomatic of Nazi Germany’s broader policy and ideology that was fuelling their attempts to revive the German economy post-World War One in order to facility a new war. So, how did Nazi Germany create the People’s Car – Volkswagen?
New roads but no cars
One of the key policies that was introduced by Nazi Germany to reinvigorate the economy was the major construction project that led to the creation of the autobahn. The construction effort led to the mass employment of many Germans in order to create a large enough workforce in order to build Hitler’s major project as quickly as possible.
The autobahn was seen as a project to show off both the might of Germany’s economy, the strength of its workforce, but also its forward thinking and modern mindset. It was a project so close to the mind of Adolf Hitler that he originally wanted to call the new motorways Straßen Adolf Hitlers, which translates as ‘Adolf Hitler’s roads’.
However, despite making Germany, its cities and growing factories, more connected than ever, as well as hypothetically facilitating the rapid movement of Germany’s army, there was an obvious flaw: the people for which they were seemingly built for mostly did not own vehicles or even drive. This led to a new focus and another element of the Kraft durch Freude or ‘Strength through Joy’ initiatives.
The race to build a ‘People’s Car’
Only 1 in 50 Germans owned a car by the 1930s, and it was a massive market that many car companies wanted to tap into. They began designing many affordable car models both inside Germany and in neighbouring countries as the German economy began to recover and grow.
One of these early designs caught the eye of Hitler and the Nazi Germany government. It was called the Volksauto by famous race car designer Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche was well-known to Hitler, and despite his own inability to drive, Hitler was fascinated by car design and cars themselves. It made the pairing an obvious one for the new Volkswagen project.
Pairing Porsche’s early Volksauto design with some of Hitler’s own, funded by state money, and powered by the growing Nazi state economy – the KdF-Wagen was created, named after the Strength through Joy initiative. Its design, which modern eyes would see as being very close to the famous VW Beetle, still exists to this day.
Designed for the ‘volk’ or for a different purpose?
However, the Volkswagen or KdF-Wagen had a crucial flaw. While being more affordable, it still was not affordable enough to be able to achieve the supposed dream set out by Hitler for every German family to own a car and for Germany to be a fully motorised country. In order to meet these goals, payment plans were created for German families to invest some of their monthly salary into in order to save up and buy a KdF-Wagen.
Huge factories were built to increase the number of KdF-Wagens being produced, with an entire city being created to house not only a new mega-factory but also the workers called “Stadt des KdF-Wagens” that would become the modern day city of Wolfsburg. However, this factory only managed to produce a very limited number of cars by the time war started in 1939, none of which were delivered to the people who had invested thousands into the saving plans.
Instead both the factory and the KdF-Wagen was adapted to a war economy to create other vehicles such as the Kübelwagen or the famous Schimmwagen using the same base design as the KdF-Wagen. In fact, in the early design process for the KdF-Wagen, Nazi officials demanded that Porsche made it possible for it to be able to hold the weight of a mounted machine gun on its front…
Evolution from KdF-Wagen to Volkswagen
So, how did the KdF-Wagen finds its modern footing as the Volkswagen Beetle? In the post-war period, the city created to create the KdF-Wagen was handed over to British control. British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst visited the factory and had begun the process of dismantling the factory as it had been deemed more a political symbol than an economic one so was to be demolished.
However, while in the city Hirst was presented with the remains of an old KdF-Wagen that had been sent to the factory for repairs. Hirst saw potential and had the car repaired and painted in British green and presented it to the British military government in Germany as a potential design for its staff due to a shortage in light transport within the British Army.
The first few hundred cars went to personnel from the occupying British government, and to the German Post Office. Some British personnel were even allowed to take their new cars back home.
The symbol of recovery and a new era
It was this revised design by the post-war factory that would provide the template for the VW Beetle as the factory and the city around it rebranded themselves as Volkswagen and Wolfsburg respectively. The Volkswagen company was offered by the British to Ford, who refused to take up the option as they saw the project as a financial failure waiting to happen.
Instead Volkswagen remained in German hands, and became a symbol of the West German economic and social recovery in the post-war era before becoming one of the most recognisable cars not just in West Germany, but eventually the Western World. It would eventually surpass the Ford Model T’s sales records.
For more on this story, be sure to check out the recent documentary on Timeline – World History’s YouTube Channel: