Porsche Designs the First Volkswagen

To many of us who grew up with the car, it seems that the Volkswagen Beetle has been around forever. But it was on a summer day 75 years ago (June 22, 1934) that the Stuttgart, Germany-based company that now lives on as Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche AG received the go-ahead to build the first Volkswagen. It was the beginning of a process that would create automotive legend.

By the time his technical and design firm got the commission from the Reichsverband der Automobilindustrie (in other words, the Association of the German Reich of the Automotive Industry, or RDA), Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was already world-famous as an automotive visionary. In the course of his career that had started in the 1890s, Porsche had developed no less than seven compact and small cars for various manufacturers. As the ultimate result of these projects in terms of technology and design, he finally created the Volkswagen in 1933, presenting the concept to the Reich Ministry of Transport on Jan. 17, 1934, in his Study for the Production of a Germany People’s Car.

Because there was a close collaboration between the Nazi regime and the German auto industry, political leaders had to be convinced of the worthiness of the concept that Porsche and his constructors had developed. That process took five months after the study was submitted, but in June, 1934, Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche GmbH received the order to develop the car at the initiative of the Reich. The original agreement was to build only one prototype of the Volkswagen, but later in the year, the RDA increased the order to three cars, which were assembled in the garage of Ferdinand Porsche’s private residence.

The first Volkswagen prototype was dubbed the “V1” (for Versuchswagen, or “test car”). Though Porsche’s house was a limiting workplace, the V1 was ready to go almost exactly a year after the official development brief. Dr. Porsche presented the “saloon” to an RDA technical commission in July of 1935. The second test car, a convertible code-named “V2,” was delivered the following December.

For a time, it looked as if the Volkswagen concept might fall by the wayside not because the two prototypes were failures, but quite the contrary, because they were so good. With its central tube frame, torsion bar suspension and air-cooled four-cylinder “boxer” engine at the rear, the Volkswagen prototype was seen by the German auto manufacturers as so advanced it would become a serious competitor to their existing models. Fearing they might have to retool, the manufacturers began to pressure the RDA to drop the project. Instead, the German government -- headed by a guy named Adolph Hitler -- decided to change the game by building a separate plant for the new car, the Volkswagenwerk. Porsche was instrumental in the technical development and planning of the production facility after visiting several American automobile factories to learn the state-of-the-art techniques in car manufacture. Construction work on the factory started in May 1938 in the small town of Fallersleben (now Wolfsburg) just as a series of 30 prototypes (VW30) built by Daimler-Benz AG were concluding their large-scale testing in a regimen that covered a total of 2.4 million test kilometers.

By late 1938, the newest Volkswagen prototypes were hardly different from the subsequent production model that was poised for full-scale manufacture in 1939. Instead of a “marketing campaign,” the efforts put behind the new Volkswagen were more like a political movement. Rechristened the “KdF-Wagen,” a tangible expression of the German Reich’s “Kraft durch Freude” or “Strength through Happiness” strategy, the new beetle-shaped car was priced at an extremely low level: 990 reichsmarks. With that kind of price, it was attainable for most blue-collar workers, and the government instituted a plan in which potential purchasers were able to save 5 reichsmarks a week toward the purchase of a Volkswagen. But when World War II erupted in September of 1939, not one of the roughly 340,000 prospective buyers had reached his savings target and so not one single Volkswagen was delivered to a private customer. That would have to wait more than six excruciating years as the Hitler regime was defeated.