It has been 75 years since the Volkswagen factory almost became the spoils of war for the British in 1947. The largely unknown story of a grandiose misjudgment.
From Harald Kaiser
The process was guarded like a state secret. The investigation into the British that was at stake was extremely explosive in terms of industry and global politics. None of the other three victorious powers of defeated Germany, the USA, the USSR and France, were allowed to get wind of the intentions shortly after the end of World War II. Otherwise desires might have been aroused.
The British, in whose occupied area the Wolfsburg region was also located, under total protection had extensive tests checked to see what chances of success the Volkswagen Beetle had. Because there was the idea of building it yourself. The secret investigation in 1946 came to an unequivocal verdict: one could not recommend that "this vehicle be regarded as an example of first-class, modern construction methods that should be copied by British industry". And further: "In view of the general appearance, we are of the opinion that the construction is not particularly brilliant."
The lead management of this analysis was in the hands of an organization that at the time was largely secretive, the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (BIOS), which examined in particular the quality and usability of German technology. Sir William Rootes, at that time a major car manufacturer in England with a lot of influence and whose companies were also involved in assessing the Beetle, found drastic words against the Krauts car: “Too ugly and too loud. A car model like this will remain popular for two or three years, if at all. "
Volkswagen instead of reparation payments?
To this day, a broader public in Germany is unlikely to know that the government of the United Kingdom had the right at the time and, despite this investigation report, had originally taken the decision to ship the Volkswagen factory as spoils of war with all its patents, machines and tools to Great Britain and for its own benefit to use. For example, as an advance payment for later reparation payments by the Germans.
In 1947, 75 years ago now, the marching orders for the VW plant were finally withdrawn. However, like the original intention to dismantle, this decision remained secret for decades. That didn't change until 1996 when BIOS Report No. 998 was published as a book in England. Three years later, Heel-Verlag, Königswinter, published it in German under the title “The Files: VW Beetles”. This describes the procedure of the British experts in detail. From September 1943 to February 1946, they dismantled two variants of the Beetle down to the last screw, meticulously inspecting and testing each individual part. It was a limousine (built in 1946) and a technically identical Wehrmacht bucket car (built in 1941) captured by the English troops on the German campaign in Africa.
Because the BIOS people themselves had no competence to give an expert judgment on the construction of the hostile German car, the local association of car manufacturers and dealers (Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders) was commissioned with the expertise. Were involved
- AC Cars Ltd. (for general assessment),
- the British Ford subsidiary / Dagenham (for overall construction),
- the Humber Ltd./Roots Group (for design and production),
- the Singer Motors Ltd./Roots Group (for driving tests)
- as well as Solex Ltd. (for fuel supply / carburetor).
On the one hand, answers should be found to two central questions: Can the British auto industry learn something from the Germans? And does it possibly make sense to technically gut the plant and bring the equipment to the island kingdom? On the other hand, those in power also had to take into account that the British auto industry would clap clandestinely if, under the guise of an official government decision, a potential competitor was either eliminated by dismantling or passed into British possession.
For a long time there was a risk of dismantling the production facilities
If the latter were to occur, VW would no longer be a foreign competitor who could export cars to England in peacetime and steal market share from domestic manufacturers, but a domestic competitor who could be dealt with differently. Or, another variant, the Beetle ends up in the model range of an English manufacturer.
If that had happened, the Volkswagen global corporation as it is today would have existed just as little as the warm rain of countless billions of marks for the state and employees due to the international success of this car. The blessings were mainly due to the far-sighted and circumspect British and Heinrich Nordhoff, the general manager from January 1948 to April 1968, who constantly improved the car and exported it all over the world. “The city and the company are one, and the passport in Nordhoff's territory is a blue company ID,” SPIEGEL cheered in August 1955. Each furniture retailer gave 1000 or 2000 marks credit unseen on this ID
Although the risk of dismantling actually existed for some time immediately before Nordhoff took office, it was more theoretical. Because at that time the British were looking for replacements in view of their military vehicles, which had been badly battered during the war. So it made sense to use the production possibilities of the VW plant, which were limited by bomb damage, and in this way to meet the company's own high demand for vehicles.
For example, the management of the VW plant was commissioned by the British military government to build 1945 limousines as early as 20.000, with a view to the competitive situation as well as its own acute needs. In addition, the Control Commission for Germany / British Zone, based in Bad Oeyenhausen, made it clear at an early stage that it was responsible for Germany and that it would not allow itself to be degraded to the side of the domestic industry.
The Board of Control, a kind of British supervisory board of the Volkswagen plant, which had since been renamed Wolfsburg Motor Works, was of a similar opinion. It was thought that dismantling the company would be irresponsible to the residents of Wolfsburg because there were no alternative employment opportunities. Instead, the decisive British authorities such as the Foreign Ministry and the Treasury Secretary voted for an increase in production in order to be able to export the Volkswagen. This was also because the Treasury Minister was very interested in additional income in order to relieve the budget of occupation costs. On top of that, the export of the Volkswagen promised foreign exchange.
"The most successful car company ever founded by the British"
In September 1946, the original dismantling order was finally suspended by the military government for an initial period of four years. And on July 23, 1947, Major Ivan Hirst, Senior Resident Officer of the military government and member of the control commission of the VW plant, announced in a factory manager meeting that it was "almost certain to be assumed that the removal of the plant is out of the question". Thus VW remained in German hands.
The BIOS assessment, however, that nothing can be done with the “German People's Car”, neither militarily nor civilly, remains one of the most terrific misjudgments in economic history. Without a doubt with purely selfish intentions, the (industry) report mocked the allegedly weak engine, considered the vehicle noise to be unbearable and also found that the car was extremely ugly and had too complicated a heating system.
In view of the brilliant success story of the VW Beetle, CEO Carl Hahn ironically put it years later that the Volkswagen plant, which the British thankfully brought back to life after the war, is "the most successful car company ever founded by the British" . Using a metaphor from football, one could also say that the British have messed up a whole series of penalties in the legendary Wembley Stadium in London on an empty German goal with the BIOS assessment.
Having grown up on the edge of the zone and eventually becoming the engine of the German economic miracle, the car from the German provinces has not only got people moving. Those who drove the car turned personally into the road of increasing affluence. The Volkswagen’s recipe for success was based on characteristics that in some points also applied to the driver: reliability, unpretentiousness, robustness and economy. Like few cars after him, the VW Beetle became a favorite
- by young, dynamic entrepreneurs. He brought you reliably from business meeting to business meeting. That was by no means a matter of course for the quality standards of the time;
- from family fathers. On Sundays, kids and cones were packed into the VW and off we went to the countryside. The engine never stuttered, but the more so the installment payments;
- of cops. At the time, the VW as the Green Minna was considered an ultra-modern car that could only be left behind by gangster limousines of larger caliber;
- of bachelors. Whenever it was too risky to take the Queen of Hearts with you to the furnished room, which is strictly monitored by the landlady, the Beetle offered itself as a meeting place. A lover's car in a double sense;
- of students. For them, there was hardly a cheaper and more reliable car. Anyone who set aside 1500 marks from the money from an odd job could buy a third-hand Beetle in good condition,
- and from do-it-yourselfers. Dented fenders? A trip to the junkyard solved the problem for little money. Assembling was child's play.
So the hunchbacked car rattled at the end in the Olympus of the car gods, where it has long occupied a front seat. A vehicle whose key success factor was to drive on the streets of classlessness. Whether a rich button or a poor swallower, the Beetle was a everyone's car that did not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the thickness of the purse.
And, as if it were the ironic final chord of a fictional story about automobile history, decades after the end of the Beetle scramble, British brands such as Mini, Rolls Royce and Bentley are now in German ownership: Mini and Rolls Royce belong to BMW, Bentley has been part of the Reich since 1998 the almost spoiled Volkswagen.