Battle for the Beetle
Vintage Volkswagen Club of America website - October 2003
The battle, the one Karl Ludvigsen is talking about in the title of his book, is the battle by the different victorious allies about who would end up with the trophy price, Hitler's Volkswagen factory and the car, after the war. The attempt to build a car for the German people, a Volkswagen, has been a struggle or battle all along. The battle about who would end up with it is part of the Volkswagen history, usually not very well covered, or if it is covered at all, much of the information presented is wrong.
Like most German industrial products and facilities, Volkswagen was declared as being available after the war to anyone of the victors for the asking. The Volkswagen factory was only temporarily taken of the reparations list because of it, at present, being utilized for building the Kübelwagen and later the Beetle, for the allies. This decision was not irreversible as Ludvigsen points out and could have been easily rescinded at anytime someone could make a convincing claim for Volkswagen. In other words during the four years Volkswagen was protected from being dismantled because of its work for the allies, a claim for it could have been made anyway. As a matter of fact, during the first four years, Radclyffe and Hirst approached a number of individuals, nations and companies to get them interested in Volkswagen.
Some did come by and have a look and some showed some interest in getting all or parts of Volkswagen. Ford Motor Company is the company that came closest to a take over of the plant. The attempts of disposing part or all of Volkswagen takes up a major part of Ludvigsen's book. He has found a lot of information in different archives that do add a lot to our knowledge of this period. The Ford archives were especially revealing by giving details about Ford's attempt of acquiring Volkswagen. The part I found most interesting is the role Heinrich Nordhoff played in trying to convince Ford to make Volkswagen part of his empire. Nordhoff, the man who ran Volkswagen for twenty years is widely considered the savior of Volkswagen and a hero, because of his insistence on a one-model policy. In 1948 he actually played a major role in trying to convince Ford to take over Volkswagen. Nordhoff and a vicepresident at Ford were buddies from their days at General Motors and they did make a run for it. If the Ford Motor Company had taken over Volkswagen they would have used the factory to build cars there for the European market, which would have made a lot of sense. It wouldn't have been the Beetle but another Ford designed car. It is understandable that the public relations department at Volkswagen does not want to talk about this episode very much. In the end Nordhoff got lucky that the take over did not take place, after all it turned out that Volkswagen under his leadership did quite weil, as we all know.
The book also covers all the other individuals and companies who made attempts to get all, or in most cases just part of the facilities, especially the modern tools and machinery were very attractive to many. To take Volkswagen, as a whole would have been just too much to handle by most of the interested parties, after all it was the largest car manufacturing plant in the world. And how could one move the buildings themselves. They British occupiers, who were in charge of handing out the pie, however did not entertain the thought of giving only part of the company away; this would have made the rest of it less valuable or may be even useless. One interesting aspect in all of these dealings is that most of those who came looking were not interested in the car itself.
It is unfortunate that the books title and subtitle are actually misnomers, because it covers more than just the take-over attempts. Large parts of the book are devoted to and include extensive information about how the Volkswagen idea had influenced other car developments in many different countries. These cars, especially the ones from England and France, are well covered and researched and a lot of detailed information is included in the book.
The financial relationship between Porsche and Volkswagen, a chapter I personally find especially interesting and usually have a lot to say about, is well covered. From the books title the average reader is not made aware of how much well researched information of the entire Volkswagen history is included.
Here are some hints as to the detailed information one can find in the book.
- 1. The assessment by Americans. Opinions by American experts and journalists voiced about Volkswagen during their visits to Germany in the thirties. Analyses made by the army on captured Kübelwagens and Schwimwagens captured by the allies during the fighting in Africa. Later, the same cars would be tested and analyzed by General Motors and Ford at their own proving grounds.
- 2. The reluctance of the government of the state in which the Volkswagen factory was located to take over Volkswagen after it was offered by the British, all they had to do is say yes.
- 3. The fact that some countries as weil as factories, which had shown interest in Volkswagen, did like the factory but very few had something good to say about the car. Some comments really came close to say that the car should be thrown on the trash heap and the design of the car started over from scratch.
- 4. Nordhoff had Porsche start work on a replacement for the Beetle early as 1949.
In conclusion I can only repeat what Ivan Hirst said in the foreword to this book. Quoting Hirst: "The author is an acknowledged authority on the automotive industry. As well, he has skillfully rendered a highly factual account based on extensive and thorough research into a very readable book. Much of the material presented here has not previously been published, Ludvigsen's work will no doubt be of interest to political, and social historians as well as to people connected with the industry. The car enthusiast and the Beetle fraternity, too, will find it fascinating reading. Battle for the Beetle is an outstanding, wide ranging, and accurate account. Karl's research has filted in many gaps in my knowledge, and has certainly caught the spirit of those days".
There can be no higher recommendation.
Article from and courtesy of the Vintage Volkswagen Club of America website, October 2003