The people’s car – generically, Volkswagen in German – is almost as old as the automobile, and the type was familiar in Germany long before the advent of the Volkswagen. Usually these “popular” cars were minimal cars, though size and simplicity did not necessarily bring them within the reach of the ordinary man in the street.
Henry Ford did build a successful universal car, to sell at a low price, but his Model T with its 2.9-litre engine was by no means a small car, nor was the Model A that followed it. When it was in production in the late 1920s, small “proper” cars in Germany ranged from the 700-cc DKW to the 1-litre Opel, with small Adlers, the BMW Dixi (a license-built Austin Seven) and the NSU-Fiats to come. These stimulated desire rather than a year’s wage for an average worker. This prompted motorcycle manufacturer Zundapp to commission a low-cost car design from Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s new design studio. The project did not get far, but a Porsche-designed NSU that reached that prototype stage in 1933 accurately foreshadowed the Volkswagen.
The idea of a people’s car appealed to Porsche, and it fascinated Adolf Hitler. When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, one of his pet notions was the concept of motoring for the masses, and a meeting with Porsche was to be a meeting of minds. Once again Porsche was commissioned to design a popular car, and when the first ludicrously tight financial limits were relaxed he accepted the technical challenge.
It is possible that Porsche received too much credit for the design of the Volkswagen, for most of the technical elements had been seen before in the work of such men as Ledwinka, Rumpler, Rabe and Nibel. The Volkswagen reflected the Porsche Buro’s earlier designs, but it was to reach production and eventually succeed beyond the wildest limits of the Thirties dream.
In 1931, the Porsche independent front suspension was patented. It...
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