1930s / 1940s / German / Porsche / Volkswagen

Porsche Designs: From Racetrack to Battlefield

This is the latest installment of RWP’s series of articles on Porsche designs through the ages. This time, we focus on perhaps the most dubious period in the company’s history. Ferdinand Porsche first met Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in 1926 at an auto race. Unfortunately or not for Porsche, Hitler had a love for the automobile as well as a keen interest in design. In 1933, the dictator summoned Porsche to Berlin for a private chat shortly after the opening of the Berlin Auto Show. This meeting resulted in a great deal of Porsche’s future being affected by Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Porsche’s involvement with the Nazis has been fairly well documented and it is known that Hitler took a personal liking to Ferdinand. When the regime decided to embark upon sponsoring auto racing as part of its propaganda scheme to show German superiority, Porsche was given a special opportunity. Initially, the government had intended to fund only Daimler-Benz and its Mercedes Grand Prix cars. It could be speculated that Porsche’s rift with Daimler led to the Nazi Party also sponsoring the newly founded Auto-Union racing effort.

(Left to Right) Ferdinand Porsche, Hans Stuck, and Ferry Porsche with a 1934 Auto Union.

Auto-Union was formed through the consolidation of four German automakers in 1932, including Audi, Horch, DKW, and Wanderer. Porsche had of course been closely linked to Wanderer with his passenger car designs for the company, and it was natural that the two would come together once more for the design of the Reich-funded grand prix car design. Porsche already had a radical new rear-engined design on the drawing board for just such a vehicle and sold it to Auto-Union in 1933.

While the strange looking Auto-Union racing cars were battling along with Mercedes-Benz and the Italian Alfa-Romeos on the international racing scene, Porsche was becoming increasingly well known. Not only because his non-traditional designs looked so otherworldly compared to the competition, but also because they were proving successful. The grand prix cars were further modified with aerodynamic, all-enclosing bodywork, and tested in world speed record attempts on newly completed sections of the Autobahn. German driver Bernd Rosemeyer was the first to drive at speeds in excess of 250 mph, though tragically he was killed when his streamliner left the road at nearly 275 mph in 1938.Hitler meanwhile, was pleased at the technological superiority displayed by his swastika-wearing speed machines. The sight of these futuristic German “Silver Arrows” leading a pack of more primitive racers from the rest of Europe must have been precisely the sort of image Der Fuhrer wanted for his Reich. Porsche, for the time being, was happy to have auto racing as a test bed for his ideas.

An Auto Union steamliner on the banking at Avus

Shortly after the contract with Auto-Union, Hitler summoned Porsche to Berlin once more in late 1933. Here, Porsche and Hitler would both agree upon the creation of a vehicle close to both of their hearts. The “people’s car” project or Volkswagen was announced to the public at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show.

Though Adolf Hitler was not exactly the sort of commissioner Porsche had envisioned for his small car project, he was finally able – and required – to proceed with the development his company had started with Zundapp and NSU. The state funding of the project through the KdF organization (Kraft durch Freude – or “Strength through Joy”), along with obligatory but unenthusiastic assistance from other firms in the German auto industry often created problems and delays for the Volkswagen project. Nevertheless, the Porsche engineering team pressed on and continued to refine the strange, round, little car. From a technical standpoint, Porsche had learned from some of the principals applied to the Auto-Unions, though visually, there was something to be desired. Some of the early prototypes presented to the government for testing were even dubbed “The Ugly Ducklings” as the form was still crude.

By 1938, Porsche and body designer Komenda had finished their final prototype dubbed the “Type 38.” This model addressed some of the more strange aspects of the earlier prototypes, such as placement of the headlights previously mounted on the hood, as well as rearward visibility and cooling vents. Earlier designs had most notably lacked a proper rear window. Rearward visibility was only offered through louvers, which doubled as an intake for engine cooling air. As the car’s engine was cooled only by air, a large amount of ventilation was required for maintaining adequate temperatures. Through the development of a high-capacity fan driven by the engine itself, Porsche was able to consolidate all necessary vents below the standard glass rear window.

A late Beetle prototype showing lack of rear window

Externally, the “Type 38” had evolved into the Volkswagen that is so well known to this day. The awkward angles and bizarre proportions of past prototypes had been smoothed out and refined. Large, rearward-hinged “suicide” doors, which were common on most European cars, had proven to make rear passenger entry and egress difficult. As a result of a trip to the Ford factory in the mid-1930s, Ferdinand’s son, Ferry, applied the use of front-hinged doors like American cars.The headlights took their place in the front fenders, the roofline gracefully carried on into the engine lid at the rear, and there was a general cohesion to the form that seems so natural yet functional – like a beetle. The KdF-wagenas it was now officially known, was now ready for production. This final form would live on with minimal alterations for over six decades as the Volkswagen Type 1.

The 1938 "Type 1"

Tatra in Czechoslovakia was not entirely amused by the curious little car, however. Several sources cite a lawsuit brought about by Tatra in the lat 1930s that claimed that the KdF-wagen was more than coincidentally similar to their cars, such as the aforementioned V570. Not surprisingly, by the time German forces occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, the matter simply went away.

The people’s car was complete, but much of the design would be the basis for further developments. Nearly immediately after the KdF cars were beginning their production, Ferry Porsche, Erwin Komenda, and the elder Porsche began exploring the idea of a sporting version of their small car. Ferry remarked that the VW was nearly the perfect basis for a sports car. Plans were submitted to the German government for approval to use the KdF-wagen’s parts in production, though the plan was not viable to the German Labor Front. Hitler would again provide an unlikely opportunity for the small company when an auto race was planned for September of 1939 from Berlin to Rome, using sections of the Autobahn to bring German cars to Mussolini’s doorstep. Permission was subsequently granted to Porsche to build a racing car based on the KdF-wagen, and this time, the German government even provided development money.

Komenda penned aerodynamic bodywork that both recalled the shape of the KdF-wagen as well as prophesied the shape of Porsche’s future. Maintaining a visual link to the Volkswagen was essential, as it should be remembered, the race for which the car was planned was primarily for propaganda purposes. Creature comforts and practicality of day-to-day use were of little concern to this design, as it only had to carry a racing driver and co-pilot. There is undoubtedly little coincidence that this car’s bodywork also shared much with the Auto-Union streamliners. The body of what became known as the “Type 64 60K10” fully enclosed the front and rear wheels of the humble people’s car platform. It retained a rounded roofline and sloping back, as well as headlights mounted within the front fenders. This time, the hood was low – sweeping down between the fenders while elegantly meeting them again at the front below the headlights. Flat sides gave way to curving hips and shoulders, and creases that provided rigidity were kept to a minimum for the sake of smooth airflow. Everything seemed more sculpted, more organic, and almost sensual.

The KdF "Berlin-Rome" race car

 Three of the KdF 60 60K10 racing cars were built in anticipation of the Berlin-Rome event. Before it could take place, Hitler invaded Poland and disturbing new tasks were brought before the Porsche firm. Nevertheless, the car would mark an important step in the future direction of the company.

The German public anxiously awaited the KdF-wagen – the car that was intended to bring personal transportation to the masses. Unfortunately, almost as soon as development of the new car had finished and production began, the design was being stripped of its distinctive bodywork and re-designed for military applications by the crew at Porsche. The Type 82 Kübelwagen used the same underpinnings as the KdF-wagen but had an even more rugged and utilitarian body. This vehicle would be the German military’s equivalent to the allied Jeep. Later development would also lead to the Type 166 Schwimmwagen amphibious vehicle. These projects, along with many others including heavy armored vehicles kept the Porsche firm alive through World War II. They included the Elefant and infamous Maus– the largest tank ever built, but that, of course, is another story.

Porsche Type 166

Porsche Type 82

Continuous risk of bombardment forced Porsche to spread out its operations. As Ferdinand Porsche was often traveling due to commitments with the government as well as overseeing the KdF factory, Ferry Porsche took on the task of keeping the company and its assets from being incinerated. Eventually, Porsche employees, offices, and shops were found in Zuffenhausen and Stuttgart as well as Zell-Am-See and Gmünd, Austria. When the war drew to a close in 1945, British and American forces occupying the different regions made operations difficult for Porsche. Production of tractor parts and other farming machinery sustained the firm while their future in the automobile industry seemed dim after the Morgenthau Plan threatened to return Germany to nothing more than a vast pastoral farmland.

It had begun to seem that perhaps a future for the Volkswagen might exist in France, as the country was also keen to have an affordable car, as well as war reparations. In December of 1945, Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand, and son-in-law Anton Piëch, traveled to Baden-Baden in the French zone of post-war Germany to discuss the possibilities. However, French authorities arrested the three men under charges of misconduct related to the use of French prisoners of war as factory workers. They were imprisoned and held for bail. Much of the time was spent in the medieval prison at Dijon. Ferry Porsche was released after six months but Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piëch would remain for nearly twenty months until funding could be found secure their release.

While Ferry Porsche attempted to free his Father and Piëch, he also worked to re-build the company after its embarrassing affiliation with the Nazi party. The Porsche name was well known and still respected in the late 1940s. An exciting new project from Italy for Cisitalia (Porsche 360) would get the company back into the business of designing cars. Meanwhile, the British forces had put the Volkswagen back into production in spite of all odds. Shortly thereafter, the first vehicle to officially carry the “Porsche” brand name and bring the company to worldwide attention would emerge from a former sawmill in Austria in May of 1948.

The 1948 Porsche Type 356, chassis no. 001

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