The Volkswagen Beetle – icon of 20th Century automotive design, star of Disney movies and one of the best selling cars of all time. Virtually anyone you speak to has at some point in their life had a connection with the Beetle in some way, shape or form. The Beetle was generally accepted to be the brainchild of legendary car designer Ferdinand Porsche to provide Hitler with a car for the German man in the street, however as Dutch author Paul Schilperoord sets out in his biography it would appear that perhaps greater credit for the concept behind the little car should have been given to a Jewish engineer – Josef Ganz.
Up until fairly recently, Ganz’s role in the birth of the Beetle has not been widely publicised. Indeed, Volkswagen themselves make no reference to the man in their corporate history, either in their pdf version or their historical timeline. The only suggestion in fact that there was another party involved with the Volkswagen concept is a nod to the 18-year old Hungarian technology student Béla Barény, who submitted a ”Fahrgestell-Entwurf für einen Volkswagen“ (chassis design for a Volkswagen) in 1925.
Born in Budapest, Ganz might be described as something of a visionary engineer – he registered his first patent at the tender age of nine. After he saw service in the German navy in the First World War, Ganz returned to his engineering studies and it was around this time that he became convinced that the German car industry should concentrate on building a car for the masses instead of the large, luxurious and expensive vehicles that prevailed. He would use his position as editor of the controversial motoring magazine “Motor-Kritik” to expound his beliefs that the car of the masses should be lightweight and streamlined, with a rear-mounted engine and independent suspension. Most importantly, it should be affordable for the average German – it should be a Volkswagen.
Another commonly held belief is that it was Hitler and his Nazi Party that originated the use of the word Volkswagen. In fact, the word was widely used in advertising and magazine articles well in advance of the Hitler coming to power, and it was only in 1934 when the RDA (Reichsverband der Deutschen Automobilindustrie) effectively forced all companies to stop using the term Volkswagen in their advertising. As late as 1933 the Standard “Superior” was advertised as as being “the fastest and cheapest German Volkswagen”.
Ganz’s ideas were not always popular with many of the manufacturers, but this did not prevent him from designing what he felt was the car of the future which he christened the Mai Käfer (May Bug) to demonstrate the benefits of the technical attributes that he advocated. As the late 1920s and early 1930s continued, Ganz found that his ideas were beginning to gain ground and he accepted posts as a technical advisor with some of those manufacturers who had initially shunned his ideas. But dark times were ahead, and the latter half of Shilperoord’s biography tells a desperately sad tale. Germany at that time of course was not a safe place to be, especially for the jewish editor of a magazine that had on more than one occasion fallen foul of the state. Having been arrested by the Gestapo, Ganz fled Germany, with his arch-enemy Paul Erhardt – a former co-worker turned SS officer – constantly in pursuit. He would never settle until he eventually emigrated to Australia, where he died in 1967.
Ganz’s story is a fascinating one, and one that deserves to be told. Schilperoord delivers it in a thoroughly readable manner – he manages to achieve a comfortable balance of the technical aspects of the narrative with the human element. Whilst of course Ganz did not personally design the Beetle itself (which of course shares the nickname “Bug” with Ganz’s own car), it is difficult to ignore Schilperoord’s argument that Volkswagen have not publicly given Ganz sufficient credit for his role in its birth. Perhaps the fact that Schilperoord’s book is on sale in Volkswagen’s Autostadt is a tacit admission of a rather uncomfortable fact?
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