The Road that Led to the Beetle
There is no denying that the Volkswagen Beetle had a great impact on
the world, but was the Beetle a major advance in automobile design or
just another step forward following a road started mostly in Central
Europe in the early 1920’s.
Ferdnand Porsche was Born in Maffersdorf in Northern Bohemia now part
of Czech Republic, the son of a tinsmith. His first automobile designs
were for Lohner of Vienna in 1899. He went on to design for
Austro-Daimler 1906-23, Then Daimler-MotorenAG, later Daimler-Benz,
1923- 29. Followed by Steyr, in Austria in 1929. Later in 1929 he set
up his own design office in Stuttgart. Although he was actively
involved in motorcar design for over fifty years, only one of his light
car designs reached series production, that was the Volkswagen Beetle.
Precedent's time line.
In the United States Franklin had been producing fan cooled air-cooled
engines for automobiles since 1902, and continued production until 1934.
General Motors began producing the so called "copper-cooled" models of
Chevrolet, Olds, and Oakland between1921 and 1923 but it was not a
success and very few were made. The "copper-cooled" referred to the
copper cooling fins on an air cooled inline four engine, not a good
layout for fan cooling.
While at Austro-Daimler in 1922, Ferdnand Porsche designed an
1100 cc sports car. Hoping that it would form the basis of a wider
range of cars, but he was not supported by board of directors of
Austro-Daimler. A handful of cars were produced and given the name
"Sascha", in honour of Count Shascha Kolowrat who underwrote the
venture. The "Sascha", proved very successful in motor sports events
throughout Europe. Apart from the overhead camshaft four cylinder
engine, the Sascha was of conventional design for the period with
a channel section chassis frame, a beam front axle with half elliptic
springs, a front mounted water cooled engine and gearbox with a
propeller shaft to a live rear axle with quarter elliptic springs. A
description that could describe the then new Austin Seven and
many other contemporary cars.
While working at Steyr Hans Ledwinka had been creating the
design of a small car in his own time. His design had been rejected by
the Steyr, management, but he was able to develop and produce this
design after he left Steyr in 1923 to work for Tatra. Designated the
Tatra T11 it made the name of Tatra well known throughout Europe. The
T11 was the first of his designs using a backbone chassis, a fan cooled
horizontally opposed engine and a jointless independent rear
axle. The engine in this design was a overhead valve 1056cc twin,
mounted in unit with the gearbox on the front of the chassis. The front
beam axle being attached to the engine.
This was the first of a line of light car design’s to a similar pattern
that were produced until 1948. The T11 was produced from 1923 to 1927,
and replaced by the T12 with a similar specification. The T12 was
produced from 1926 to 1936. In 1931 the T54, with a 1465cc air-cooled
flat four engine was introduced. It was made until 1936. Also in 1931
the T57 a 1155cc air-cooled flat four was introduced, and through the
T57A, T57B and T57K versions remained in production until 1948. The
later models having a 1256cc engine. A total of thirty eight and half
thousand of these small Tatra's were made between 1923 and 1948.
Hans Ledwinka 1878-1967, was born in Austria when it was part of the
Austo-Hungarian empire. By 1906 he worked for Nesseldorfer, a car
manufacturer in Moravia a province of Austria. After the break up of
the Austo-Hungarian empire, Moravia became part of the new state of the
Czechoslovak republic. Ledwinka left Nesseldorfer to join Steyr another
Austrian company in 1917. The Nesseldorfer company changed its name to
The jointless rear axle used by Tatra comprised of a final drive unit
attached to the rear of the tubular backbone chassis that had the drive
shaft enclosed within it. The final drive unit had two crown wheels and
pinions each driving a shaft to a rear wheel. The crown wheels could
rotate around its pinion allowing it’s shaft to swing. This may seem
over complicated but is still in use on Tatra truck today. It was
necessary to do something like this to provide a reliable flexible
drive arrangement as flexible drive joints at that time were not up to
The flexible coupling commonly in use at the time was the fabric
coupling it had a limited degree of deflection and working life and was
not suitable for use with swing axles. The availability of better
flexible couplings of the Hardy Spicer type made it possible to develop
a reliable swing axle transmission. The combination of the rear mounted
engine with swing axle transmission proved to be the simplest way to
remove the engine and the transmission from the passenger space and
lower the overall height of the car.
From 1928 onwards, the idea of a people's car with a rear mounted
air-cooled engine, all independent springing and a backbone frame was
promoted in Germany by an engineer and journalist Josef Ganz in the
auto magazine Motor-Kritik.
In 1929 Colonel Frank Searle the managing director of the Rover Co Ltd
of England decided that the company needed a small car to widen its
range. He set Maurice Wilks and Robert Boyle, both to become key
figures at Rover, to design and produce a prototype of a small rear
engined car at his home Braunston Hall near Rugby in a similar way that
Herbert Austin had done with the Austin Seven earlier in the decade.
The outcome of their work the Rover 7 HP or Scarab was unlike any
previous Rover design with a Rover Patented engine, transmission and
rear suspension layout. The rear mounted O.H.V fan-cooled 60 degree "V"
twin engine was of 839 cc. The ladder frame chassis was of advanced
design with coil spring sliding pillar front suspension and coil spring
swing axles at the rear with a pivoting support member giving zero roll
stiffness. The four-seat tourer body was a simple affair of wood
framing clad with steel sheet of compact dimensions, the car being
designed down to a price of £85. Unfortunately the engine
proved to be rough, noisy and prone to overheating. With the departure
of Colonel Frank Searle from Rover in 1931 the Scarab didn't go into
production as it was considered too radical and at the same time too
Spartan by the Rover management.
Ardie a German motorcycle manufacturer produced an experimental car
with a forked backbone frame the to a Josef Ganz design, the Ardie
Adler a German manufacturer produced another Ganz prototype. Josef Ganz
was a consultant engineer at Daimler-Benz and BMW where he was
involved in the development of the first models with independent wheel
suspension: the highly successful Mercedes-Benz 170 and BMW AM1 .
The first prototype of the Tatra Type V570 designed by Erich Ledwinka,
the son of Tatra's chief engineer Hans Ledwinka was produced. Although
this prototype had a body of conventional form, the inspiration for the
rear engined Tatra came from the idea of taking full advantage of the
streamlined forms proposed by the aerodynamicist Paul Jarey. By
locating the engine in the long tail, a low hood or bonnet line could
be achieved. It had a platform chassis and the air-cooled flat twin
engine of 845cc; gearbox and final drive was located at its rear.
Dr Ferdinand Porsche set the engineers in his design bureau on project
number 12 at the end of September, the design of an economy car. He
didn't have a commission for the car, but this was something he wanted
to do for some time. By December 1931 the design for a small car was
sufficiently advanced for Porsche to look for a possible manufacturer.
The main features of the design were, independent suspension on all
four wheels using trailing arms at the front and swing axles at the
rear, with Porsche patent torsion-bar springs. A three cylinder
air-cooled radial engine that was complete with the gearbox and final
drive located at the rear of the chassis.
Dr Neumayer head of Zundapp, a German motorcycle company was looking
for a small car design to produce and the Porsche project No 12 proved
of interest. The result was the Zundapp "Volksauto", project. The major
change from the original project was the engine. A one litre capacity
five cylinder water-cooled radial engine was fitted. Three prototypes
were produced in 1932 and extensively tested but the project didn't
continue due to financial and business factors.
Skoda produced the 932 prototype, it had a backbone chassis with an
air-cooled flat four engine at the rear. Skoda didn't develop the
design but produced the 420, a front-engined car that had some of the
features that were innovative at the time, namely a backbone chassis
with swing axle rear suspension.
BMW produced their first original design the 3/20 with a
backbone chassis and a 788cc over head valve, pressure lubricated
engine that was otherwise similar to the Austin engine and independent
swing axle rear suspension. A few thousand of these were produced
The first prototype of the Tatra Type 77 was running, it was a large
car with a streamlined body. The three litre air-cooled OHV V8 engine
at the rear of a platform chassis drove the rear wheels via Tatra type
swing axles, A double wishbone type of front suspension was
fitted and transverse leaf springs were used at front and rear.
Skoda 932 prototype
Tatra produced a second Type V570 prototype with an aerodynamic body ,
the project was not continued as the Tatra board decided that the
streamlined rear engined concept was to be reserved for limited
production high cost cars concentrating on the type77 that was put into
production in 1933. The Type 77 and the Type 77A with a 3380cc engine,
were in production until 1938 and 249 examples were made. The existing
Type 57 would continue to fill the roll of their economy car, which it
did until 1948.
The first of Josef Ganz designs to go in production, the Superior was
made by Standard Fahrzeugfabrik. It had a rear mounted two stroke
engine. Some internet references claim that Ganz managed to persuade
director Wilhelm Kissel and technical director Hans Nibel of
Daimler-Benz to develop new rear-engined models under his supervision.
Others claim an input from Ferdinand Porsche but I am not able to
confirm ether of them.
Mercedes-Benz produced three rear engined cars in the middle of the
nineteen thirties, the 130H, 150H and the 170H, “H” stood for
Heckmotor. The former had a 1308cc side valve engine located behind the
rear axle and produced 26hp. The 130H designed by Hans Nibel had a
backbone chassis with independent front suspension by transverse leaf
springs and swing axles at the rear. The 150h had a 1500cc engine
producing 55hp that was located in front of the rear axle. Ten thousand
of these models were produced. between 1933 and 1938.
Tatra Type V570 prototype Standard Superior
The next manufacturer that Porsche was able to interest in his design
was another German motorcycle company. The next version of the
design the NSU Volksauto was a complete redesign, the engine was again
changed this time to an air-cooled flat four of 1500cc giving the car a
maximum speed of 72 mph. Three prototypes were produced in
1933 but again business factors unconnected with the cars design caused
the project to be dropped.
The Hansa was one of the range of car produced by the Borgward group.
The 1100 was typical of German thinking in 1934, with all round
independent suspension, using transverse half elliptic leaf springs at
the front and swing axles at the rear with torsion bars. Also a tubular
backbone frame and a water-cooled inline four cylinder engine with
overhead valve-gear. This advanced specification was completed by
hydraulic brakes. It did not have a high performance, but was said to
Mercedes-Benz 130H NSU Volksauto
The idea of creating a small car of advanced design for the people of
Germany seem to be doomed, until Porsche submitted a proposal on the
development of such a car to the Transport department of the German
government, this was in January. Ferdinand Porsche finally found
someone interested in his ideas that could find the money and had the
power to see them into production. This was Adolf Hitler the new German
Chancellor. After Porsche had written a memorandum
outlining his proposals, he was given a contract to proceed;This led to
a lot of hard work by the Porsche bureau, before the car then called
the "KdF Wagen", and known to us as the Volkswagen was a reality. The
car was similar to the "NSU Volksauto", but slightly smaller.
The Tatra Type 87 was similar in concept to the Type 77 but was a
completely new design, with an all-steel body whereas the Type 77’s
body was made of steel over a wood frame. A redesigned front suspension
and a new single overhead camshaft V8 air-cooled engine of 2968cc. It
was lighter and smaller in overall size than the Type 77 and was in
production from1936 until 1950 with a few small breaks due to the onset
of war and then peace, in which time 3023 examples were produced.
The first Volkswagen’s, the three Series 3 prototypes were completed in
1936, after many engine variations had been explored, the design was as
the car was eventually produced with a 995cc flat four engine.
"KdF Wagen" prototype
Thirty prototype Volkswagen cars were completed, the series 30, and used for extensive road testing.
The Tatra Type 97 was designed and developed about the same time as the
Type 87. The by then classic Tatra form was followed, this time with a
1749cc single overhead camshaft flat four air-cooled engine that
produced 40ps, in the rear of a streamlined five seat body. The front
suspension with two transverse leaf springs and the rear with Tatra
pattern swing axles were similar to the Type 87. With a weight of
1150kg and a wheelbase of 2600mm, it was not a small or inexpensive car
but complimented the Tatra range and was in production in 1937.
Tatra Type 97
Another sixty prototype Volkswagens, the series 60, were completed for
more testing. The Volkswagen was developed and ready for production.
Production of the Volkswagen started at the purpose built factory at
Wolfsburg. But only two hundred and ten examples were made before the
factory went over to war production.
Five hundred and ten examples were produced of the Tatra Type 97
by 1939 when the production ceased. A myth has grown up over the years,
that production of the Type 97 was discontinued by orders of the German
government, because it paralleled the Volkswagen. If you look at the
basic similarities in the design this could seem possible, but if you
compare the specifications in more detail the idea is unlikely. The
Volkswagen only had a one litre capacity engine producing 25bhp, and it
weighed 730kg it was an economy car, and designed to be produced at a
rock bottom price. If you compare this to the Type 97’s details you can
see they were totally different cars. Another factor than emphasised
the difference between the two cars was the possible market. The total
annual production of the Tatra factory in a year spread through seven
different models was similar to the planned daily production of the
Volkswagen. An indicator of their possible potential can be gained by
studying the post war successors of both cars. As car production ceased
all over Europe with some exceptions and turned over to production of
war materials, this may have been a bigger factor in its demise.
I believe the unique thing about the Beetle was having the support of a
head of state with unlimited powers, a state of the art design that was
thoroughly developed before being produced, in a purpose built factory
equipped with all the latest plant and tooling sufficient to produce a
million cars a year for a ready market. Six years of war that
interrupted production could have been the end of it, but another set
of unique circumstances after the war allowed to project to succeed