How A British Army Officer Saved Volkswagen And Its Beetle In The Wake Of WWII
The German motor industry has one of the most illustrious histories of any car-building nation. After all, the motorcar was born in Germany, Karl Benz having produced the world’s first in 1885. But delve deep enough into the story of just about any German car manufacturer and you will find one recurring and uncomfortable theme if you go far enough into history: Nazism. This is of course not an exclusively German issue, our much loved Alfa Romeo, for example, had ties to Mussolini’s fascist movement. This is not a commentary on the companies themselves—dictators simply love industry.
Volkswagen enthusiasts are all too familiar (and perhaps uncomfortable) with the Beetle’s connection to the Nazis. Hitler had imagined a “People’s Car,” a cheap and affordable vehicle that would mobilize the working class and give them a greater quality of life. They even built a idealistic, utopian town around its factory, in order that its workers would be happy and therefore more productive. Noble ideas indeed, if they hadn’t come from genocidal war criminals. VW fans however can take solace in the fact that were it not for a curious British Army Officer named Ivan Hirst, there would likely be no Volkswagen today.
Ivan Hirst was born in Yorkshire and studied optical engineering at Manchester University. Following his graduation he completed Officer Training with the British Army and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1934. When World War II broke out in earnest in 1939, Hirst was transferred first to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps then to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, taking up a post as a mechanical engineering officer.
By 1945 the war was drawing to a close, and Allied forces had taken control of the town of Wolfsburg. Hirst, who had been managing a tank repair workshop in Belgium, was transferred to Germany and placed in charge of a seized automobile factory in the city of the Wolfsburg. As with any other industry that had been captured by the Allies, the official order was to dismantle the factory and its tooling, essentially liquidating the assets to be claimed by the Allied nations as reparations. This was also the strategy for the factory in Wolfsburg, that is, until Hirst discovered something very interesting in the depths of the factory.
The plant was strewn with debris, seemingly sacked by the fleeing workers and also having suffered damage from Allied bombs. Upon further investigation, it became apparent that the debris was in fact strategically placed camouflage. The workers had been instructed to make it look as if the factory was a ruin, yet to leave it in a condition that would allow them to restart production again should the Germans regain control of the area. This crafty stage-managing only served to further Hirst’s curiosity. His investigations continued, and in a workshop on the edge of the factory grounds, under a dusty sheet sat a prototype for a “KdF Wagen”
The KdF Wagen had been in development for a number of years, under the guidance of Ferdinand Porsche. It was unique in its rear-engined layout and compact and aerodynamic design. Hirst quickly realised the potential of this small car and felt that it would be a waste to dismantle the factory. He petitioned his superiors to allow the factory to restart production, under Allied control, and for them to produce 20,000 cars for use by the British Army. And thus the Volkswagen Type 1 was born.
It is worth noting that American forces in occupied areas did not approach the indigenous industries the same way. US forces were likewise quick to recognize the efficiency and advancement of German manufacturing but feared it would become a threat to their own car industry if it were allowed to restart.
By 1946, the Wolfsburg plant was producing 1,000 cars a month, limited only by availability of materials, and it was around this time the company became known as Volkswagen, “the people’s car.” As the factory began to thrive it gradually became a more civilian operation, overseen by the British Army. It was a pivotal part of Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder, the rapid period of economic redevelopment following the war. In 1949 the factory was officially handed back to the German government, but there remains a strong relationship to this day between the British Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and Volkswagen AG.
Under Hirst, the factory produced a number of one-offs, including the Radclyffe Roadster, a four-seater convertible named for Hirst’s commanding officer, Colonel Radclyffe. This prototype was designed by Rudolph Ringel and inspired the first Volkswagen cabriolets, known as Hebmullers after the coachbuilder Hebmuller.
Hirst was also excited by the Kommandeurwagen, which was a Type 1 body on the all-wheel-drive chassis of the Kubelwagen, intended as a comfortable saloon car for officers that would still be cable of crossing rough terrain. Hirst imagined it would be exceptionally popular amongst logging companies in Canada, but it was the Type 1, the first People’s Car, the car that would become the Beetle, that captured the imagination of the world.
Hirst retired from the British Army at the rank of Major. In his retirement Hirst became a much loved figure in the Vintage VW scene in Britain. Though markedly modest about his role in the Type 1 timeline, he often attended show and meets and would occasionally speak to enthusiasts about those early days in Wolfsburg.
Ivan Hirst died in March of 2000 at the age of 84. Major-Hirst-Strasse, a road near the Wolfsburg plant was named in his honor. The Volkswagen Beetle went on to become the unofficial car of the hippie movement (along with the Type 2 of course), which is perhaps a form of poetic justice given its war-torn beginnings. So the next time you sit in to your Rabbit or your Jetta, think of Ivan Hirst, without whom it likely wouldn’t be possible.