Friday, August 06, 2010

The KdF Wagen

With $50billion in bailouts, a brutal take over of a publicly traded car company[GM], and a further $14billion for retooling; it has been with some major trepidation people have awaited the arrival of the Volt hybrid car. There will only be 10,000 first generation Volts at a price of $41,000; not counting federal subsidies of $7,500 and possible state subsidies. This has naturally engendered comparisons with the Volkswagen Beetle. So I guess its time to compare the two. My sources are Small Wonder and The Star and The Laurel.

Hitler it must be noted had always been an enthusiast of the auto. One of the things the Third Reich did was sponsor such as Mercedes and Auto-Union to race, even during the Depression. What resulted was wins for the gleaming bare metal masterpieces of German engineering. One of the men who gave Germany those wins was named Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. The doctor had a dream, of building a car the average person could own, drive, and even fix; this dream predates the rise of Hitler with such ideas as a hybrid car with a small gasoline motor to recharge batteries and an electric motor for each wheel. Which resulted in Dr. Porsche losing employment with companies like Daimler-Benz because automobiles could only be afforded by the rich.

So there was Hitler looking for a chicken in every pot scheme to keep the people on his side and justify the autobahns in non-military terms. Then there is Dr. Porsche pitching a very inexpensive auto while designing amazing racing cars. So it was natural the two would meet and from this meet-up Hitler found his chicken on the pot, the Peoples’ Car. It would cost a piddling 1200 Reich Marks that workers could buy coupons until they filled the coupon book. Daimler-Benz and other companies did offer up designs to meet Hitler’s challenge. But the Nazi regime awards the contract to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche and it’s the Nazis and their labor fronts that build the new auto plant that after WWII would be called Wolfsburg. The big day arrives for Hitler to dedicate the factory. With him is Dr. Porsche and other Nazi leaders. The banners of the Nazi regime snap in the breeze as the swastika inside a wheel cog logo on the podium is caught by many photographers. And this is when Hitler names the new Peoples’ Car, it shall be called the Kraft durch Freude-wagen after a German labor organization and built in KdF-stadt. One has to imagine Dr. Porsche sliding off his chair when that name is announced, for Kraft durch Freude means Strength through Joy and wags would comment young German maidens lost their strength through joy if they were part of this labor group.

During World War II, there would be no actual KdF Wagens built for the people. A few would be built, but they would be for Nazi party big-wigs and practically hand-built. Instead the KdF factory would build military vehicles like the Kubelwagen, Schwimmwagen, and the Kommandeurwagen along with stoves for the Russian front. Then World War II ended with a shattered Germany divided between four countries: US, UK, France, and the USSR. The shattered auto factory barely fell into the British sector and it was the British who started to resurrect the plant to provide vehicles to British occupation forces. Britain offered the factory to anyone including Ford, everyone including Ford turned up their nose. Then they found American trained Heinz Nordoff, formerly of Opel but now unemployed by American decree because he held a management post at Opel during the war and thus was considered a Nazi. It was Nordoff who lead the struggling company from bartering complete cars for material and food to actually selling them for the new Deutsch Marks. And from those austere beginnings, Nordoff would build what became Volkswagen into a world class auto company that would in the 1960s proceed to conquer the United States with an inexpensive car that was easy to own, to drive, repair, and even modify. The Beetle would continue to be built in Mexico until demand for the water-cooled New Beetle forced the last air-cooled production line to be shut down. Total Beetle production over its long life was 21,529,464 vehicles.

The GM Volt is the Beetle story in reverse it seems. It started as a car built by a publicly traded company to sell to whomever could afford it and made in factories located within the United States. In the end what has happened is GM is now run by the government, there will be a new plant built in Mexico, there will be only 10,000 first generation Volts made, it depends upon subsidies to be marketable, and its so complex it is the antithesis of the original Volkswagen Beetle.

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