Volkswagen directly translates to ‘people’s car’ in German, and for good reason. Have you ever met someone who doesn’t like a VW bug?
Car enthusiasts and casual drivers alike seem to have a soft spot for the funny little cars. The bug mobiles are made up of more nostalgia than metal — most of us have a story from back in the day that includes a Volkswagen. Whether it be gleeful childhood slug bug punches from our brother on road trips or the little yellow VW bus we called home during our bohemian stage in college, we all have a thing for them.
The Portland Transmission Spring Classic had no shortage of enthusiasm for the hippy machines whose family name is coming to an end — the final production run of VW Beetles will be finished next month.
With a legacy like the Bug’s, it seemed appropriate to dig a little deeper into the volatile, murky and insidious history of how these little guys came to be, accompanied by some photos of local Volkswagens. You might notice I snuck in a few other period-correct German cars that showed up, too.
The adorable Beetles actually have a fairly sinister origin story. The people’s car — as many of you will know — was fathered by Hitler and, as such, the sentiment behind the name actually started with a far more big brother vibe than the hippie attitude we all associate them with.
The first prototypes and various initial versions of the car had two goals: Its primary function was for the military, followed by personal and family use. It’s hard to imagine the funny little Beetles we associate with peace signs and tie-dye instead having guns and soldiers hanging out their windows, but the initial ethos of the cars was indeed that of genocide and war. Not just an affordable people carrier, but that did come later.
Records prior to WWII regarding the genesis of the Beetle are a little unclear. Some sources say that Ferdinand Porsche collaborated with Hitler to create the first Beetle, while others say that he turned Hitler down after the dictator asked for the car to be made cheaply enough to sell for $140.
In this particular thread of the story, the German government ended up producing the cars instead. However, both possible accounts recently seem as though they were cover ups, which explains the fogginess of the facts.
In recent years, historians have dug up some new information about a particular Jewish voice who had been airbrushed out of the Beetle story: Josef Ganz.
There is some debate over whether Ganz created the Beetle prototype entirely and presented it to Hitler at the 1933 Berlin Motor Show, or if he presented key elements that would later be incorporated and credited to Ferdinand Porsche and the German government.
Either way, it seems as though we can be certain that Josef Ganz had a key — if not primary — role in the development of one of the most iconic cars of all time. If a paper trail describing what would later become a Volkswagen predating Hitler’s planning stages for the car aren’t enough to convince you, documents recounting Ganz racing his ‘May Bug’ prototype all over the streets and sidewalks of Frankfurt two years before the Berlin Motor Show should.
Shortly after the show, Ganz was arrested by the Gestapo (German state secret police) and forgotten from the VW Bug’s history. The car that Ganz intended to be a unifier and symbol of equality was instead badged as Hitler’s car ‘for the people,’ which in fact really meant a select few.
As with many great ideas, the VW Beetle evolved and represented many different groups and ideas throughout its nearly-90-year lifespan. Nine decades is a very long time and, like many of our own lives, the Bug’s time here was as dotted with darkness as it was highlighted by peace and celebration.