The Volkswagen Beetle: a British success story

Idea may have come from Nazi Germany but Brit management pushed its success

Published: December 27, 2015, 12:30 PM
Updated: November 23, 2021, 2:42 PM

Volkswagen Type 1 production following the war. - The start of mass production of the Volkswagen Saloon shortly after Christmas 1945 marked a new era of civilian vehicle manufacturing.

The Brits played a big part in the success of the Volkswagen Beetle following the fall of Germany after World War 2.

Many are familiar with the history of the Beetle — born from Hitler’s desire in 1934 to build an easy to own and easy to maintain car for the people, few of the 650 cars actually produced in wartime Germany actually went to the people. Following the building of the plant in Wolfsburg in 1938, the road going models produced between 1941 and 1945 mostly went to the Nazi elite, with the bulk of production reserved for battleground models.

Rather, the start of mass production started in Christmas 1945, with just 55 models built through the end of the year mostly due to shortages of parts and materials (as part of the German rebuilding by the Allied countries, German production was severely monitored to insure it wasn’t able to ramp up its war machine again). Still, the Allies wanted to convey a confidence in residents that their country would be repaired to again become self sufficient.

The production facility was occupied by US troops in April 1945 and trusteeship was handed over to the British Military following the end of the war, in June 1945 and placed under the management of then 29-year-old Senior Resident Officer Major Ivan Hirst.

The first order for the new cars came in August 1945, from service providers (health care services, police forces, etc.) mostly in rural areas of Germany, and the Works Council (a union, if you will, which encouraged unforeseen employee contribution to production) was implemented in November of that year.

The workforce of some 6,000 continued to produce roughly 1,000 cars per month through 1946 and 1947, with exporting beginning in the fall of 1947. Private purchases really took off after the currency reform in June 1948 and the establishment of a country-wide dealership network.

By the time the company, now named Volkswagenwerk GmbH, was turned over to German control in October 1949, it was well on its way to becoming a successful global venture and provided a kick-start to the German economy. Since then, the Beetle has become an automotive and cultural icon, selling over 21 million vehicles in a couple iterations.

“Volkswagen was very fortunate in that the robust Saloon helped the British Military Government to carry out its administrative functions, and that in Ivan Hirst it had the right man at the helm,” recounts Dr. Manfred Grieger, Head of the Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft Corporate History Department. “The skilful pragmatist gave the factory and the workforce a vision, motivating British military personnel and German workers alike to turn the languishing works into a successful market-driven business. He knew the qualities of the Volkswagen Saloon, and was able to realise them on the road.”