David Mullen looks at the history of the machine that rose from the ashes of Hitler’s dream for a ‘people’s car’ to become beloved by hundreds of millions across the globe.
Europe in the 1920s was a cold and hungry place as countries tried to get back on their feet after the ravages of the First World War. Germany was particularly badly hit, having not only endured fighting the war, but also defeat and the crippling terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
The terms demanded huge reparations to the victors, stifling the German economy and keeping the living standard low.
In 1927, in the United States there was one car for every 5.3 Americans. In Germany, however, there was one for every 242 people. For Germans, the car was more than just a means of transport — it was an unattainable and vastly expensive symbol of wealth.
It was in these social conditions, made worse by the ‘Great Depression’ of 1929, that Hitler came to power in 1933. He realised early-on that the key to creating the image of economic success was by making symbols of prosperity like, for example, wireless sets available to everyone at a reasonable price.
In 1934, the government issued a brief to Germany’s car-builders. By the next summer, they wanted to see a prototype for an economical car able to seat four or five people, travelling at 50 mph and costing less than 1,000 Reichsmarks (under €5,000 today).
It made no financial sense. There was no way they could build a car for that kind of money. One engineer, however, thought differently. His name was Ferdinand Porsche.
Porsche was a famous engineer in Germany for his work on racing cars in the ‘30s. His son, Ferry, had not yet started building the sports cars that would later bear the family name. He set to work designing the new car and by 1936, a set of prototypes were ready.