H/T Beyond The Band Of Brothers.


The rise of German automobile industry is linked to the Nazis

German car manufacturers in WWII

Today in our series of articles about brands influenced by the war, we’ll look at German cars. The German automobile industry was off to a slow start and exposed to American interests with Ford establishing a German subsidiary in 1925 and General Motors taking over Opel in 1929. The Great Depression hit hard during the later years of the Weimar Republic, dropping the number of automobile companies from 86 to 12.

All that changed with the Nazis’ rise to power in the mid-1930s. Hitler wanted to legitimize Nazi power by raising the standard of living with various programs, including the introduction an affordable family car: a Volkswagen (“people’s car”). The concept of a cheap, mass-produced car wasn’t new: the Ford Model T already followed the same philosophy in 1908 and several German and other European companies were experimenting with the same idea.

Hitler examining the engine of a Tatra T77, a Czechoslovakian car that greatly impressed him and was a major inspiration for Porsche’s design of the KfD-Wagen(Volkswagen Beetle)
A project to produce such a car was launched under the aegis of Kraft durch Freude (KfD, “Strength Through Joy”), a state-run leisure organization. The design team was headed by acclaimed engineer Ferdinand Porsche. Hitler wanted a car that could transport 2 adults and 3 children, run at 62 mph, have an air-cooled engine to avoid breakdowns in the winter and cost 990 Reichsmark, about the price of a motorbike. Citizens could enroll in a savings plan, putting aside a small amount of money each week and getting a car after about 4 years.
A classic VW Beetle, never actually driven by citizens of the Third Reich.
A military Kommandeurwagen
climbing a slope
The KdF-Wagen was what we today recognize as the Volkswagen Beetle. Contrarily to popular wisdom, Hitler did not design it, though he did provide a sketch of what it should roughly look like. 336,000 people paid into the scheme but none of them actually got their car, as the factory was converted to military production with the outbreak of the war. A few KdF-Wagens were built for Nazi luminaries but the rest of the production went to the war effort, building the Kübelwagen (the German equivalent of the Jeep), the amphibious Schwimmwagen and small numbers of the Kommandeurwagen, a 4-wheel drive command car version of the Beetle.
An amphibious Schwimmwagen
The factory fell under British control after the war. With other car manufacturers considering it an unworthy investment, it produced cars for British military personnel until former Opel senior manager Heinrich Nordhoff took over the reins and led the company on the path of success it enjoys today.
A captured Kübelwagen being examined by British soldiers in Sicily, 1943
Speaking of Porsche, while the company founded by the engineer is known for its high-performance sports cars, SUVs and sedans today, it originally only dealt in development and consulting, producing no cars of its own. During the war, it was involved in the development of the legendary Tiger I and II heavy tanks, the Elefant heavy tank destroyer (also named Ferdinand after Porsche), and the prototype Maus, the heaviest tank ever built. Porsche only developed its own civilian cars after the war.
Elefant heavy tank destroyer
Opel was founded in 1862 as a sewing machine company which later expanded into bicycles and eventually cars. Bought out by General Motors in 1929, it was spared from militarization when the war started, probably due to its politically unreliable American connection. It continued building such popular designs as the Opel Kapitän executive car and the luxury Opel Admiral, though versions of the Opel Blitz truck saw heavy use in the military and also served as the basis for half-track vehicles. The medium-weight version of the Blitz had an engine so similar to Chevrolet engines that Allied forces could often recover disabled and abandoned German trucks by fixing them up with American spare parts.
An Opel Blitz used by the Wehrmacht
An Opel Admiral
In 1942, with the war dragging on, the company underwent a limited switch to war production, manufacturing plane and tank parts. An Opel-designed engine was also used in the Kettenkrad motorbike-tractor hybrid, used to tow antitank guns and transport troops. The other German company with an American connection, Ford-Werke, Ford’s German subsidiary, also built half-track trucks and the turbines for V-2 rockets.
US sappers riding a Kettenkrad vehicle powered by an Opel engine
Mercedes-Benz, one of the flagships of the German automobile industry, contributed to the war effort with a range of products. They built a variety of trucks but they’re better recognized for their small runs of luxury vehicles. Various versions of the 770 model, of which only 205 were produced, were used by Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich (though he was sitting in a different model Mercedes when he was assassinated in Prague), as well as Japanese Emperor Hirohito and German ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II. An even more exclusive vehicle, 57 of which were made, was the W31 type G4, a six-wheeled command and staff car. Originally designed as an off-road vehicle, it was too expensive for general army use and was restricted to Nazi Party leaders for parades and inspections.
Hitler in a Mercedes-Benz 770
Commander Hermann Göring in a G4
BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke, “Bavarian Motor Works”), now known for their elegant cars, actually came from an aviation background. During the war, they produced prop engines for a variety of aircraft, including the dreaded FW 190 “Butcher Bird” and the Ju 88multirole combat craft. It also built a turbojet engine that was used in the Heinkel He 162“emergency fighter,” and the Arado Ar 234 reconnaissance/jet bomber, the world’s first 4-engine jet plane.
Ar 234, the first four-engine jet plane, fitted with BMW engines
Audi traces its heritage to Auto Union, an amalgamation of four car manufacturers established in 1936. Like VolkswagenAuto Union took advantage of a state-sponsored program, this one aimed at developing a high-speed German motorcar industry via motor racing. Once the war started, Auto Union switched to military production, its most notable product being the Sd.Kfz. 222, a light armored recon car.
An Sd. Kfz. 222 Leichter Panzerspähwagen,
“lightly armored reconnaissance vehicle”
You can learn more about the role of German companies in WWII and how they live on in the present on our Third Reich Tours.