Every automotive enthusiast knows that Ferdinand Porsche designed the original, a Nazi effort promoted by none other than Adolf Hitler, right?
Well, maybe not. Just when we thought we knew everything there was to know about the Beetle, up pops a new book that claims a Jewish engineer actually came up with the concept.
The book, “Josef Ganz, The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s” by Paul Schilperoord, argues persuasively that Ganz conceptualized the kind of car that the world now knows as the Beetle.
Ganz was an engineer and journalist. In the 1920s and 1930s, as editor of the magazine “Motor Kritik,” he argued that German auto makers needed to build a small, lightweight car using an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine, with a backbone chassis, and an independent suspension including rear swing axles.
Sound familiar? He even called it a “Volkswagen” which is “People’s Car” in German.
Others argue correctly that Ganz aggregated ideas from other automotive engineers. But Ganz did more than just talk about his idea. He developed prototypes, starting with the Ardie motorcycle company in 1930. Even though the test vehicles performed well, that design never made it into production.
Ganz then was hired by the Adler company where he built yet another prototype, which he called the Maikafer, or May fly.
It caught the eye of Mercedes-Benz, which hired Ganz as a consultant, where he helped develop the 120H prototype, which shows unmistakable design similarities with the future Beetle that we all came to love. Interestingly, at the time Ganz was also a technical consultant to.
Finally, one of Ganz’s designs, the Standard Superior, made it into production. Only a few hundred were built, and only one is known to exist today, but what an iconic design! Later the Bungartz company built a car based on Ganz’s patents. It’s chilling to see pictures of that car at the 1934 Berlin auto show with swastikas in the background.
Hitler loved the idea of a low-cost car. But needless to say, there was no way he was going to let a Jew design it. That’s when Porsche was given the project. And though Porsche had been working on an inexpensive car for the masses, his final design looked a lot more like Ganz’s than anything he came up with himself.
The author Paul Schilperoord, is to be commended for his fresh research into the history of the Volkswagen Beetle. Rather than base his research on prior books, as other authors have done, this Dutch journalist went to Berlin and Frankfurt to find original documents and letters. He also interviewed members of Ganz’s family.
Being a prominent Jewish engineer in Nazi Germany was not going to end well, and Ganz had to flee the country. After the war, he emigrated to Australia where he found work with Holden. But broken in spirit, unrecognized and in ill health, he died in obscurity until this book came out.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily” the online video newscast.