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The Volk­swa­gen (VW) brand has been through the wringer of late. The emis­sions scan­dal (it was caught us­ing equip­ment that fudged the re­sults for emis­sion reg­u­la­tors) means that it’s hav­ing to dip into its rather hefty war chest to keep things truck­ing along. Deal­ers in the US are of­fer­ing huge dis­counts on new cars; we’ve read of the group po­ten­tially sell­ing off some of the low­er­rev­enue-but-still-high-pro­file brands (Ducati, Bu­gatti, Lam­borgh­ini; even Audi has been ru­moured to be on the block); and, most re­cently, it an­nounced a huge buy-back scheme on the af­fected four-cylin­der diesel ve­hi­cles at the cen­tre of the ker­fuf­fle.

But VW will carry on, and it will most likely suc­ceed. It’ll de­velop a bet­ter prod­uct, will of­fer a bet­ter ser­vice; peo­ple will for­get about emis­sions, much as they for­got about that other hic­cup in the com­pany’s his­tory (“Don’t men­tion the war!”); and life will con­tinue. So, where did it all be­gin for this mo­tor­ing be­he­moth?

Po­lit­i­cal prom­ise

Prior to World War II (just like John Cleese, I can’t help but ref­er­ence it for the sake of the story), big, ex­pen­sive cars were all the rage across the globe. But Ger­many’s econ­omy, like that of most coun­tries around the world, was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. A need was es­tab­lished for smaller, cheaper cars.

In 1933, Fer­di­nand Porsche not only had an en­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion as a tal­ented en­gi­neer, but he’d also been chief de­signer for Daim­ler-benz and Auto Union. In the sum­mer of 1933, he was sum­moned to the Ho­tel Kais­er­hof in Berlin for a covert meet­ing with Ger­man dic­ta­tor Adolf Hitler to learn of his plans for a new Ger­man car. Hitler out­lined his in­ten­tion to build a small fourseater ve­hi­cle with a re­li­ably durable air-cooled en­gine that was eco­nom­i­cal to run. This car would be called ‘Volk­swa­gen’, and Hitler stip­u­lated it would sell be­low 1K Deutsche Marks (roughly equiv­a­lent to US$250). This sounded like a fairly tall or­der, and, in Porsche’s opin­ion, it wasn’t pos­si­ble, con­sid­er­ing that Henry Ford could not build a car for that price. What Porsche wasn’t aware of was that Hitler in­tended to use the Volk­swa­gen as a po­lit­i­cal prom­ise to win Ger­mans to his regime.

At the Berlin Mo­tor Show, less than a year later, Hitler an­nounced to the Ger­man peo­ple the prom­ise of a small, low-priced car, and an of­fi­cial or­der was given to Porsche to pro­duce three pro­to­types ready for test­ing within 10 months. The Ger­man au­to­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ers had been or­dered to toe the line by pro­vid­ing the nec­es­sary com­po­nent parts, en­sur­ing that the en­tire in­dus­try would be 100 per cent be­hind the project. Porsche was still con­cerned that the stip­u­lated price limit was not achiev­able but was also well aware that no one dared chal­lenge the or­ders of Adolf Hitler, so work be­gan.

four-seater body. Ba­si­cally a rear-en­gined jeep, the ad­van­tage of the war­time VW, called the ‘Kü­bel­wa­gen’, was its in­cred­i­ble light weight of only 499kg, which meant that two men could over­turn it in the event that it rolled over. This hugely ver­sa­tile ve­hi­cle could serve on all fronts, from the muddy bogs of Poland to the sub-zero tem­per­a­tures of Rus­sia or the hot sands of the African desert. A spe­cial am­phibi­ous model, the ‘Sch­wimmwa­gen’, was also built with a pro­pel­ler and rud­der ca­pa­ble of a steady 24kph in wa­ter and 80kph on land.

It was only af­ter the war that Hitler’s prom­ise was fi­nally ful­filled. Us­ing the dis­cov­ered blue­prints, the Volk­swa­gen went into pro­duc­tion, as much of the ma­chin­ery had been stored in the base­ment and had sur­vived the bomb­ing. Cars were put to­gether with old stock and what­ever parts could be found.

In 1946, 13 years af­ter Hitler’s prom­ise, the fac­tory was pro­duc­ing about 1000 cars a month, and, this time, they re­ally were for the peo­ple. The cars went on sale, first in Ger­many then through­out Europe.

The car was pur­chased around 1963 by then-stu­dent and Kü­bel­wa­gen en­thu­si­ast Mr Harold Erich­sen. Harold was on the re­turn leg from a road trip down to Cze­choslo­vakia in his own Kü­bel­wa­gen (on a post-war Bee­tle chas­sis), when he came across this Kü­bel­wa­gen and its stu­dent owner, bro­ken down in Aus­tria. Af­ter a bit too much red wine, Harold agreed to tow the Kü­bel­wa­gen 1000km back to Ham­burg and, even­tu­ally, bought the car from the owner to re­place his own. It was used reg­u­larly, and, at some point, the orig­i­nal ca­ble brake sys­tem was re­placed with early Kombi axles with hy­draulic brakes. The car shared garage space with a Sch­wimmwa­gen for a time un­til both cars found new homes — the Kü­bel­wa­gen be­ing added to a vast col­lec­tion rare of VWS be­long­ing to Mr Gra­ham Lees in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia. The car it­self had not changed at all since Harold’s own­er­ship and was run­ning and driv­ing but in a sad state of dis­re­pair. Af­ter another 30 years, it was im­ported by a New Zealand–based col­lec­tor, and Michael Chong got word that there might be an op­por­tu­nity to own it.

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