IT MAY BE 70 YEARS SINCE PORSCHE BEGAN BUILDING SPORTS CARS, BUT THIS YEAR ALSO MARKS 80 YEARS OF THE VW FACTORY, WHERE THE STORY REALLY BEGINS…
here canʼt be a Porsche enthusiast anywhere in the world who has failed to notice that the company is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the creation of the first car to carry the family name. However, not all will have spotted, or even know, that itʼs also the 80th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the factory that would, a decade later, ensure that a cash-strapped Porsche would survive the immediate post-war years and ultimately prosper.
The ceremonial cornerstone of the Volkswagen factory was laid by Adolf Hitler on the 26th of May 1938, Ascension Day and a German national holiday. Ten years and one month later, using Volkswagen mechanical components the first Porsche rolled out of the Gmünd woodsheds, where it had been hand built by Porscheʼs artisans.
The cornerstone ceremony was a propaganda extravaganza displaying all of the pomp and circumstance typical of the massive spectaculars organised by the Nazi party – draped with gigantic swastika-bedecked red banners and policed by hundreds of SS troops in their super-cool but sinister black Hugo Boss uniforms. There were three Volkswagens on display that day: a standard saloon, a full-length sunroof saloon and a convertible.
After a speech in which Hitler announced, much to Professor Porscheʼs surprise and dismay, that the new ʻVolkswagenʼ would in fact be called the ʻKdf-wagenʼ, ( Kraft durch Freude Wagen or ʻStrength Through Joy Car ʼ), Ferry Porsche, driving the cabriolet, chauffeured a happy Hitler back to his special train waiting at the Fallersleben railway station. Professor Porsche sat in the back and Ferry recalled in his autobiography that he and his father were the only officials at the ceremony that were not in uniform.
The factory was located on the Mittelandkanal in lower Saxony and had been selected as a site by Dr Bodo Lafferentz, assistant to Robert Ley, the virulently antisemitic drunken head of the Deutsche Arbeitisfront (DAF or German Labour Front). Lafferentz used a small aircraft to search for a suitable site, finally settling on a twenty-square-mile parcel of land split between the estates of Count von Schulenberg and Herr von Wense. In typical Nazi fashion the land was appropriated and derisory compensation paid to the owners. The land pinched from von Schulenberg included the Wolfsburg castle that eventually gave its name to the factory, but initially it was referred to as the Fallersleben factory after the nearby town.
The factory was designed by Austrian-born architect Peter Koller, with Hitler ʼs favourite architect Albert Speer as a consultant. Koller also planned the adjacent new town of Wolfsburg, built to house the workers and their families.
Due to a last minute switch of labour to the western defences, Hitler had to call on his Italian dictator buddy, Mussolini, to ship in a 7000-strong top-up labour force. The rate of work was unbelievably fast: from corner stone ceremony to completion took a mere 18-months.
The factory wasnʼt just big, at a mile-long it was massive, and at the time the worldʼs largest automobile factory under a single roof. The first year ʼs production target was 400,000 cars, to be produced on a two-shift rota system – 10,000 workers on the first shift and 7500 on the second. Expansion was planned for 30,000 workers and production of between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Kdfs a year. A staggering objective when one considers that at that time there were only 1.1 million cars on Germanyʼs roads. (Incidentally, 1958 was the first year in which more than 400,000 Beetles left the factory, 1965 the first year to break a million.)
The factory was put on a war footing before Beetle production got under way, eventually producing over 50,000
as well as repairing aircraft and building V1 flying bombs. In common with most other industries in Germany, the VW factory made extensive use of slave labour.
It was purely chance that allowed the Volkswagen factory to survive the hostilities in a condition – just – that allowed post-war production to recommence. Despite American bombs destroying up to 80 per cent of the construction halls, by some miracle the enormous power-generating turbine halls were unscathed. If they had been destroyed the factory would probably have been demolished.
American troops arrived at the Stadt des Kdf-wagens in March 1945, which was the second favourable hand that fate dealt. If it had been in the Russian zone the factory would have been picked bare and the spoils shipped back to the motherland. And the third piece of good fortune was that the Americans handed the factory over to the British who put in a baby sitter in the form of Major Ivan Hirst of the British Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) to look after the site. Despite the devastation, Hirst thought that it would help local moral to keep its unemployed and defeated men busy by getting the plant running again. Quickly knocking together a Beetle from existing parts he presented it to the Army who placed an order for 20,000! More than 20million would follow.
Before the war, Porsche had agreed a royalty for each Volkswagen sold but that deal had, of course, evaporated along with the dream of a Thousand Year Reich. However, in 1948 Ferry negotiated a new deal with Heinz Nordhoff, the new head of VW, which guaranteed Porsche continued design collaboration with the factory, plus the supply of mechanical components for the 356. Porsche was safe, the rest is history – and you are driving it. CP
“FERRY NEGOTIATED A NEW DEAL…”