Inspired by Hitler, designed by Porsche, but who was really behind the Beetle, asks Brian Sewell

The VW Beetle is said to have grown from the prototype People's Car developed by Ferdinand Porsche at the behest of Hitler in 1934, but there is every reason to suppose that the concept was in his mind three years earlier when he established a design studio in Stuttgart.

Europe was then deep in the Great Depression that brought bankruptcy to many makers of grand cars, and manufacturers were learning that large vehicles with lazy engines might have to be abandoned in favour of those with appeal to wider social markets. But most of these were utterly conventional large cars, made small, feeble in power, heavy in weight and pleasureless to drive.

Porsche's response, as a man of ideas, was to turn convention on its head and combine in a single car as many advanced (and unproven) notions as were in the minds of central European engineers.

Porsche was three years older than Hans Ledwinka (1878-1967), an underrated genius, who worked on aerodynamics, the backbone chassis, all-independent suspension with swing axles, four-wheel brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, hemispherical combustion chambers and horizontally opposed engines, both air-cooled and rear-mounted. Porsche pursued many of the same speculative enquiries and innovations more or less in parallel, and in 1936 designed for Steyr a People's Car of sorts, the 55, that was very close to Ledwinka's designs for Tatra. This is not to suggest that either man was a plagiarist - consider the Zbrojovka Z6 of 1935, in which neither had a hand - only that ideas were current in central Europe, of which France, Britain, Italy and even Germany were largely unaware.

If the Beetle was of any nationality, it was Austro-Czech and sired by the Zeitgeist there. As for the hump-back of the Beetle - the origin of that must surely lie in a design of 1926 by Le Corbusier, who knew little of engineering, but could see that using half a car's length to house its engine made no aerodynamic sense and proposed to tuck it between the rear wheels. Porsche's Steyr employed the hump but kept the engine at the front. Gutbrod's little Standard of 1933-35 also employed the hump and even put the engine under it, but retained a bonnet; this is a car that all those interested in the Beetle's history should examine, for in many ways it is the closest antecedent and was even called the Volkswagen, until Gutbrod was compelled to relinquish the name to the Nazi government.

But Porsche provided his own antecedents in two aborted designs, both rear-engined, for Zundapp and NSU - the latter even with a flat-four, air-cooled engine of 1470ccs. No car, other than some lunatic designs in the late 19th century, had been so concentratedly innovative as Porsche's Beetle, a People's Car so minimal that it even lacked a rear window (the Pretzel-Fenster, the paired triangles of glass in early production models, was a late afterthought); in its place were three large panels of beehive-louvres to cool the engine.

This, of 984ccs, was of four cylinders horizontally opposed, and produced 22bhp at a little over 3,000rpm (the contemporary Morris 8 gave 23.8bhp at 3,900rpm); it was far simpler and cheaper to manufacture than an engine cooled by water and could not freeze in winter: no core plugs to be pushed out on stalks of ice; no frozen radiators. That it made a hell of a racket from start to its maximum of 64mph mattered not at all, for the noise was far behind.

No one cared that the first Beetle was not a pretty sight - some even thought it, like the Lancia Aprilia, the shape of the future. In conforming to advanced ideas of aerodynamics it had a bluntly sloping bonnet, a low windscreen, a rounded roof and a sloping tail that Ledwinka would have cut short and vertical (and he was right). It was subjected to a million miles of road-testing when 30 prototypes were handed to an SS barracks and 200 Nazi storm troopers drove them flat out in non-stop eight-hour shifts; these proved that, with a few minor technical tinkerings, Porsche's design was inherently reliable.

In 1938, a happy Hitler laid the foundation stone of a new factory in which his Kraft durch Freude Wagen - Strength through Joy Car - was to be made, and though he owned the Volkswagen name, he proclaimed in a characteristic speech that his Beetle was to be called the KdF-Wagen.

It did not quite go into production by 1939, and with the outbreak of war, the millions of happy Aryan families whose blond hair streamed in the wind of the advertisements were disappointed. The new factory turned from cars to cooking stoves that could function on the Russian front in winter, to wings and tail assemblies of planes and, in one comparatively small corner, to constructing Germany's answer to the Jeep, the Kubelwagen - bucket wagon. Some 50,000 of these four-door open-tourers with pram hoods were built; they were the basic KdF mechanically, with limited slip differentials for better traction, reduction gears, an hydraulic steering damper that improved steering over very rough terrain, and a much higher ground clearance. Some 10,000 Schwimmwagens were also built - cigar-shaped amphibian jeeps with propellers in the water and four-wheel drive on land. Both proved beyond argument the reliability of Porsche's design.

It was by the skin of its teeth that the Beetle went into production in 1945. Regarded as ex-Nazi property, it was of some use in providing the occupying forces with military transport at a time when the British industry was urged by the government to get back into car production and export as much as possible to the US, but it could easily have fallen into Russian hands or simply been wiped out as a relic of Germany's Nazi years. KdF was dropped and Hitler's prescience in acquiring the name Volkswagen enabled the firm, temporarily under a board of British directors, to call itself by that comparatively neutral name - Strength through Joy would never lose its Nazi connotation.

Meanwhile, Porsche was imprisoned for two years on charges of collaboration and his son, also Ferdinand but known as Ferry, designed the first car to bear that name, based entirely on VW mechanicals.

Since 1945, no car has been so long in continuous production, been so much improved in quality, detail and performance (if only the Morris Minor and the Mini had been so shrewdly and conscientiously developed), or could any buyer now be more confused by the overlapping changes in specification over 40 years. By the time the Beetle officially died in 1985, the engine had increased in five stages from under 1-litre to 1584ccs, and in seven steps from 22 to 50bhp; it had undergone 78,000 modifications and only one original component remained; yet from beginning to end the Beetle looked very much the same.

Porsche had indeed got it right - 200 storm troopers said so in 1937, 50,000 army drivers said so between 1940 and 1945, and 20 million owners, and perhaps many more then that, have been saying so since.

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