Opinion : Rootes and the Volkswagen Beetle

Was the Beetle really that great? And was Sir William Rootes really that foolish?

This opinion piece was originally published in the Canadian paper Old Autos. It is reproduced here – with some subsequent updates – with the kind permission of that publication.

Volkswagen Beetle: did Rootes really miss a trick?

Volkswagen Beetle

The title got your attention. So let me say, right off, yes, the Beetle ended up great. With more than 21 million built – five million more than the Ford Model T, fifteen million more than the BMC Mini – how could it not be seen as great?

But what about the second part of the title? It relates to the fact that Sir William Rootes, later Lord Rootes, turned down the opportunity to take ownership of Volkswagen – free – soon after the end of World War II. Was that foolish? Before you answer I’d suggest you consider the circumstances of 1945.

In the weeks leading up to the end of the war in Europe, Hitler refused to hear, and his SS henchmen were quick to execute, anyone who talked of defeat or surrender. Even after devastating Allied bombing of German cities, and the country being overrun by Allied ground forces, by which time defeat was clearly inevitable, Hitler insisted that the fight must go on to the very last man. However, after he committed suicide, the surrender was signed, on 8 May 1945. Germany’s economy was shattered, people were without housing, starving was widespread because food production and distribution were in chaos, and workplaces, businesses and industrial plants were in ruins, so unemployment was rampant.

A few weeks after the surrender, the Allies divided Germany into four military-occupied sectors – Russian, American, French and British (the last-named including involvement by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa). Stalin was already implementing his own plans for the Russian sector, but in the other three sectors it was recognised that there was urgent need to restore and maintain order, coping with the task of corralling and feeding surrendered German troops and likewise dealing with displaced persons and people fleeing the Russian sector.

Rebuilding Germany, rebuilding Wolfsburg

Not long before Germany had been the enemy, but there was now realisation of a need to help them take on the rebuilding of their country: restoring housing, hospitals and schools, resuscitating agriculture, transportation, business and industry. On the other hand no firm overall strategy had yet been formulated by the USA, France and Britain; one proposal being given thought was the punitive US Morgenthau plan which would severely inhibit any chance of Germany rebuilding its powerful industries.

In the British sector lay Wolfsburg, a city created in the late 1930s from a greenfield site to be the home of Hitler’s ‘people’s car’ – the Volkswagen. Wolfsburg consisted of a Nazi Government-funded plant plus nearby housing for workers. The Beetle (as the car would subsequently be nick-named) had been designed and developed over several years by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.

By 1938 it was close to ready for production and a couple of hundred had been built off-site in Stuttgart. However, before the Wolfsburg plant was at the stage where production could start, Hitler precipitated WWII. When Wolfsburg finally came ready in 1940 it was put to use building the Kubelwagen, a small, open, military personnel-carrier on the Beetle platform, and an amphibious version called the Schwimmkubel. As the war progressed Wolfsburg also produced mines, aircraft parts and V1 flying bombs, so inevitably it did not escape Allied bombing.

How to restart Beetle production

Major Ivan HirstNow fast forward to a few weeks after the surrender: a unit of the British Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, commanded by a Major Ivan Hirst, was dispatched to Wolfsburg to set up a station for servicing army trucks. What Hirst found was a plant in virtual ruin, roofless and flooded, and a city with widespread starvation, chronic unemployment and destroyed morale.

The exception to that were some key Volkswagenwerk employees who, hoping that the Beetle might survive, had more-or-less hand-built two cars. Hirst, impressed and keen to see employment created, at least temporarily, sent a Stuttgart-built Beetle to his CO’s HQ, with the suggestion that if materials could be made available, Wolfsburg could be refurbished to build some Beetles for the occupying forces; at the time there was an acute shortage of staff cars since manufacturers in Britain were still switching back from war production. The CO agreed and Hirst, with other British officers and Wolfsburg managers, engineers and line-workers, tackled the task of making the plant workable.

However, in the meantime, Morgenthau plan thinking was dominant, an eventual effect of which would be the closing of Wolfsburg. And there was the understandable thought that the British Army should not be in the business of building cars. So it was decided to see if a British car manufacturer would be interested in taking over Volkswagen – free – to build the Beetle for itself. And this is where Sir William Rootes of the Rootes Group (Humber, Hillman, Sunbeam-Talbot, and Commer/Karrier trucks) came into the picture.

When Rootes met Volkswagen

Disclosure: A lot of information I give here can be found in the book ‘Small Wonder – The Amazing Story of the Volkswagen’ by Walter Henry Nelson, first published in 1964 by Little, Brown and Company. That book was a best-seller and is a must-read for any Beetle fan. In my opinion, Nelson’s unbridled enthusiasm for the Beetle sometimes has to be taken with a large pinch of salt, but nevertheless I can recommend the book as a fascinating read. However, my assessment of the reason for the success of the Beetle differs quite a bit from Nelson’s.

A further disclosure: I‘m biased. From 1956-1959 I was a pupil-apprentice at Rootes in Coventry, I then worked there for another three years, after which I transferred to Toronto and worked for Rootes Canada until it was merged into Chrysler. I never met Sir William, but anyone who knows about the decades-long success of the company that he and his brother, Reginald, had built will know that Sir William was no fool.

To explore the possibility of sale – actually giveaway – of Volkswagen to a British manufacturer, a Beetle was shipped to Britain for examination, and a commission, led by Sir William, travelled to Germany to assess Wolfsburg. The conclusion arrived at was that there was just too much unsuitable to make the proposition feasible. Now it so happens that, in Nelson’s account, Sir William is the only person identified by name and, probably as a result of that, he has for evermore been singled out as a fool by those whose hindsight – and possible penchant for Brit-bashing – far exceeds their understanding of the circumstances. Sir William was, in fact, by no means the only individual involved, nor was the Rootes Group the only manufacturer which chose to shy away from acquiring Volkswagen.

It wasn’t just Rootes

In the book ‘Morris – The Cars and the Company’, Haynes Publishing, 2013, author Jon Pressnell records that Nuffield staff at Cowley road-tested the Beetle shipped from Germany and emphatically rejected it. And it seems likely that Austin and Standard, maybe even Rover and Singer, also had the opportunity to examine the car and volunteer to take it over, although I haven’t found documentation of such. Note furthermore that it wasn’t only British-owned manufacturers who turned down the offer: in June 1948 Ernest Breech, Ford USA Board Chairman, and Henry Ford II, met with the British authorities in Germany to consider a proposal that Ford take over Volkswagen. Breech’s advice to Henry II: ‘I don’t think what we’re being offered is worth a dime.’

So were all these people fools? Let’s look at it from the perspective of the time. First, the business case. In Britain, following the end of the war, there was severe pent-up demand for new cars, with waiting lists over a year long. The emphasis was on getting back into production as quickly as possible. What would be the justification for embarking on the build of a totally new and unknown car, with a radically different engine and gearbox, requiring new production methods, new tooling and new suppliers, when it was relatively easy to speedily resume production of what were essentially existing models?

And marketability of the very unorthodox Volkswagen was totally untested, especially since there was the very real stigma of its Hitler/Nazi origin. Demand for warmed-over pre-war British models would, of course, eventually lessen, but promising new designs were already sketches or on drawing boards: Alec Issigonis’ Mosquito (which would become the Morris Minor), Austin A40, Standard Vanguard, the Raymond Lowey-influenced Hillman Minx. So why take this huge and costly risk?

For Ford the business case was equally a no-brainer. The situation for Ford of England was much the same as for the British-owned manufacturers. And with regard to Ford building the Beetle for North America, at that time there was little evidence that Americans and Canadians wanted anything other than the big cars they knew and liked. North American awareness of small cars was in its infancy in 1948.

So what were the disadvantages of the Beetle?

1948 Volkswagen Beetle

That then was the business/market situation in 1945 when the British were invited to acquire Volkswagen. But what about the car itself? Forget the Beetle that we know now and look at how it appeared then. What the British saw was a unconventional car with styling somewhat resembling what had been popular in the 1930s but was now becoming dated. Two-door only. With an air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine, that was new territory. The transaxle, also new territory, had no synchromesh, whereas by the late 1930s most British and American cars had synchromesh on most forward gears.

Yes, the Beetle’s rear engine configuration offered a traction advantage in mud and snow, but would that really be a significant overall marketing plus? And yes, independent rear suspension promised a smoother ride, but Engineers even then knew that swing-axles at the rear could give rise to handling problems. And the car was slow, even by the standards of the day although, in fairness, this was partly due to Porsche having designed the car to be high-geared, (i.e., with low numerical Overall Top Gear Ratio) so that engine rpm would be lower at highway speeds, with longevity and fuel economy advantages.

What about air-cooling? Volkswagen would later make a big deal of it in their very clever advertising – they had to – but the reality was that air-cooled engines were noisier than their water-cooled equivalents. Moreover, by 1945 development of water-cooled systems had advanced, water pumps overcoming the weakness of prior thermo-syphon systems, and supplies of glycol/antifreeze had loosened up, since its use in aircraft in WWII had resulted in more production capacity.

Beetle: a long way from perfect in 1948

Rootes and the others were being shown a car which was in a relatively early stage of development. And, although they probably weren’t told it, the car was then far from problem-free. In ‘Small Wonder’ Heinz Nordhoff, a former Opel Engineer, who was appointed by the British to manage Volkswagen, is recorded as saying that when he arrived at Wolfsburg in January 1948 the car — presumably comparable to the one the British had been given to assess – ‘had more things wrong with it than a dog has fleas’: slow and noisy, with short engine life, and suspension, upholstery and paint problems.

So if the car wasn’t that great, how did they go on to sell over 21 million of them? Strict price control helped, but the incredible success of the Beetle can really be summed up with one word: dependability. That’s what people expected, especially in the crucially lucrative market of North America. And the Beetle delivered. Unlike its British competitors.

So how did Nordhoff and his people in Wolfsburg go about achieving superb dependability?

Essentially by listening to owners and taking prompt corrective action when faults and shortcomings were identified. In other pieces I have written I have been a harsh critic of the British for failing to do just that; experience in the USA and Canada was that, far too often, when problems were reported to Britain they were dismissed as insignificant if they were not being reported on the home market, and foot-dragging was frequent when denial no longer worked. That was not Wolfsburg’s approach.

Making the Beetle reliably

At the end of the 1967 edition of ‘Small Wonder‘ is a list: ‘How to tell the age of a Volkswagen – Basic Changes’, covering 1949 to 1967. Essentially, it is a list of 109 changes, mostly visible therefore not listing hidden but critical technical advances – material/metallurgical upgrades, detail engineering design changes, production improvements – driven by an uncompromising Heinz Nordhoff for whom quality, reliability and durability were essential if the Beetle was to sell. The list gives us a feel for the meticulous attention paid to criticisms, large and small, reported to Wolfsburg by owners, dealers and field staff. One change that I particularly looked for was listed by Nelson as a ‘non-repeat starter switch’.

That doesn’t sound like much, but it was, I knew, a poorly-worded description of a major advance made when Volkswagen ditched the starter-motor Bendix drive for a solenoid-engaged pinion, a feature crucial for cold-start dependability with a four-cylinder engine. At the risk of boring you with what I’ve written before, let me explain that if the engine did not start immediately at low ambients, but just coughed on one or two cylinders, the Bendix pinion would be thrown out of mesh and the hapless driver would have to wait until the starter armature stopped spinning before he or she could try again – and again – and again. On the other hand, with the solenoid-engaged pinion – which is what we still have today – one just keeps cranking until the engine stays running.

By 1960, the solenoid-engaged pinion had been made standard on cars of North American manufacture; Volkswagen reacted fast and made it standard on the 1961 Beetle. But it wasn’t until the middle of the 1960s that the solenoid-engaged pinion appeared on most higher-volume cars produced by British-owned manufacturers. So, for another four or five years, British cars were stuck with a reputation of being hard to start in cold weather. That’s a classic example of how Wolfsburg was assiduously attentive to what the market required, whereas a head-in-the-sand response persisted with most of the British-owned manufacturers.

The Nordhoff difference

Heinz Nordhoff

The relentless pursuit of Beetle dependability had started as soon as Heinz Nordhoff (above) took over Volkswagen in January 1948. Before he came to Wolfsburg he had not been impressed by the Beetle. When the prototype Beetle was revealed in 1937 Nordhoff’s interest lay in Opel’s own small car, the P-4, a front-engine/rear-drive car comparable to the contemporary Ford 8 and Morris 8, and he had contemptuously dismissed the Beetle as ‘that car of Hitler’s’.

So when he came to Wolfsburg he was not enthusiastic about the Beetle itself and, as we have seen, he fast concluded that dependability and unbeatable quality would have to be absolute prime factors if this very different car was to make its way in the marketplace. An Engineer by profession, Nordhoff was never satisfied with the way things were, and from his start at Wolfsburg he continuously and aggressively pushed the Volkswagenwerk staff and labour force to look for, and implement, new ways of improving detail design, materials and processes so that every Beetle shipped would be meet the top standards of the day in mechanical component life, workmanship, fit-and-finish, corrosion resistance, paint appearance, reliability and overall durability. But Nordhoff was a marketer too, so his demands did not end when a car left Wolfsburg.

His strategy, ‘service first, sales second’, required that before a single car was sold by a dealer, technicians at that dealership would have already been trained by Volkswagen, and the dealership would have an extensive stock of parts to Volkswagen’s requirements, so that everyday service and repairs could be handled immediately. Preference was given to dealers who would sell Volkswagens exclusively. That strategy was enforced in Europe as soon as Beetle sales became significant but the objectives were not met in the USA as quickly because acceptance of the Beetle, and therefore setting up a solid dealer organisation, took longer. But once the Volkswagen franchise became desirable in the USA and Canada, Wolfsburg’s demands were strictly imposed.

Single-model advantages

Of course, having only a single model helped greatly. Although Nordhoff could not take credit – it was historical circumstance – he made sure it stayed that way until worldwide parts and service organisations were well established. The ‘Type 2’ Transporter/Microbus was not introduced until 1950, the Karmann-Ghia until 1955, and the ‘Type 3’, the 1500, until 1961.

A chance factor which also helped build the Beetle’s success was a sociological one. The 1960s, especially in North America and the era of the war in Vietnam, launched a generation of young people, typified in the beatniks then the hippies, which rose up against everything they saw as ‘The Establishment’. And when it came to cars, what better expressed rebellion against parents’ Chevs, Dodges and Fords than the quirky Beetle? Plus there was its increasingly-recognised dependability: pile three others into a Beetle and you could drive from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver (or Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco) with your foot flat on the boards all the way; the travel wasn’t fast but you got there and back without complaint from the car. Flower power, freedom and the Beetle became intertwined.

What Sir William Rootes and others had been asked to do was gamble on a car that had not yet been tested in production, nor was it tested in the marketplace. There was no crystal ball to reveal that over 21 million would be built. And, as I have shown, it was not the car itself that made it all happen, it was the foresight and single-mindedness of Heinz Nordhoff. So, based on what Sir William and his commission members saw in 1945, and what Ford saw in 1948, the decision to reject the Beetle was a rational one.

And clever though Dr. Porsche had been in designing a car that would meet Hitler’s 1930s objective of a people’s car built to a price, we now know that the Beetle was not going to be the small car template for the future. How many cars are there today with air-cooled engines? How many cars are there today in the family-car class that are rear-engined? (Although it’s my opinion that rear engine could still be a viable option provided the rear suspension is not swing axle.) The Beetle was incredibly successful because it was superbly developed with build quality and dependability the objectives above all others. And then it was superbly marketed worldwide with total dedication to the principle that outstanding parts and service support was the only way to achieve complete and lasting owner satisfaction. That’s what sold more than 21 million cars.

The rise of the small car in the US

Volkswagen Beetle

After WWII, and for long beyond, exporting to the huge and lucrative North American market was crucial to the survival of small car manufacturers, British, European and Asian. The British got there first: in the early 1950s in the USA and Canada the terms ‘small car’ and ‘English car’ were synonymous. And there was nothing inherently wrong with the front-engine/rear-drive configuration that they stayed with until the advent of the Mini – note that Toyota and Datsun/Nissan would rely on front-engine/rear drive during their exponential growths through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Rootes (and the other Brits) failed not because they rejected the Beetle, but because they failed to adopt policies that placed absolute priority on owner satisfaction.

Far too often top executives in large corporations are shielded from bad news – nobody wants to be the messenger, so pictures painted for the top people are rosy ones. I suspect that is what happened at Rootes: the increasing negative reputation of Rootes products (and British cars in general) as frustratingly unreliable in the crucial North American market was never really revealed to Sir William and his Board until it was much too late. What follows here is a ‘could-have-been’ scenario, based on the reality of what Heinz Nordhoff achieved with the Beetle.

Suppose at Rootes the lack of dependability under North American road and climate conditions had been made clear to Sir William and Sir Reginald early in the 1950s. Suppose that the Rootes brothers had then made it an absolute priority that their engineering, service and field staffs be obsessive in identifying and fixing causes of customer dissatisfaction. The Rootes brothers could have insisted on receiving, personally, regular reports detailing owner problems and complaints. They could have insisted on regular reports detailing frequently-occurring warranty conditions and reports of unusually high sales/movement of specific parts. Unglamorous stuff, and not what top executives would normally ask for, but key to identifying the endemic problems which were plaguing British cars in North America.

Reliability to the fore

Things going wrong that shouldn’t go wrong. Such as electrical connectors that corroded and failed in salt-laden operating conditions, brake wheel-cylinders and handbrake cables that seized under those same conditions, exhaust valves that burned in frequent interstate/expressway (i.e. motorway) driving, clutch carbon release-bearings that wore out prematurely (yes, drivers will pedal-ride so deal with it: give them a durable ball-race), distributor contact breakers that required too frequent adjustment, ignition systems that tracked in wet weather, sub-standard weatherstripping causing water leaks, interior textiles that split in temperature extremes and, after 1960, that antiquated Bendix starter-drive.

Having learned how their otherwise attractive cars were frustrating far too many North American owners with lack of dependability, the Rootes brothers could then have read the riot act with their finance, engineering, production and purchasing managers, and with suppliers such as Lucas, Smiths, Girling and Lockheed, so that problems got fixed fast, and quality and reliability became givens. Probably at extra cost— for example Lucas could have supplied a starter motor with a solenoid-engaged pinion much earlier had the bean-counters at Rootes (and BMC) stepped up to paying for it. Short-term pain for long-term gain.

How the Brits didn’t learn from Volkswagen

And along with that, to simplify the goal of establishing first-class after-sales service, the Rootes brothers could have implemented a radical marketing policy for the USA and Canada, concentrating on the top-selling Minx (Husky, Rapier and Alpine variants could follow later) and eliminating the costs and complications of low-selling Humbers, Sunbeam-Talbots and Commer trucks. Plus refusal to allow shipment of a single car to a new dealer until that dealer’s parts department had an ample stock of parts and mechanics had undergone full training.

Had Rootes adopted such a rigorous culture of ongoing engineering improvements, uncompromising quality standards, obsession with dependability, and superb after-sales support, there is no reason why the post-War redesigned Minx, with its four doors, contemporary Lowey-influenced styling, competitive interior roominess, reasonable performance for the era, and predictable stable handling, could have been just as well-built and dependable as the Beetle – and eclipsed it. Sir William Rootes was not foolish in turning down an opportunity to acquire the Beetle.

He didn’t need it. What went wrong was that Rootes (along with other British-owned car manufacturers) failed, post-War, to remodel the organisation with top down insistence on a corporate culture of obsessive dedication to dependability and owner satisfaction. Had Rootes and other British-owned manufacturers embraced such an enlightened policy Britain could well have remained the dominant exporter of small cars to North America — and the Beetle just a footnote. But, of course, that didn’t happen. The Beetle ate the Brits’ lunch. And the Japanese took note.

Peter Badenoch
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  1. This is a very good article, and the lessons apply to many areas of British industry outside car manufacture.

  2. Porsche emphatically did *not* design and develop the Beetle – he nicked the design of the T97 from Tatra, helped along by the Nazis who promptly banned its manufacture – fiddled about with it and presented it as his own work.
    The Czechs did get their own back with the T77/T77a cars which had the handling ability of a 911 Turbo on crossplies and killed off a fair number of SS officers and invented the idea of snap-anysteer (ie it’d try and kill you in whatever direction and relation to travel that was easiest, or most entertaining, at the time).
    VW got sued for both defrauding their customers for the Beetle and for basically nicking the T97 from the Tatra company.

    Incidentally if you happen to purchase an air-cooled tatra (77/87/600/603/early 700)do yourself a favour and buy a CO alarm. The internal cabin heater runs off petrol from the main tank – you do not want a blocked flue from the burner as imminent death often offends..

  3. “In Britain following the end of the war there was severe pent-up demand for new cars”

    Sure there was demand, but in those immediate post war years you could not buy new UK cars, new cars were prioritised for export to the US and Commonwealth markets and scarce steel allocated on that basis to the manufacturers. The Land Rover was conceived to help fill Rover production capacity by utilising aluminum which was in more plentiful supply, following the decline in aircraft production, also bypassing the restrictions in new car sales, by being agricultural equipment.

    Whilst the Beetle might have had appeal for the UK market, at that time it was hardly suitable for the export markets. It was many years before the Beetle became a success in the USA, but that was thanks in no small part to a creative advertising campaign that targeted people who saw a car as a form of transport and rejected the aspiration of car ownership.

  4. Of the view the only thing Rootes were interested in from Volkswagen was a VW-sourced flat-twin for the rear-engined 1949 little jimmy project by Craig Miller of the Rootes Group, the 12 hp twin-cam was reputedly from some Volkswagen Tractor project based off half the original 24-25 hp 985-1131cc Flat-4s only for it to be revealed the tooling for the engine was destroyed during the war.

    The above is not to be confused with the pre-war front-engined little jim project that was also developed by Rootes.

    As far as missing a trick is concerned, another thing Rootes missed out on is not collaborating more with Isuzu when the latter was further building upon the Rootes-derived mechanicals / engines which would have benefited Rootes for conventional Audax/Arrow-type cars. The same is true regarding Austin with Nissan and BMC not taking a more Peugeot-like approach with Pininfarina for its cars from the mid/late-60s to early-70s and beyond.

    On the Volkswagen Beetle. The only individual that comes to mind in establishing a state/co-op-owned carmaker akin to Volkswagen, post-war Renault or Skoda and Tatra in better circumstances would be Sir Roy Fedden had he simply appropriated much of the Volkswagen’s design (albeit with different styling) as opposed to his pop-valve radial engine prototype. At best it could have become something much more (with Michelotti’s work on the Hino Contessa PD giving a rough idea), while at worse also being a government plaything and potential sacrificial lamb or azazel goat / scapegoat that ultimately helps saves the rest of the British motor industry.

    Another German prototype car that was captured by the British army was the DKW F9 prototype, now given BSA appropriated the design of the DKW RT125 as war reparations and changed it into the BSA Bantam. Just imagine if BSA took the same approach with the DKW F9 prototype, either slotting below or being produced in place of the post-war Lanchester Ten LD10.

  5. Aww that F9 sooo cute. Looks like someone did a cut and shut with a Minor & a depressed Beetle and then put a Peugeot grille on the front..

    I’d love to convert the Wolseley to air-cooled two stroke U6 using two of the DKW engines. Put tuned pipes on and it’s certainly be interesting.

    • While the likes of the DKW F9 did eventually evolve into the East German Wartburg 353 and South American DKW VEMAG Fissore (via the DKW F91), it also eventually evolved into the West German DKW F102* later the four-stroke M118-powered Audi F103. The idea being a BSA equivalent could have potentially evolved along similar lines.

      *- Also spawned the Mercedes-Benz W118/W119 project that originally featured the Mercedes-Benz M118 used in the Audi F103 as well as later in “Volkswagen EA831” OHC form, powering the likes of the Audi 100, Volkswagen LT and Porsche 924 (albeit reputedly modified extensively) as well as the Jeep DJ and AMC Gremlin/Concord/Spirit.

  6. Volkswagen and therefore probably Audi, Seat, Skoda et al would not exist today. If Rootes hadn’t trashed VW by the mid 60’s – Chrysler certainly would have.

    • From what I recall from the very good “Chronicles of the People Car” VW made a deal with Chrysler to sell Beetles in the USA in exchange for them to sell Chryslers through their European dealerships.

      Supposedly many of the American Chrysler dealers switched to selling just VW because they were making more money selling Beetles.

  7. Thanks for an interesting article yet again. My understanding on the Beetle design is the same as Jemma’s – I’ve always believed (through reading over the years) that it was of Tatra origin.
    When I was in my teens, a family friend changed from a Riley 1.5 to a Beetle – and he would wax lyrical to anyone who would listen why: the Riley kept falling apart and the dealer wasn’t listening to him. The Beetle (he said) was so much better put together – and when he complained about some minor thing – it got fixed instantly. Just about supports everything you’ve said!
    I had two beetles in the 70’s – loved ’em both to bits. The knockers always refer to the dodgy handling – but by modifying the rear suspension (easiest mod ever to do) – you could make it a whole lot better. People got them to handle well in rallying. See one today and it’s still so cool!

  8. A good article, and I agree that Sir William Rootes was no fool. The VW could not have been produced in Great Britain without some serious retooling, as the car was somewhat “alien” and different from Britiish designs and componentry. Lord Rootes had no way of knowing in the immediate post-war era that the car would eventually be highly successful, thanks to future high standards of quality control, combined with a vast international network of dealerships and parts. He was not Nostradamus.

    A couple of other facts not mentioned by anyone, also helped to make the VW unpalatable to both the British and the Americans in the immediate post-war era. One was that Hitler himself had had a hand in the design. While I agree that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was heavily “inspired” by the Tatra design, his drawings were criticised by the Fuehrer, in the frontal area. Hitler said: “Look to nature for your best aerodynamic shapes. The front of this car needs to look like a beetle”. Hitler then proceeded to sketch the frontal area he envisaged, and Porsche very faithfully grafted it three dimensionally into the final production model. The other thing working against British or American post-war production of the “Beetle” was that its Kuebelwagen offshoot–the German version of a jeep, based on the car’s chassis and drivetrain–had developed a wartime reputation for being inferior to the American-designed Jeep. Thus between one thing and another, the VW did not come across as an incredibly hot and desirable prize.

    As the allies drove into Hitler’s Germany, their policies towards German industry couldn’t have been more different. The Soviets would rapidly and gleefully dismantle entire German factories and relocate them in the Soviet Union as reparations. The Americans believed in destroying all German designs and blueprints, except for those of Nazi “wonderweapons” that interested them. The British occupying forces, for their part, deserve credit for having allowed the Germans themselves to fulfil their faith in the VW, and put it into production, so as to help them get back on their feet. As we know, VW Beetle production had a lot to do with helping the West Germans achieve the West-German economic miracle of the 1960s.

  9. Absolutely nailed the decline of our industry & the rise of the rest. Also investing in production facilities in the boom years after the war when the competition was hard hit by the war was lacking. We stole defeat from the jaws of victory.

  10. Rear engined cars weren’t just confined to Volkswagen, of course, by the sixties there were rear engined Simcas, Renaults, Skodas and Rootes, who had shunned the Beetle, were pinning their hopes on the Imp to take on the Mini. The Imp was quite an innovative design, being rear engined meant it had far more luggage space than the Mini and also had an opening rear window and space for luggage behind the passenger seat. Also the 875cc engine was light and powerful for its size and it was possible to get over 90 mph out of sporting versions. Now if only they built the Imp right at the start.

    • Though Rootes had tentative plans to produce a 928cc Imp, it is a pity they could not find a use for the entry-level 800cc version or quickly realise the existing Imp engine could only be enlarged to 948cc (as opposed to the Rally / motorsport spec 998cc versions) and thus promptly work on getting the 998-1150+(?)cc tall-block version of the Imp engine into production in better circumstances.

      Also have to wonder whether the Imp could have earned extra sales had it featured a 4-door variant (unlikely the Mini beyond the latter’s own 84-inch wheelbase-derived 4-door prototype) akin to the similarly sized Fiat-derived SEAT 850 as well as the Simca 1000, the latter whose 4-door body certainly help contribute to its near 2 million sales.

    • Glenn: I think your comment reinforces my belief, expressed in my above opinion piece, that rear-engine could still be a viable option provided — as on the Imp — the rear suspension isn’t swing axle. Rootes were proceeding somewhat down that path with the Swallow prototype, admittedly more mid-engine than rear- engine, as a replacement for Minx/Hunter “family-size” cars, but it was killed during the Chrysler years. And never to be ignored is the fact that has Porsche managed to muddle along tolerably well with a rear engine configuration, refining it, including the rear suspension, as time went on. .

  11. I agree with you there Glenn. My brother owned a 1964? white Hillman Imp (deluxe?) bought around 1968. it did have a couple of engine problems but that aside it was a nippy car for its engine size on the open road. I remember the sound of the engine/gearbox whine at speed!

    Despite the documented build quality stories, the bodywork on my brother’s car was decent enough.

  12. I wonder if the view ‘Sir William Rootes was a fool not to take on VW’ might have arisen from his, reportedly telling Major Ivan Hirst something along the lines of “If you think you’re going to make cars in this [at the time still largely bombed-out Wolfsburg] factory, young man, you’re a bloody fool.” I have seen that allegation a number of times but cannot recall where now. Over seven decades and countless books and articles on VW, urban myth must sometimes end up being quoted as fact.

    What is fact is that Hirst did an amazing job, with dedicated VW workers (most of whom were still living in bombed ruins), to start rebuilding the plant, recover and repair damaged tooling and get parts for new cars, and the new Beetles themselves, into production as well as overhauling about 20,000 clapped out Allied occupation force vehicles to a very high standard. He handed over a well functioning organisation to the Herr Doctor ex-Opel.

    This article overlooks the considerable initial boost to European export sales by a very enterprising Dutch importer (establishing sales of German cars in a country with still-recent memories of the Nazi flattening of Rotterdam despite the country’s surrender must have been challenging) and the sterling efforts of the original US importer to get the brand – and top service and parts backup – well established.

    • Additionally, this Dutch importer (Ben Pon) also came up with the idea for the VW Van (Type 2), that added considerably to VW’s successes. The Pon Holding nowadays still is the largest automotive group in the Netherlands.

  13. Reliability, something that really killed the British industry. We have a Honda, bits of trim fall off, it leaks but is always starts and non of the mechanical systems go wrong. All I have had to do to it is change the fluids and filters.

    That is what people want, they want a car which works. Clarkson citicised such cars for being soulless white goods but ask yourself this; How many time have you had to take your fridge or freezer apart?

    Compare that to the slapdash attitude of the British motor industry. With cars release onto the market riddled with faults, destroying their reputation. Or with complicated engineering, which impresses the enthusiasts but infuriates customers?

    • It’s telling that Japanese cars started to sell well early on in 2nd world countries where image didn’t seem to matter as much compared to reliability.

  14. My experience of the VW Beetle was in hire cars in Europe, and I can take an objective view. It most certainly was not a great car : it was dynamically flawed , dangerous in poor conditions,( although it did have good traction ) and indescribably awful to drive particularly if exposed to crosswing conditions at speed . In contrast, however, it was beautifully screwed together – the build quality in the 1960s was a revelation when compared with many British cars of that era, and I believe that was the secret of its success in the USA . The other experience I have of it was fairly extensive – a 1600 engine powered my Tipsy Nipper mark 3 aeroplane – and although it was an absolute swine to start, it ( fortunately ) never let us down in the air!

    • The aforementioned Chronicles Of The People’s Car has a lot of print ads VW issued in the 1960s in the USA.

      Quite a few mention their quality control standards, which I’m guessing were higher than the American makers were employing at the time.

  15. I believe early on, the regional state of West Germany was given a major chunk of stock of the post-war VW company and is still one of the largest shareholders, thus giving the locals a major motivation to rebuild and for jobs.
    There was no doubt the VW Beetle was a success, but as to the British, it was not the usual ‘3 box’ design, too different for most buyers there, a desire to do business with one of there own and the anti-Nazi feelings. As to the USA, its success was in part due to its basic quality, its reliability, quality dealer network and marketing.Some woudln’t buy them as connected to the Nazi government or German alone, especially with Jewish persons. The Beetle’ sales started to fizzle in the USA by the late 1960’s as our anti-pollution laws, the lack of a true automatic transmission, poor and dangerous heating and defrosting systems, old look and lack of a 4 door made them less desirable.

    • In retrospect it is sort of easy to see how Volkswagen could have improved or even replaced the Beetle, compared to the trouble they experienced in finding a suitable Beetle replacement prior to the Golf.

      One idea would have been for the Beetle to utilize the Type 3 pancake engine (albeit in 1300-1600cc forms) in order to save space in the rear and perhaps even form the basis of a hatchback as suggested in one Jalopnik article, another would have been to adopt the same suspension arrangement as the Brazilian built Volkswagen Variant II. Or better yet make use of both the above via a Type 3-derived 3/5-door hatchback replacement that also allows VW to save money and gives the Beetle the Type 3’s 3-speed automatic gearbox, whilst enabling the Type 3 itself to be a more tastefully styled 2/4-door three-box saloon by Marcio Piancastelli (of “Leiding nose” fame) earlier on.

      It seems Volkswagen did investigate the idea of a (rather neat and modern looking) 4-door Beetle proposal in 1970 though it never got past the sub-scale design model stage (also via Jalopnik), that may have potentially utilized the Type 4 engine. There was also the possibility the Flat-4 could have been replaced by the EA111 inline-4 as was the case on the Polo-engined 44 hp 1.05 Beetle prototype as well as the production Brazilian built Type 2 in 1.4 petrol/ethanol form.

      Doubt the British could have fully replicated the existing Beetle’s success (and potential for even more), the ingredients were there as far as individuals and government were concerned as mentioned in Battle for the Beetle by Karl Ludvigsen for such a carmaker to become the British version of Volkswagen and Renault. However the post-war reality and the election of Attlee (by such a margin) precluded such a possibility, at best only BSA could have better made use of going down the war reparations route via the DKW F9 prototype.

  16. One book on the Morris Minor compares it to the Beetle in terms of product development,

    The Beetle had a lot more upgrades during it’s production run, only tailing off during the 1970s, while the Minor only had the odd tweak along the way, especially once the larger A series engines were fitted,

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