The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

Raph showed me this picture the other day, and was clearly confused and disturbed. Ashen and shaking, he pulled the picture out of his worn leather valise. "H-H-How?" he stammered. "What is it? Can it harm us?" I chuckled warmly, and decanted the contents of my Thermos on his head. "Let's get to the bottom of this," I assured him.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

Let's look carefully at that picture. It appears to be a Beetle front end, but the body, while similarly scaled to a Beetle, is clearly not one. In fact, it appears to be a Steyr 50 (we now mostly know Steyr as the builders of the Mercedes-Benz' G-Wagen), a small front-engined Austrian car made in 1936, and actually predating the final Beetle design. It also seems to be more than a Steyr 50 with some VW body parts, as there's no air intake up front, suggesting a rear engine, like a Beetle. Other pictures of the same car, usually called a VW-Steyr, show ventilation intakes at the rear as well, supporting the rear-engine theory.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

Some research shows that this car is owned by Bob Shaill of the UK, and he says it's a one-off coach built VW. I think Shaill's particular variation with the stock VW hood and fenders may be unique, but the actual story behind this car and others like it — there were others — is far more interesting.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

I think what Shaill owns (and maintains very lovingly) is, in fact, a modified version of something usually called a Kohlruss VW. This is a car that only existed due to a very particular and peculiar set of circumstances immediately following WWII.

Kohlruss was an Austrian coachbuilding company, still in business after the misery of the war. Like much of the former Reich, after the war Austria was beaten, broken, and broke. Nobody was building new cars, but there was still a demand for cars as people began to put their lives back together.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

The most plentiful cars by far were army surplus Kubelwagens — the VW KdF -based wartime jeep-like vehicle. For non-Beetle geeks, "KdF" was the German acronym for "Strength-through-Joy," the ridiculous original name for the Beetle. These Kubelwagens were known for having good, rugged drivetrains and suspensions, and made good general-use cars, but nobody really wanted such a spartan and militaristic-looking body.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

Actual Beetle-style bodies were produced, but in very small numbers compared to the Kubels. So, Kohlruss had the great idea to start a business converting Steyr 50 and 55 bodies to fit on VW Kubel or KdF chassis. Those "baby" Steyrs were reasonably popular cars in their time, and were sort of an Austrian volkswagen. There were many of these sorts of small streamlined cars in that era, many influenced by visionaries like Josef Ganz.

Anyway, the Steyr had a front-mounted, water-cooled flat four that didn't seem to hold up very well, so there happened to be a good number of non-running Steyrs around with bad drivetrains and good bodies. Kohlruss just put two and two together and got a pretty novel little people's car.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

From pictures I've seen online, there were a number of variations of these made, which makes sense when you consider that these were low-volume conversions done by a small coachbuilder. They all seem to place the Steyr body right on the rolling chassis of the VW, and the fit looks remarkably good — I guess it was just good fortune that the Steyr and VW had wheelbases and other measurements that were so close.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

Some seem to have just kept all the original bodywork, including the now-useless grille, while others seem to have very custom front ends. The later Steyr 55 bodies are the ones with the rear quarter windows — the Steyr 50 body just left the back seat passengers in a little dark cave.

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

It's not exactly clear just how many of these were made, but a bit of searching turns up a number still around, in wildly variable states of repair. Based on that, I would guess there had to be at least a few thousand made, maybe? Not that many, really, but I'm sure these were seen as pretty disposable, stop-gap cars, and the fact there's even a handful left would suggest a reasonably sized pool to begin with. I think?

The True Story Behind This Mysterious Mutant VW Beetle

Anyway, I find these cars fascinating. They're such a product of a very specific time, place, and situation, and it's not likely we'll ever see anything quite like them again. Of course, I'd kill to have one.