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BREAKING Outdated Air-Cooled News: Porsche, VW, And Zündapp Lies!

Illustration for article titled BREAKING Outdated Air-Cooled News: Porsche, VW, And Zündapp Lies!

The Volkswagen Beetle genesis story is easily one of the most well-known and often-told in all of motoring. I've read about it countless times, and the details almost never change. Until now. I just encountered one of my first real contradictions in the story of the Beetle, and it's making me question everything.


Actually, it's kind of a detail contradiction in a much bigger one. I was given Paul Schilperood's excellent book, The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz, the Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler's Volkswagen by my friend Jack, and that book makes a really strong case about how a lot of the ideas and designs that became the Beetle were originally Josef Ganz'.


That's really a whole full post, and I want to focus on one smaller thing here. In the usual story of the Beetle, Ferdinand Porsche is the brains behind it, and made a number of prototypes that evolved into the Beetle. One of those was made for the Zündapp motorcycle company.

This Zündapp Ur-beetle had many traits we'd come to know on the VW: backbone chassis, streamlined Beetle-like shape, rear engine, etc. It's clearly an ancestor. Everything I've ever read blamed its failure on one thing: a strange 5-cylinder radial engine that, we're told, Zündapp demanded.

That the radial engine was Zündapp's idea is always mentioned. Here's just one example:

a small sedan with a five cylinder 1.2 litre radial aircooled engine mounted in the rear, a stipulation demanded by the motorcycle manufacturer that proved less than ideal.


Seriously, this is how it always is mentioned. Zündapp and their damn weird radial engine. But then I'm reading the Ganz book and I hit this:

"Contrary to Zündapp's wishes, Porsche had given the car a star-shaped five-cylinder radial engine, for which he had also applied for a patent."


Spit-take. Mouthful-of-chili spit take.

And, sure enough, the footnote lists a German patent I can't find online.

Seriously, to a Beetle-obsessed guy like me this is like finding out Jesus was actually a taxidermist who died in 1967 in Dayton, OH.


How could every other source have gotten this wrong? What else may not be true? My world is shaken.

I need to research this more for a more real, daytime-grade story, but I thought you should know.

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Seriously, though, the mythology surrounding the origin of the Beetle is steeped in so much apocrypha, cloaks and daggers, and scary Nazis that it's hard to separate the good history from the bad.

I think that what we do know is that there were plenty of Beetle-like car designs on the European landscape during the 1920's and 1930's - Tatras, Zundapps, Citroens, etc., that we can't really pinpoint a single common ancestor, or really believe that the Beetle emerged fully formed from Porsche's head. Herr Dr. Porsche, even granted his undeniable brilliance, was simply in the right place at the right time to leverage the political and economic power he had to carry his design forward, even at the cost of the intellectual contributions of his contemporaries and forerunners.

Unfortunately, the political power he aligned himself with was Hitler's, and I think that's what obscures the historical picture. The Nazis appropriated everything, and gobbled up history as well as territory and lives. The Beetle is one of the spin-offs of that dark legacy.