I've written before about Paul Schilperood's remarkable book that makes the case that the VW Beetle was largely developed based on the ideas of the Jewish auto journalist Josef Ganz and not Ferdinand Porsche, as has been commonly thought. Today, I want to look in detail at a key component of this idea: The Standard Superior.
For some reason, tracing the earliest origins of the Volkswagen Beetle has proven a continual source of fascination. As a kid, I remember reading so many retellings of the same basic story in every book about the Beetle I could get my little, simian hands on.
These stories all had the same basic cast and plot: Hitler wanted a "people's car" for (mostly) propaganda reasons, and Ferdinand Porsche happened to share the dream of an everyman's cheap, useful car. Porsche had been developing prototypes since the early 30s through companies like NSU and Zündapp before finally joining forces with the Nazis, who bankrolled the final development of the car.
Only military variants were built during the war, and once in British control after the war, actual civilian VW Beetle production began in earnest. That's the basic story, pared down to the essentials, that I read over and over again. The Josef Ganz connection dramatically changes this narrative, demonstrating that the fundamental Beetle design came from Ganz' work and ideas, which were published extensively in the magazine he edited, Motor Kritik, and, importantly, in the cars that were developed using his ideas.
I'm not going to retell the book here — it's too involved and too good, and I recommend it heartily to anyone. But what I would love to do is give us all a good look at the first production car really built to Ganz' fundamental principles. This car is also where I would personally put the start of the Beetle line, even if the company and name differ. The car is so closely related — conceptually, technically, visually — to the Beetle, that I think if any car has a claim on being the Mother/Father of the Beetle, this is it.
The car is the Standard Superior, and it was even briefly called a "volkswagen" in advertising, before the Nazis decided that only their KdF company would be allowed to use that word. But a volkswagen it was, no matter what those ark-peeking-face-melters had to say about it: the Superior was absolutely a people's car.
Introduced in 1933, the Superior was based on Ganz' prototypes made for the Ardie motorcycle company (1930) and the Adler automobile company (1931) where he finalized his fundamental design concepts: tubular backbone chassis, mid-rear mounted engines, and independent suspension with swing axles at the rear. Standard hired Ganz to design their new cheap people's car based on the strength of those prototypes and his published writings. Ganz' design for the Standard Superior included all of these traits, along with a somewhat streamlined body design.
It's remarkably easy to see the Superior as a Beetle ancestor. The backbone chassis is shared between both cars, and while the Beetle uses a stamped, inverted U-shaped tunnel for its backbone and the Standard uses an actual cylindrical pipe-like tube, the principles are the same.
Of course, there were a number of other cars of this era being built on similar principles, and ending up looking remarkably Beetle-like; the Tatra V570 comes to mind as an example. Even so, Ganz' wide publication of his ideas and the fact that the Superior made it into production (albeit limited) makes me still willing to give the nod to the Standard for Beetle-dadhood.
Early Beetles used a swing-axle suspension system much like the Superior's, and the overall plan, design, and layout of the Superior feel eerily like a foreshadowing of what the Beetle would become. The 1934 redesign of the Superior is even closer than the first version, incorporating rear side windows and a rudimentary luggage/seat area in the back for your hapless, crammable kids. The side profile of the Superior is remarkably close to the eventual Beetle shape.
The one key area where the Superior and VW differ is in the engine. While both are air-cooled and mounted behind the driver, with horizontally-laying cylinders, the Standard uses a 396cc (later 500cc) two-stroke inline engine. The type of engine is less of a big difference than is the precise location: Ganz' designs stipulated an engine within the wheelbase of the car, so the Superior was a mid-mounted design.
Porsche was fine with placing the engine outboard of the wheelbase to the rear, which is the primary factor for handling issues and idiosyncrasies of not just the Beetle, but nearly every other air-cooled VW and Porsche to follow for decades. You could easily and annoyingly argue that the Superior was, in fact, superior, at least in this trait.
The Standard Superior was designed to fill the exact same role as the Beetle as well: a small, useful, rugged, and extremely cheap entry-level car. The Standard was able to be cheap by having a tiny engine and a body made largely of wood and artificial leather, save for the steel fenders. The Beetle, built more robustly out of steel, was to be cheap thanks to massive volumes and economies of scale.
The Standard Superior was never a great seller, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which has to do with all the upheaval going on in Germany at the time and the intervention of the Nazis into the German car industry. Production stopped in 1935, and only one manages to survive to this day.
Looking at pictures of the Standard Superior sort of gives me chills, though I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's sort of like when you see a doppelgänger of yourself or someone familiar in a very old photograph. The car is clearly not a Beetle, but there's so many familial and familiar traits there, it's hard not to equate the two. I think you could even argue that the Superior has more in common with what became the final Beetle than Porsche's Zündapp prototype, which was significantly bigger and used a doomed radial engine.
I'm not trying to disregard Porsche's huge, crucial role in the development of the Beetle; I just feel it's worth giving attention to those other incredibly important cars and designers that eventually helped to create that car that inspired me to waste so much time as a kid reading about its origins in the first place.
I would love to drive a Standard Superior; I feel lucky enough I got to drive a Tatra, so I'm not really going to hold my breath, but if I can't confess these desires to you, who can I confess to?