The other day, someone on Twitter reached out to see if I knew anything about a particular vintage Volkswagen accessory, something seen in a picture on a ‘50s-era Beetle in a magazine. The accessory was an aftermarket bumper, but this bumper did not look like a defensive part of a car; it looked downright offensive, perhaps in both senses of the word. It’s a big, aluminum, dangerous-looking blade affixed at an angle on the front of the car. What’s going on here?
Here’s the tweet in question:
Now, I have seen these before, and I’ve always been fascinated by them, so I’m thrilled that this tweet reminded me to talk about them. They’re called Kamei Tiefensteuers and they were one of the first aftermarket aerodynamic spoilers you could buy for a mainstream production car, definitely for a mainstream economy car like a Beetle and not a specialized sports car.
I know the thing looks kind of like one of huge-ass double-ended sword things Klingons are always hacking at each other with (I’m not looking up how to spell that, sorry Klingons) but despite how it sounds, the name is German, not Klingon, and means, literally, something like “depth control.”
They were made by the Kamei company, who is still around today, making things like rooftop cargo boxes and that sort of thing. The company was founded by Karl Meier (see what he did there?) who was a very early Volkswagen employee, so early that, really, it was probably still the wartime KdF company, as he helped develop the amphibious Schwimmwagen.
After the war, Meier started a company that made all sorts of interesting car-accessory products, including the enclosed-cargo roof racks that are the ancestor of their current product line, and some clever things like these re-positionable headrests that allow for comfortable window-sleeping:
The front spoiler Tiefensteuer came around 1953, because Meier found he didn’t like how the Beetle handled at speed with so much of its weight in its butt, as most rear-engined cars are. To counteract the tail-heavyness and the associated handling effects at higher speeds (in this case, I think we’re talking about 60 MPH or so), the tiefensteuer helped to add downforce to the front axle of the car, helping to mitigate the weight at the rear, and, as a result, improved the handling.
It seems to have been sold or marketed under the name “Urspoiler” as well?
The Volkswagen Foundation (Stiftung) museum in Wolfsburg has a very nice example of a Beetle with several Kamei accessories, including the roof rack setup, the seat headrests, and the front spoiler, which has the KAMEI branding clearly on it.
I like how the spoilers have those little sort of bumper guards that are kind of a silhouette of the VW’s large export-market bumper guards, too.
I bet these things really made a difference on the squirrely handling of an old swing-axle Beetle, especially when you were really giving it the schnitzel. Showing up in post-war Europe in a Beetle rocking a Kamei spoiler was probably the boy-racer look of its day, and let everyone around you know that you were ready and willing to wring out every one of those 36 horses that the 1200cc engine was willing to give you.
Aftermarket body kits designed to improve a car’s aero properties are available for all sorts of cars now, mostly performance-oriented cars, and have been for a while. It’s a real testimony to the versatility of the original Beetle that this whole sub-industry seems to have gotten its start because people wanted to tear ass in VWs without ending up facing the wrong way on the road.