The CIA Built Special Trench-Digging Volkswagen Beetles To Spy On The Soviets

As you may know, the CIA just recently made over 12 million pages of de-classified documents available online. As you can imagine, dorks like me felt like kids in a declassified-candy store, and I immediately started poking around for interesting car stuff. I think I found something good, and it involves Volkswagen Beetles, digging machines, and the Cold War.

To understand what’s going on here, a little background is probably in order. If the Cold War between America and the Soviets had an epicenter in the 1950s, it would have to be in the divided city of Berlin, in the divided country of Germany.


There was rampant spying and espionage on both the East and West sides of Berlin, and in an era before advanced spy satellites and sophisticated electronic eavesdropping techniques, physical wiretaps were one of the best ways for information to be acquired clandestinely.

Of course, tapping wires is not a trivial thing. You have to have physical access to the actual information-carrying telephone or telex or similar lines, and then you have to run your own cables from them to a junction point in your control.

Overhead lines are too well guarded, and working on them is usually far too visible and vulnerable, which leaves underground lines the better option. But underground lines have one huge drawback: they’re underground. It’s difficult, noticeable, and noisy to get to these lines. So what’s the solution?

There’s a number of solutions, mostly varying in scale. On the large side, you could dig an incredibly massive tunnel, as the U.S. and its allies did, until it was “discovered” (the Soviets actually knew about it all along) in 1956, about a year after it was completed.


On the other end, you could go small. Instead of one huge tunnel, what if there was a way to dig smaller trenches quickly and without attracting much attention? That seems to have been the goal of the CIA’s trench-digging-Beetle plans.


The 1957 document that seems to be the initial start of the digging Beetle project has the boringly ambiguous name REQUEST FOR INITIATION OF TASK I UNDER CONTRACT RD-26 WITH BATTELLE MEMORIAL INSTITUTE, COLUMBUS, OHIO but once you start reading it, you soon learn that the goal of “Task I” was the development of a portable trench-digging machine that could dig a narrow trench 3 feet deep that would allow for cable to be quickly laid in the ground.

The document describes a gasoline-powered machine that was adequate for the task, but was too loud and obvious for clandestine use, which isn’t that surprising. Electric motors were evaluated and found to be up to the task, but those electric motors still needed something to provide them with power.


A gasoline generator would work, but then you have the noise issue again. If only there were some common machines that people wouldn’t even notice that had a good-sized gasoline engine in them, right?

Holy crap, wait – there are such machines! We call them cars, and so did the CIA back in the 1950s. And the car that was most likely to blend in and not be noticed in mid-1950s Germany was a Volkswagen. Here’s how the document describes the plan:


So, the goal is to have the VW supplying power to the trenching rig, ideally with the engine just at idle. An idling Volkswagen was a common enough sight that nobody would really take any notice. A panel van or larger (especially American) vehicle would certainly have caught someone’s eye, but not an innocent little Beetle, just happily idling by the side of the road.

That innocent little Beetle would be hiding about 250 lbs of power-generating equipment, cabling, and the trenching rig itself, of course.


This document also lays out a development timeline, which includes six months to “obtain the Volkswagen.” VW had a six-month waiting list in Germany back then, or was the delay so that the car could be purchased via less-traceable channels?


It looks like the whole project– with the cost of the equipment, the car, the engineering time, all that – was going to run about $25,015, which, in today’s money, would be over $200,000 today. That’s a lot of cash for a Beetle, even if it does have some pretty interesting options.

It looks like Project Trenching Beetle actually happened, because another document, called, appropriately VOLKSWAGEN AND TRENCHER EQUIPMENT gives detailed instructions about how to use the Beetle-based cable-laying system:


The method is interesting in how simple they kept it: instead of designing some sort of mechanism to keep the engine running at the ideal RPMs, they just have the operative remove the accelerator cable from the carb, and just set the position of the throttle manually, using some marked lines for reference. I’m assuming they’re doing this because they found the baseline idle setting wasn’t giving enough power?


I’m assuming they’re disconnecting the throttle return spring from the carb as well, even if it doesn’t specifically say. I’ve used this same basic idea to set my throttle at a specific setting so I can get home the times my accelerator cable has broken.

It’s also notable that everything used in this setup doesn’t seem to be a permanent modification of the car, which I’m guessing was done in case the car was found and searched? Here’s the equipment list for a CIA VW Trencher setup:


Aside from the trencher (and related parts) itself, just about all of this stuff wouldn’t look that out of place in any normal tool kit, really. Even the chains and dirt deflectors probably wouldn’t seem particularly suspicious if the context was right.

From what I can tell, this is the only hint that the VW may be a CIA operative, if you happened to be riding or driving in one:


Knowing how loud VWs usually are, I can’t imagine this was much of a tip-off to anyone, really.

This is all pretty fascinating. The idea that the CIA was operating some number of Beetles to dig clandestine wiretapping trenches is incredible to think about. So far, I haven’t been able to find any pictures of the cars or their mechanisms; it’s possible there aren’t any pictures, given the nature of the work.


Still, if some restorer of a 1958 Beetle wants a really unique theme, replicating the trencher setup would be pretty incredible. There’s got to be some former operatives still alive who might remember these, right?

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About the author

Jason Torchinsky

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)