I've been sort of obsessed lately with the murky pre-history of the VW Beetle. It's one of the most repeated origin stories in all of motoring, but that basic story has been getting some extensive revisions in recent years. What I really wanted to find was an undisputed ancestor of the Bug, and I did. And then I drove it.
That ancestor is a car called the Hanomag 2/10, and it was built between 1925-1928. Unlike many cars of today (save for maybe the Maserati Challa) it's nicknamed after a loaf of bread. Specifically, a little boxy loaf called a Kommisbrot, which was a type of small loaf commonly used for soldier's rations in WWI Germany.
Of course, the only reason I was able to directly encounter one of these at all is thanks to the fabulous Lane Motor Museum. The Lane has the only working (or, probably even non-working) Hanomag Kommisbrot in America and probably the whole Western hemisphere. It's a lovely carmel-colored 1926 model, and, incredibly, they let me drive it.
The Hanomag 2/10 isn't directly related to the designs that eventually became the VW Beetle, but I think it is absolutely the spiritual and conceptual ancestor. It was a car designed to fill essentially the same role as the Beetle: cheap, honest transportation for everyone. A car for the people. A people's car. You get where I'm headed here.
Technically, the Kommisbrot shares a great deal with the Beetle as well: it was a rear-engine design, the scale was small, and the body was rounded in a sort of instinctive, unscientific nod to aerodynamic ideas. Well, the nose is — that upright wall of a windshield is a big middle finger to the wind, so the car isn't really based on any aerodynamic principles, but that's not too different than a Beetle, either.
The Kommisbrot was rear-engined (maybe mid, but it's close) so there would be room for a driver and passenger's legs in such a small format. I'm sure the separation of the drivetrain from the steering components was helpful as well from a simplicity and servicing standpoint, and there was likely some traction benefit as well.
The little Hanomag was one of the first to fill a very particular role in the panoply of cars: it was more than a crude, metal-tube-and-fabric cyclecar, but significantly less than a full-size, full-cost car. And while it was perhaps the smallest, cheapest "real car" you could buy, it wasn't just a scaled-down full-size car — it used its own unique set of design ideas to become something more for something less. These are all traits that the VW Beetle would eventually share.
Technically, it's far more primitive than even a crude early Beetle — it uses archaic wooden artillery wheels, the engine is a 500cc one-cylinder (water-cooled, interestingly) motorbike-type engine that drives the live rear axle via a chain. And, to start the car, you have to use your own arm to physically crank that one piston until you get enough compression in the cylinder for it to start. Look at what this procedure is like:
I bet you'd have one nice beefy arm after using a Kommisbrot to commute to work for a year or so. And, if you made a mistake and left the ignition on while you pumped that lever, the car could backfire and break your arm, too. Batteries and starter motors are glorious things, my friends.
The styling of the Kommisbrot is mostly determined by the minimum envelope that can be used to enclose you and the engine behind you. As a result, it's actually quite clean and pleasing-looking, I think. It forward-thinking as the fenders are mostly integrated into the whole body (hardly done in the 20s) and the underbelly is surprisingly smooth.
Cost-cutting ideas are all over this thing like ants on my groin that time I spilled all that honey mustard sauce on my pants. There's just one door, on the passenger side, the tiny, fragile wiper is run by an equally tiny, fragile hand crank (maybe you could train a chipmunk to run it for you) and the car normally only came with that one cyclopean headlight.
This thing was definitely one of the cheapest cars you could buy at the time, which is partially why they managed to sell almost 16,000 of these — not a bad number. I bet it also helped that a Kommisbrot would get you about 60 MPG, too, even if you couldn't go more than 40 MPH or so.
This 2/10 had a couple of optional niceties, like a pair of extra headlights, a little rack for luggage over the engine bay, and a shelf by your knees for your 1920s mechanical laptop bag.
I was very, very eager to drive this crude and charming little car. Getting in, you quickly realize that the standard car controls we now take for granted weren't so set in stone back in 1926 Germany. The Hanomag's pedals are in this order: clutch, gas, brake. That means an awful lot of muscle memory is going to be fighting me in this little run.
The gearshift is to the right, up against the side of the car, and one of a pair of strange metal rods with wire loops on them. One's the parking brake, and one's the gearshift. The loop is the reverse lockout. You can see the gear shifting mechanism itself right there in a hole in the floor, and it sort of helps you understand how to move the lever.
It's a reverse-H pattern 3 speed, with first to the top right. So, let's look at what we have here before I set off: different pedal pattern, shifter on the wrong side and with a mirror-image pattern, shifted with a funny, spindly Victorian Mechanical-Man penis, complete with wire Prince Albert. This should be fun.
And, you know what? It was.
The Hanomag is, above everything else, a light little car. I'm not exactly sure what it weighs, but I bet it's got to be under 1500 lbs, easy. Despite having just a lone, friendless cylinder and only barely enough horses, if they were Jewish, to form a minyan, it never felt sluggish.
Granted, I was only able to drive it around the Lane's parking lot (you can see part of the drive above), but I found it to be willing, light and direct to steer, and pretty agile. It was fun, in a simple-open machine sort of way.
I've seen pictures of people like Beetle-design pioneer Josef Ganz driving a Kommisbrot in the Alps, and that picture amazes me for two reasons: first, it suggests a direct connection of ideas from this little Hanomag to the man who would prove so influential in the designs that led to the Beetle, and second, holy fuck, what kind of balls would it take to drive this little bathtub in the winter, up a mountain, in the snow.
Clearly, it was possible to drive a Kommisbrot in ways and conditions that would make all of our modern pampered asses sob like cake-deprived toddlers. And that, too, makes it feel like a true Beetle ancestor — it was a modest little machine that, with a bit of owner determination, was capable of far more than anyone had any right to expect.
When the nice, clever technician at the Lane who started the 2/10 for me heard me talking about how much I liked driving it, he gave me a withering look of pity that one normally reserves for someone who insists that a plate of dead earthworms really is a pretty good substitute for fettuccine alfredo, in a pinch.
But I don't care. I thought this ancient little econoloaf was an absolutely delightful ride, and I'm still delighted I got a chance to drive one. The perspective I gained on the later Beetle — and, really, all super-affordable cars, even today — was wildly valuable.
It's the best damn loaf of bread I've ever driven.