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Speed Reads: The Battle for the Beetle by Karl Ludvigsen

Alex Kierstein January 4, 2011 Speed Reads 10 Comments

Image courtesy VW of America Newsroom

It’s difficult to not be fascinated by the once-ubiquitous Volkswagen Beetle, from its conception as a pet project of arguably the worst person in history to its unprecedented success. It has also been a veritable primordial ooze from which thousands upon thousands of Hoon-worthy project cars, kit cars, and race cars crawled to meet their evolutionary success (Formula V or the Baja class) or ignoble failure ( anyone?). It almost didn’t happen, however, as war-torn Germany was stripped of much of its industrial capacity by indignant occupying Allies. How did the Nazi’s People’s Car survive being swept into the dustbin?


Ludvigsen answers that question in far greater detail than anyone could possibly need, unless you’re a historian writing a thesis on the beginnings of postwar Beetle production. This is partly because the author had access to Ivan Hirst, the British Army Engineer who stewarded the VW works through the British occupation and into the independent entity it became in the 1950s. It’s true that towards the end of the book, this detail becomes eye-crossing minutiae. That being said, Battle for the Beetle manages to convey the real message, which is that the Beetle was by no means a sure thing to bystanders in the late 1940s. After being the most-produced car design of all time, it’s hard to imagine that at the beginning very few could see the brilliance of the design. “It’s noisy, the design is outdated, and it’s uneconomical,” screeched the British motor industry when it became clear the VW factory at Wolfsburg might be sold. So the British passed, and so did everyone else. The reasons won’t make much sense unless you read the book, but they do give some phenomenal insight into why the Beetle’s 1930s design succeeded and made VW an international juggernaut while the British automakers sputtered and died.

Whether you’re a fan of the ass-engined Nazi slot cars or not, the book is worth a read.

  • buzzboy7

    Ivan Hirst was a good man. When the english bombed Wolfsburg a bomb landed in the Kraft Durch Freud factory but the bomb was a dud. After the war Ivan Hirst had control of the area and had the idea to start the factory up again to build cars for allies to drive. It's an amazing story through and through. I'd love to read this.

  • dukeisduke

    Ludvigsen's stuff is usually exhaustive. I have the second edition of "Corvette: America's Star-Spangled Sports Car" (got it when I was a teenager), and it has everything down to tables of the paint colors by year with the codes for DuPont, PPG, Rinshed-Mason, etc.

  • coupeZ600

    Yay! I always loved Ms. Murilee's book reviews over at [REDACTED] when she was the weekend editor. I got turned on to a ton of cool books (well, she always turned me on anyway…) Thanks Alex, and keep it up, I wholeheartedly approve!

    • K5ING

      She always turned you on, eh? I hope you realize that she's a HE. A big, hairy, ugly HE at that. But if that is what turns you on, so be it. Whatever melts your butter suits me.

      • Ha-ha-ha, it's an inside joke (meme) that started way back in the good old glory days back at [Redacted].

        Murilee, the saucy minx! Rawer!!

        I once freaked out myself. But now I know her to be true angelic-incarnate… dreamy….

      • You take that back! Murilee Martin is a sexy vixen!

        I reject your reality and substitute my own.

      • skitter

        Someone told you Murilee was a man?
        And you fell for that?

      • Mr_Biggles

        Not only a saucy vixen, but a saucy vixen deity of the Church of the Hoonitarian Hooniversalists.

        Praise Be To Murilee.

    • Charles_Barrett

      I hope you noticed in the previous post that Deartháir said that Alex has nice legs, so maybe that'll give that saucy minx Murilee a run for her money (as soon as Deartháir stops chasing Alex around his desk, that is…)

  • Karl Ludvigsen

    I'm over the moon to see Alex's review of 'Battle for the Beetle', a book I'm proud to have done — complete with eye-crossing minutiae.

    Just a mention though of the real point of the book — that nations were falling over themselves to get their mitts on the factory and its controversial car. The French and Australians were especially keen. Even the British auto industry realized that it would be a formidable future competitior — which is why they tried to have the factory dismantled. The 'other British' — Ivan Hirst and his colleagues — helped save it by placing an order for 20,000 cars to be used by the UK Military in their zone of Germany. And Ford very nearly took it over! It's a heck of a story.

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