A Volkswagen Occasion

Author

W.B.

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74

In the early afternoon of August 5th the millionth VW came off the assembly lines of the Volkswagenwerk at Wolfsburg. This significant milestone in production of the post-war VW was made the occasion of a festival weekend concluding the annual works’ holiday, to which an enormous concourse of international motoring correspondents, journalists arid VW distributors and dealers, 1,000 in all, were invited, and which embraced celebrations in a specially-constructed stadium at which 160,000 persons were said to be present. For us this memorable occasion commenced with a very early start from Heathrow on the Friday in a K.L.M. Convair 240, which flew forty journalists and trade representatives from England, Scotland and Ireland comfortably, at 9,000 feet and 238 m.p.h., to Hanover airport. [So sadly has your Editor been land-bound that this was his first experience of tricycle under-cart and contra-props., but then he also lacks acquaintance with the three-dimensional bioscope and colour-T.V.]

On arrival at Hanover Teutonic efficiency stepped in, in earnest. To meet the foreign visitors were an impressive line of thirty VW Microbuses, backed by huge Mercedes-Benz and Skoda coaches, each having a guide who was allocated to his party for the entire weekend, while all luggage, coats and the inevitable odds and ends could be left in the ‘bus at all times, each Microbus carrying a number for identification, and being under guard the whole time.

This convoy set out impressively along the Duaseldorf-Berlin autobahn, past Lehrte, Nine and Brunschweig, where the Bussing lorry factory is situated, to Wolfsburg, at a cruising speed of some 60 m.p.h., these remarkable 1.2-litre air-cooled buses, each with eight or nine occupants, keeping close station, aided by efficient brakes, until we turned off for the factory, with a five-sail windmill and the new hospital on the hill overlooking the woods as landmarks, into Wolfsburg, a town en fete, its green and white flags greeting us on all sides. Here we were ushered into the factory’s vast new assembly hall, and after about half an hour saw the eine million Volkswagen come off the line, after speeches by a representative of the workers and by Dr. Ing.h.c. Heinz Nordhoff himself, who performed the simple ceremony of fixing the appropriate chassis-number plaque to the car, a gold-plated saloon which glistened in the concentrated light of the arc-lamps for the Press and cinema Cameras.

That Nordhoff is popular with the workers there was no doubt, as cheer after cheer greeted his arrival and his address, and happy laughter his efforts in riveting the aforesaid number-plate. We were beginning also to perceive the efficiency which pervades Wolfsburg and has enabled this vast production of motor cars to take place in a factory that was 60 per cent, a war-bombed shambles only ten years ago. Here we were, standing beside this assembly-line on this momentous occasion, our journey from Britain, including miles of autobahn, perfectly timed, a neat VW eine million badge in our buttonhole, a map of our journey and a little programme in English in our hand, each one signed by Nordhoff, and the whole undertaking staged with a minimum of fuss — and a complete absence of policing. Indeed, throughout the weekend the only officials we noticed about the works were calm, smiling works-police.

After this we were conducted to a huge and very pleasant dining hall, used normally as a staff canteen, for lunch. We were fortunate in sitting with Major and Mrs. Hirst, for Major Hirst had been at Wolfsburg with the British Forces after the war and was able to give us interesting details of how the unique VW organisation came into being.

That afternoon was devoted to a conducted tour of the factory. It would take a week to see fully over this vast — and I can justifiably write fantastic — plant, and it would merit an article at least three times the length of this one to do it justice. In the two hours at our disposal it was impossible to inspect everything, and we missed seeing the body-priming and engine-assembly, although nothing seemed to be out of bounds save the experimental department. From the astounding overhead observation corridor (ordered by Hitler so that his people could see the cars he was building for them!), with its floor of black and white check and doors of wrought iron and glass, which runs for three-quarters of a mile along the factory wall, there is a view of this great plant, which instead of being split up as is the practice in Britain, occupies vast halls, very clean, very spacious and lofty, lit by daylight. Here, in normal times — for this was a holiday week — nearly 30,000 workers (of whom eight per cent. are salaried staff) accommodated in 5,300 new flats in the growing town of Wolfsburg, which has a 40,000 population, are turning out one vehicle every minute of the working day, for six days a week, to achieve an output which has risen from 713 cars to one million cars in the space of ten years,

As far as the eye could see were the great Weingarten body presses, finished body-shells being pushed on tubular trolleys to the overhead gantrys which carry them to the chassis assembly lines. Welding of every description goes on in covered bays, the fuel tank being welded-up automatically. Raw materials arrive in railway trucks at sidings within the factory, and in great barges up the canal which runs alongside. All swarf and metal waste is swept away through holes in the floor, keeping the factory as clean as a racing-car shop. Small parts, finished on batteries of Scharer lathes, are conveyed, at fearful speed by extremely skilled hands driving highly-manoeuvrable Clark trucks, to the assembly points. The finished cars come off four parallel roller-assembly-lines, headlamps being adjusted before a marked screen, which swings aside to let the VW roll down a short ramp which starts the engine. It is driven a few yards to a testing machine, the front wheels being aimed against chocks, a hook rising automatically out of the floor to attach itself to the back of the car, so that the driver can check horse-power output at the back wheels, which revolve on rollers sunk into the floor. This test occupies only a few minutes, the engine having been run-in on the bench, before the car is driven off to the great outdoor storage parks — for the VW is intended to withstand the elements and doesn’t require a garage. I understand that a tolerance of 5 h.p, is permitted at this final check, most cars showing about 30 b.h.p. at the back wheels. Darting in and around the assembly bays were occasional chassis, with circular fuel tanks clipped on, their drivers handling them at speed as any of Motor Sport’s readers would love to have done, their purpose being to make spot checks on the general run of chassis flowing along the production lines. In the vast halls that comprise the VW factory no undue noise and no fumes were evident from this indoor testing of chassis and finished cars.

Some way from the main factory is another great hall housing the power plant, steam from which is used not only to heat the factory but also the town of Wolfsburg.

Those are just superficial impressions of a walk through the Wolfsburg factory, where 1,280 vehicles, including 190 to 200 Microbuses and transporters, are made every day.

After this tour, with which no one, whether pro- or anti-VW, could fail to be deeply impressed, we were taken in our ‘buses to the other end of the factory for Dr. Nordhoff’s Press conference. This took place in a huge and tastefully laid-out lecture hall with built-in microphone installations for use by the assembled journalists at question-time, and it was here that what was probably the largest congregation of international Pressmen ever assembled at a motor-car factory heard Dr. Nordhoff deliver his address, a copy of which, in perfect English (it occupied 20 typewritten quarto pages), had been handed to us as we entered.

Having spent my schooldays idly day-dreaming of Brooklands and Le Mans, I was not, alas, equipped to follow all the questions which followed this speech, but I was told by the Foreign Correspondent of one of the great London newspapers that Nordhoff parried very skilfully the awkward ones appertaining to who owns VW and when will a balance-sheet be published? Nor have I space to publish his address in full, but he said some extremely sound and common-sense things. For example, he acknowledged that VW realises it cannot produce one car more than their Sales Organisation is able to sell somewhere in the world and consequently not a single car leaves the works without a buyer having paid for it in full. In 1948 they had 40 distributors in Germany and one abroad. Today, the figures are 1,000 in Germany and 2,800 abroad, and, without being presumptuous, Nordhoff said he could claim the best Sales and Service Organisation in Europe, and no feeling of inferiority when comparing it with similar organisations in the U.S.A.

This year VW would export an average of 55 per cent. of its production, or approximately 35,000 VWs to U.S.A., 28,000 to Sweden, 18,000 to Belgium, 14,000 to Holland, 12,000 to Switzerland and 10,000 to Austria. Yet, said Nordhoff, “we are far from sitting on top of the world.” He went on to outline worries of coal and steel shortages and the workers’ desire for a five-day week, which he does not think possible for another four or five years. He spent much time on a vicious attack on Germany’s road-repairing policy, calling for better roads, as we do here, and saying he doesn’t believe that there is insufficient money available. He made the unique offer to subscribe “a not inconsiderable sum towards road loans” if a co-ordinated and long-term plan could be agreed upon. In attacking speed-limits and road faults, Nordhoff called for a ten-year programme of road improvement and said what he spoke of he observed not “as one who sits in the back seat of a luxurious chauffeur-driven limousine, but as one who has observed personally and experienced these things in driving a VW 25,000 to 40,000 miles every year.” Germany, he said, with the exception of approximately 1,400 miles of autobahn, has 160,000 miles of town and country roads which originate, at best, from the late Middle Ages. Traffic would increase — already VW workers own about 2,000 VWs and more cars could only be sold if the roads were built and repaired to accommodate them — words that came forcibly home to us as we grappled with Sunday-morning congestion through Staines and along A30 after our return home!

Tribute was paid to the late Professor Dr. Porsche, who designed the VW and who once said to Nordhoff, towards the end of his too-short life, “Only since you proved it do I know that I was right,” and to the late Dr. Feureissen who, in building up the VW organisation had, Nordhoff said, “created a monument to himself which will last longer than bronze or stone, a monument of accomplishment and success, and a reminder of his deep human kindness and sincerity.” (Major Hirst had told us at lunch of how he had introduced Uhlenhaut to Feureissen when the former had paid a visit to Wolfsburg, and how he had seen the former rival racing-car engineers of Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union depart arm-in-arm in enthralled conversation!)

Nordhoff said that for 65 years there has been a European automobile industry and connected with it are names having an historical ring; but to pass the millionth production mark for the first time in Europe since the end of the war with one and the same type of car has been reserved for one of its youngest factories, the Volkswagenwerk. This has often been misleadingly called an “economic miracle,” but in fact it is due only to hard work and a determination to achieve things. In answer to a question, Nordhoff said he faced the greatest competition from British cars. “Hard work and determination,” concluded Nordhoff, “has always been the strong point of the Germans, for we enjoy working if we know for what purpose, and I should think that everyone who has lived through the last 15 catastrophic years really does know for what purpose.’

After the address Nordhoff joined his guests for dinner in a huge hall normally used for indoor car testing, visitors being grouped in nations at long tables decorated with the appropriate flag, and the hall dominated by huge flags hanging from inclined masts, colourful in the quiet neon-lighting, as armies of waiters served food and wine. Late that night the convoy of thirty VW Microbuses set out along the autobahn for Hanover, this impressive sight enhanced now that tail-lamps glowed for a mile on end and warm light flooded the roadside from the windows of the speeding vehicles. Nordhoff had said harsh things in his speech about police traps and the absence of traffic police after 6 p.m., but certainly we had a very capable police escort of white-coated rider on a B.M.W. motor-cycle — the motorcycle police of most nationalities display extreme skill in convoy-accompanying of this sort.

What remained of the Friday night was spent in a delightful room at the Hotel Waterloo, with adjacent black-tiled bathroom. In the morning (after a short shopping expedition, during which my wife bought an excellent German folding umbrella for £1 and I restricted myself economically to the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz 170 Siku toy), our fleet of ‘buses took us back to Wolfsburg via the nearly. completed VW factory just outside Hanover.

Here is emphasis of VW efficiency and drive. At present Microbuses and transporters are made at one end of the Wolfsburg factory, but by the end of October this new factory will take over VW commercial vehicle production, commencing with 3,000 existing Wolfsburg employees and absorbing local labour. It took us quite a long time to circle the new buildings, which are set in open country not unduly spoiled by them, with blocks of workers’ flats adjacent, yet the building time is scheduled as a mere 27 weeks, and by the middle of 1956 it is planned to build there 300 VW transporters a day. The cost of the new factory will be £10-million. Incidentally, there is a great demand for these useful air-cooled vehicles throughout Germany, and we were told that the thirty brand-new ones used to transport us during our visit would sell easily at slightly less than list price after our departure.

We again journeyed, police-escorted, along the autobahn to Wolfsburg, the primitive farming in the wide, flat fields contrasting sharply with the efficiency which lay ahead! Mercedes-Benz, D.K.W. Sonderklasse, Opel and an occasional B.M.W. sang along the German motor-roads, and, of course, those vast transporters mit trailers, many of which wore proudly the Mercedes-Benz star on their radiator caps. In Hanover, as elsewhere, VWs predominate, but I saw a couple of Austins and one early M.G. Vintage cars are not understood there and my “score” was confined to some rather ancient Goliath three-wheeler vans and other commercials, although quite a number of pre-war two-cylinder D.K.W.s and B.M.W.s are still about. The trams use overhead wires and often pull twin trailers!

After lunch in the same vast hall (at the end of which each guest was presented with a scale model of a VW car or commercial, specially made by Wiking-Modellbau of Berlin, the body of which detached to show the location of engine, seats, petrol tank and spare wheel), we walked to the stadium on this sunny Saturday afternoon for the festival performance — walked down the long grass-flanked avenues outside the factory, where Nordhoff’s special roses bloom in the flower-beds, past enormous beer-gardens where that evening the VW workers and their families and friends would receive free beer to the accompaniment of music by the Irish Guards — the tables, chairs and glasses had been prepared the day before and everything stood serenely in place, not a table overturned, not a glass broken during the night. In this well-ordered, well-behaved town, where Nordhoff lives in a flat amongst his treasured collection of jade, the townsfolk on this day were allowed to walk their wives, children and friends round the factory.

Let me explain about the stadium! It was built by VW specially for the occasion. Some 160,000 persons entered it without policing or red tape, the more honoured visitors seated on vast stands of wooden construction, that stood up safely to the enormous numbers who occupied them. Above a tastefully-decorated open-air stage hands sped over the dials of four clocks, and as each nation’s representative pressed buttons the hands stopped opposite numbers, to give a figure that was promptly displayed on a board adjacent. These numbers were those of lucky ticket-holders in Wolfsburg who had won a free VW, ten in all being presented in this way. In addition, during Friday the workers had driven about, the streets in flower-decked VWs wearing huge numbers, and those guessing correctly which number would appear first at given points won other VWs as prizes!

The festival performance was ably compered by the inexhaustible Novotny, on whose broad shoulders the bulk of the weekend’s fantastically complicated organization — complete even to the English-worded card in our bedroom in Hanover wishing us goodnight on behalf of VW! — had fallen.

In this flag-decked stadium — VW had ensured fine weather! — performances were given by bands and/or dancers from eleven different nations, each visiting VW main distributor making a short speech and pressing the aforementioned buttons to give away another VW to a lucky prizewinner. I am proud to state that the band of the Irish Guards, under Capt. C. H. Jaeger and its Commandant, Col. D. M. L. Gordon-Watson, O.B.E., M.C., was particularly well received, the Germans amongst the spectators beating time to the martial music. They loudly applauded the Highland dancers of Jack McConachie. Stephen O’Flaherty, Chairman of VW Motors Ltd. of London and Director of the Dublin VW distributors, spoke capably on behalf of Great Britain. Zulu dancers had been flown in from Warsaw at a cost of £800, M. S. Brooks, Managing Director of South African Motor Assemblers and Distributors Ltd., making a forceful speech on behalf of South Africa, some of it in Zulu! Popular indeed was the modern Camino band from South America, accompanied by scantily-clad dancing girls.

So this fine spectacle unfolded. Here, in a packed stadium, the entertainers of Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, Belgium, South America, Great Britain, France, Holland, America, Austria and Germany performed, in that sequence, in harmony before this vast international gathering, on a spot which a decade before was the scene of bombing, mutiny by refugees and endless hardship and privation.

Today the VW organisation is unique. It is owned by no one, is neither a socialist nor a capitalist undertaking, inasmuch as the State and the workers do not control it, yet all its profits are ploughed back into making more and more VWs and publicising them. Out of bad has come good. Can it be that Providence has, just this once, chosen Wolfsburg for a demonstration of what can be achieved when the executives and the workers toil for a common cause, in a form of socialism which is yet no sop to the socialism of politics? It is worth pondering on, whether you are anti-German and intend to slate us for publicising VW, or whether you consider, with us, that a motor paper should be beyond politics and attempt to report accurately what it sees. For VW has produced 30,000 happy workers where previously discontent and poverty prevailed. In 1954 the factory’s turnover amounted to eleven hundred million marks. I understand that its workers are paid wages about equal to those paid for equivalent work in Coventry. They have a fine new town, flanked by unspoilt woodland. And, as the VWs, cars and commercials, saloon and convertible, some with “winkers” and strengthened bumpers for the American market, pour into the storage parks and away to the world’s buyers, all Germany benefits from an organisation the like of which has never been seen before and perhaps never will be elsewhere. Out of the horrors and destruction of war has come a well-knit, contented, proud community, working for a common cause under the command of the remarkable and well-loved Heinz Nordhoff. It could be that Providence has lifted the curtain, pointing the way . . . I do not know. I am only a motoring journalist. But I wonder!

* * *

The VW programme embraces a slight reduction in exports so as to provide more VWs for the German market, at reduced price, so that a German can buy a standard-model VW for about £315. No change in the cars is anticipated for at least the next million vehicles! Consequently, low depreciation is assured. Nor will the factory at Wolfsburg, which in recent times has been extended by the erection of new buildings covering some 320.000 square yards, be allowed to grow much larger. Already there exist firm sales contracts for six months ahead, and demand exceeds supply. The aim will be to continue to supply the world with a reliable, economical family car, impervious to heat or cold, able to live in the open without harm, and capable of running 60,000 miles without major repairs. (Nordhoff remarked that 120,000 miles isn’t looked upon with astonishment.) In spite of an absence of transfer drilling machines and the like, VW engines and cars will be turned out in increasing numbers — and the increase has been in the order of 40,036 in 1945/48, 86,190 by 1949, 176,228 by 1950, 281,910 by 1951, 417,953 by 1952, 597,693 by 1953, 840,066 by 1954, to 1,000,000 early in August, 1955. Nordhoff said: “The American public likes our cars, and we must therefore take the necessary steps before making our preliminary plans for 1956 to ensure that she will get them.” But he hopes to stabilise exports at 50 per cent, of production, “a proportion that should be fair to all concerned.”

I consider that the air-cooled, all-independently-sprung, rear-engined VW is the finest all-round small family car, everything considered, so I was pleased to learn that when the factory re-opened on August 7th to build cars from 1,000,001 onwards, there would be minor improvements in respect of just those features which have in the past been open to criticism. These take the form of a slightly thinner seat back giving more leg-room in the back compartment, a change of interior trim giving about the same increase in width, different door locks to prevent rattling, and a changed shape of petrol tank so that, while it still holds that useful nine gallons with reserve supply, it gives 20 per cent, greater luggage space under the bonnet. In addition, dual, plated exhaust pipes are now standard, the rear and brake lamps have been improved, brighter finish and upholstery colours are available, and the driver’s seat squab angle is adjustable on the Export model to three different positions.

The saloon (called a limousine in Germany) and Karmann convertible remain the normal models, but the much-discussed Karmann-Ghia coupé was on show on the Saturday. This has very attractive lines and does 75 m.p.h. with the standard engine, a speed which will no doubt be increased by the fitting of two-carburetter conversions, etc. I understand that this coupé will sell in this country for under £1,200 and will be on show on the VW stand at Earls Court next month, where, as a sort of “poor man’s Porsche,” it should create profound interest.

* * *

So ended this remarkable Eine-Million Festival, the preparations for which had occupied Novotny and his staff for eight months. It remained only to say goodbye to our guide, Hermann Flath, normally a Middle-East VW fieldman, and let K.L.M. fly us home, via Amsterdam for a night’s sleep. At London Airport I bade farewell to Mr. J. Graydon, Manager of VW Motors Ltd. in London, who had worked so hard to ensure the success of our visit, and drove home in the Editorial V W, which, in 8,000 hard-driven miles, has Cost 3s. 8d. for repairs — for a new stop-light bulb.

I have no reason to be frantically pro-German but I should be sub-human if this journey to Wolfsburg had left me unimpressed.
W. B.

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