Ivan Hirst 1916-2000 – Beetle’s Saviour
Whilst Hitler claimed credit for the VW Beetle, the idea certainly came via Ferdinand Porsche in the early 1930s; he may have been enlightened by the Czech Tatra 97 of the time, historians will long argue over its origins. There is no doubt who gave the Beetle a second chance. In a bombed out post-war Germany with little hope and no infrastructure Major Ivan Hirst saw a future what would become a legend. Hitler had viewed car ownership in other nations and considered the German population should also enjoy widespread mobility in the form of his ‘people’s car’.
He laid the foundation stone for the factory building at Wolfsburg near Hanover in 1938 after Mercedes had produced 33 pre-production examples. The KDF-Wagon or ‘strength through joy car’ failed to see mass production as war interrupted and the new factory supplied Beetle based military vehicles (Kubelwagon) and weapons until over run by the US Army. Using forced labour, mainly Jews from Poland or Russia, the factory was however able to produce 660 Beetles in the war years at a cost of less than 1000 Reichsmark’s (£85), the price-point was an original aim of Hitler; these were distributed to the privileged few. Allied bombing raids put a halt to production in 1944 and post-war Germany was divided up into four sections. Hanover fell under British control and young Major Hirst was given the job of getting the 1-mile facility up and running again.
Born in Saddleworth near Manchester, Hirst trained as an optical engineer. He received a commission to second lieutenant in the Territorial Army in 1934 and quickly rose through the ranks. After D Day he took charge of tank repair operations in Belgium and come VE day in 1945 achieved the rank of Major. His post-war function was to assist his superior Colonel Charles Radclyffe at Wolfsburg; the original intentions were to scrap the facility and remove the tooling back to England as war reparations. Immediately after hostilities the plant was used to repair war ravaged British Military transport but when Hirst discovered one of the pre-war prototypes hidden in an outbuilding he conjured a plan to supply the occupying British Army with much needed transport. Further searching led too much of the original tooling being discovered intact, stored away from the main structure.
Having admired a Beetle pre-war, Colonel Radclyffe ensured Hirst enjoyed the support of his superiors and the first machines constructed resulted in a 10,000 unit order, mainly for the Military Police. By using old stock panels from the ‘people’s car’ and mechanical remains from the Kubelwagen plus parts he was able to beg, steal or borrow, Hirst was able to get the war torn Wolfsburg factory building 1000 cars a month from March 1946.
The first Beetles were crude and noisy and when tested its pre-war designed 1131cc engine offered a lack lustre top speed of just 56mph. Shortages of materials meant the bomb damaged roof allowed snow to fall inside the factory during winter months; repairs with branches and tarpaulins sufficed enough to keep production running. It is worth pointing out that Major Hirst’s endeavours resulted in one of the very few worthy moments for post-war Germans; the remains of the country were being dismantled and the population faced starvation and misery.
Having succeeded in obtaining one large order for the Beetle, the UK government and manufacturers were approached. Henry Ford declined the offer to produce the Beetle, reportedly saying the design was ‘a piece of junk’ and advising the car was ‘very backward in the commercial field. British designers have nothing to learn in this brand of design.' Unfortunately, the UK Government listened and when Humber offered their report; ‘A study of the engine indicated that the unit was, in certain details, most inefficient . . . it is very doubtful whether it was even capable of giving reliable service had it produced a performance commensurate with its size.
Looking at the general picture, we do not consider that the design represents any special brilliance . . . and it is suggested that it is not to be regarded as an example of first-class modern design to be copied by British Industry’; the Beetle was rejected, much to the consternation of those who realised its potential. Hirst was intrigued by the wartime four-wheel drive system developed by the Nazi’s and also produced a number of specials utilising the skills of specialist coachbuilders such as Karman. His ingenuity knew no boundaries; realising small carburettor parts would be difficult to produce at Wolfsburg he enlisted a nearby idle camera factory to supply. Total production for 1946 was 7677 vehicles and this figure was improved on the following year to 8987. The same UK motor industry that rejected the VW lobbied for the plant to be dismantled and for the restriction of German car exports but by 1947 British policy was to release the country from occupation and to rebuild itself.
Hirst then installed civilian management from 1948, appointing ex Opel Director Heinz Nordhoff as General Manager, his knowledge of General Motors mass production would be invaluable as 19,244 cars would be completed that year. On arriving in Wolfsburg in 1945 Major Hirst was advised that the town had been popular with the Nazi’s and to always carry his revolver however on leaving in 1949 he had built up such a rapport with his workers they built him a Beetle as a present; this he declined. He and Colonel Radclyffe both accepted a special 1/10 scale model which reportedly cost more to make than an actual car. When the pair left the plant for the last time some 50,000 Beetles had been constructed, VW had a plant that would become the largest in the world as the company grew to dominate. This vehicle saved from obscurity would continue production for over half a century with 21.5 million units, making an indelible mark not just on motoring but world culture; thanks to one hero, Major Ivan Hirst who died aged 84 just one month after being photographed behind the wheel of the new Beetle.Tags:VW Beetle