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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK
The Englishman who saved Hitler's Beetle
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

Hitler at the ceremony to begin work on the VW factory
Hitler was a driving force in the Beetle project
Ferdinand Porsche is credited with creating the VW Beetle - with a little prompting from Adolf Hitler. But it was Ivan Hirst, a British soldier, who started the production line running. Without him the world would not be about to see the 21,529,464th and final Beetle leave the paint shop.

When the final Ultima Edicion Volkswagen Beetle drives out of the factory gates in Puebla, Mexico - destined for the VW museum in Germany - many will toast designer Ferdinand Porsche for the car's phenomenal commercial success.

However, the building of almost every one of the 21.5 million distinctive vehicles owes just as much - arguably more - to a Huddersfield-born optical engineer, Ivan Hirst.

See Beetle photos from the Volkwagen archive

Though since the 1960s, the curvy Beetle has acquired a rather bohemian, louche image - it was the very antithesis of peace and love, Adolf Hitler, who dreamed up the concept.

The Nazi dictator was outraged that car ownership in other countries was far more widespread than in Germany, thus denying his people a mobility which he saw as "a source of unknown joy".

In 1934, Hitler took tea with Ferdinand Porsche and mapped out his vision for a "people's car" (or Volkswagen) with a relatively modest price tag of 1,000 Reichmarks.

Within four years, Porsche had built many prototypes and watched Hitler lay the foundation stone of a huge factory to mass produce the cars - renamed the Kraft durch Freude Wagen or Strength Through Joy car.

Ivan Hirst
Ivan Hirst is the Beetle's unknown father
However, before the metal presses could begin churning out cars for the joyful masses, World War II broke out. Designing tanks became Porsche's primary role and the factory helped repair aircraft and manufacture V1 flying bombs with a slave workforce of 12,000 Russian prisoners and concentration camp inmates.

The Allies finally overran the mile-long complex in 1945. Ivan Hirst, a major with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, was placed in charge and found the vast plant in an appalling condition.

"It had been bombed three times, large parts of the roof were missing, the windows were blown out and the cellars were flooded," says Dr Simon Parkinson, a friend of Ivan Hirst and author of Volkswagen Beetle: The Rise from the Ashes of War.

Though the facility's shortcomings were evident, what was expected of Hirst was less obvious. "I was told to go to an ex-Nazi factory," he said in a BBC interview before his death in 2000. "On asking what I had to do there, I was merely told: 'Just take charge. Sit there.'"

Hirst's VW kickstarted the Beetle boom

But the 29-year-old major did not just sit. The factory's machinery had largely survived the air raids hidden in barns out in the countryside, and Hirst thought it could be used to build vehicles for the threadbare British forces.

Hirst had hoped to produce Kubelwagens - a boxy Nazi military car - but moulds to make the body panels were missing. However, Beetle parts were at hand and - with the blessing of a superior who had seen the Beetle before the war - Hirst built one in army green.

This prototype impressed the British enough for them to place an order for 20,000. The Volkswagen factory at Wolfsburg was back in business, even if Hirst was forced to repair the roof with nothing more sturdy than tree branches and tarpaulins.

"That first winter they had to stop the machines for fear they would shatter in the cold," says Dr Parkinson. "It was a difficult time, but Hirst was very practical and came up with solutions."

When the stock of carburettors ran out, Hirst took one of the vital engine parts to pieces to work out what could be improvised on-site. The widgets Hirst judged too fiddly for his own workers to copy were instead ordered from a nearby, and idle, camera factory.

The Wolfsburg VW factory in 1952
Ivan Hirst put the VW plant back on its feet
Despite such ingenuity, the Beetle failed to wow established car markers. Henry Ford declined an offer to take over the operation and British manufacturer Humber tested the car and dismissed it as "rather loud and gives a rough ride" and "extremely ugly".

Nicholas Carr-Forster, who still drives one of these early Beetles around London, admits it is a "very simple" vehicle.

"It's like driving a clockwork toy. It's very slow, very noisy and because of the gearbox, you need to drive by ear. But I've just been to Frankfurt and drove the 1,500km there and back without a problem."

By 1947, Hirst was seeking a civilian export market for his Beetles as part of the move to put West Germany's economy back on track.

When the British major left in 1949 - handing over the reins to a German - some 50,000 Beetles had rolled out of Wolfsburg and Volkswagen was in sound shape.

See the plans for the 1950 Beetle

Even when the firm became one of the world's pre-eminent car makers, Ivan Hirst's contribution was not forgotten by those at Wolfsburg. When the new Beetle was launched in the UK, he was given the first ride.

"It has been a Nazi town and Ivan was told to carry a revolver with him at all times, but he soon built a close rapport with the workers. They seemed to deeply admire him," says Dr Parkinson.

Right up to his death, Hirst played down his role.

"He was terribly modest and very embarrassed that people should go on about him," says Dr Parkinson. "I wanted to write my book just about him, but he wouldn't let me. I had to widen the subject out to describe the whole operation."

The most Hirst would say about the Beetle was: "It was no means a perfect car. But in its time it was a damn good little car. They went on perhaps to produce it too long. But that's another story."

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