Have you heard the old joke about the three Jewish engineers and Henry Ford? This is the version at Snopes.com:
It was a sweltering August day in 1937 when the 3 Cohen brothers entered the posh Dearborn, Michigan, offices of Henry Ford, the car maker.
“Mr. Ford”, announced Norman Cohen, the eldest of the three. “We have a remarkable invention that will revolutionize the automobile industry.”
Ford looked skeptical, but their threat to offer it to the competition kept his interest piqued. “We would like to demonstrate it to you in person”, said Norman.
After a little cajoling, they brought Mr. Ford outside and asked him to enter a black automobile parked in front of the building. Hyman Cohen, the middle brother, opened the door of the car. “Please step inside, Mr. Ford.”
“What!” shouted the tycoon, “Are you crazy? It’s over a hundred degrees in that car!”
“It is”, smiled the youngest brother, Max.; but sit down Mr. Ford, and push the white button.
Intrigued, Ford pushed the button. All of a sudden a whoosh of freezing air started blowing from vents all around the car, and within seconds the automobile was not only comfortable, it was quite cool.
“This is amazing!” exclaimed Ford. “How much do you want for the patent?’
One of the brothers spoke up: “The price is One Million Dollars.” Then he paused.
“And there is something else. The name ‘Cohen Brothers Air Conditioning’ must be stamped right next to the Ford logo on the dash board!”
“Money is no problem,” retorted Ford,” but there is no way I will have a Jewish name next to my logo on my cars!”
They haggled back and forth for a while and finally they settled. Five Million Dollars, and the Cohens’ name would be left off. However, the first names of the Cohen brothers would be forever emblazoned upon the console of every Ford air conditioning system.
And that is why even today, whenever you enter a Ford vehicle, you see those three names clearly printed on the air conditioning control panel……….NORM, HI and MAX
The story isn’t even apocryphal. Except for the part about Ford’s Jew-hatred it’s complete fiction. Willis Carrier invented refrigerant air conditioning and Packard, not Ford, was the first automaker to offer it in a car.
Now, though, did you hear the one about the Jewish engineer that invented the Volkswagen? Actually, that story isn’t a joke, and it’s not fiction, or at least a persuasive case can be made that it’s true.
That case has been made by Dutch engineer, VW Beetle enthusiast and writer Paul Schilperoord in his book, The True Story of The Beetle (Het Ware Verhaal Van De Kever). The book was first published in Dutch in 2009, selling out its first printing and was subsequently translated into Portuguese. Now, RVP Publishers has just released an English edition, The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen.
Ganz, consigned to historical obscurity in part due to Nazi persecution of Jews, turns out to have been an important and influential figure in German and European automotive development. Schilperoord, more than any other person, has been responsible for restoring Ganz to his deserved role in automotive history, first publishing a series of magazine articles and finally this book. Beyond the book’s central thesis, that Ganz’s concepts and designs for a car he called a “volkswagen” were appropriated by Ferdinand Porsche and Adoph Hitler as the foundation for the design of what became the VW Beetle, Ganz was a respected engineer who was considered an equal by the creme de la creme of European automobile designers. He consulted for Mercedes Benz and BMW on the development of historically significant concept and production cars like M-B’s 170 and BMW’s first in house car design, the AM1. Ganz was regarded as perhaps the expert on swing axle suspensions at the time, and he traveled in circles that included Dr. Porsche and his son Ferry, Tatra chief engineer Hans Ledwinka, and pioneering aerodynamicists Paul Jaray and Edmund Rumpler. There are photographs of Ferry Porsche and Adolph Rosenberger, Dr. Porsche’s business partner and financial backer, test driving a Ganz prototype. Ganz had a long, mutually respectful working relationship with Hans Nibel, the head of Mercedes engineering, and Ganz maintained a lifetime correspondence with Heinrich Nordhoff, who ran Volkswagen from the end of WWII into the 1960s and apparently arranged for Ganz to receive at least some token compensation for his contributions to the Beetle.
Ganz’s consulting work grew out of his role as editor of Motor Kritik, a German auto enthusiast magazine, what we’d call a “buff book”. A trained engineer, Ganz felt that the German auto industry was making a mistake by only producing large, heavy, expensive cars for wealthy people. In the pages of Motor Kritik, Ganz became a passionate advocate for the development of an inexpensive car that was lightweight, streamlined for aerodynamics, independently suspended at all four wheels, using swing axles in the back, with a rear mounted horizontal engine, all mounted on a platform chassis with a tube backbone. That sounds remarkably like the design brief for the Volkwagen Type I, also known as the Beetle. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that Ganz actually called his design a “volkswagen” and he referred to a prototype that he built as the Mai Kaefer, or May beetle.
A number of companies expressed interest in building Ganz’s volkswagen. He built prototypes for motorcycle companies looking to expand into automobiles like Adler, and Ardie. Actually Ganz had extensive discussions with motorcycle manufacturer Zundapp about them building a car on his designs but the talks broke down and Zundapp instead hired Porsche. The prototype Zundapp 12 is widely considered to be a precursor to Porsche’s Beetle design, but Zundapp had had full access to Ganz’s designs during their discussions so it’s impossible to say how much of that prototype was original to Dr. Porsche. Ganz was also a consultant on two air-cooled rear engined Mercedes-Benz concepts, the 120h and 130h, that are also considered to have influenced the Beetle.
Finally, in 1933, the Standard Fabrik company started producing and selling the Standard Superior Volkswagen. They displayed the car and its chassis at the 1933 Berlin auto show, and news of that car was significant enough to merit coverage in the Detroit News. Ganz was at the peak of his career, though he didn’t know it as he stood on Standard’s show booth. Another visitor to the auto show that year would soon change Ganz’s life. Newly installed as Germany’s chancellor, Adolph Hitler attended the show with considerable pomp, as the dictator would make building the autobahns and developing a “people’s car” an important part of Nazi policy.
Within a year, Ganz would find himself hounded by the Gestapo, removed from his job as Motor Kritik editor due to Nazi pressure on the publishers (who kept him on as a ghost writer) and thrown into prison on blackmail charges trumped up out of his legitimate attempt to get compensated for patents of his that were infringed upon by Tatra, the Czech company then under control of Volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) said to have ties to the German secret police. Statements on his behalf by Han Nibel helped get him released and Ganz, now certain that there was no future for him in Germany, fled to Switzerland.
While in Switzerland, Ganz again tried to get his volkswagen made and the Rapid company indeed made a short production run of an open two seater based on his designs. Ganz later had trouble with Swiss authorities appropriating his intellectual property (a not uncommon event around the time of World War II – American Bantam got screwed out of the Jeep and the Canadian government stole Bombardier’s tracked vehicle technology) and after the war he emigrated to Australia where he worked for General Motors’ Holden subsidiary.
Only a handful of his coworkers knew of his role in the history of the Volkswagen and Ganz died in obscurity in 1967. He most likely would have stayed obscure had Paul Schilperoord, in 2004, not read a 1980 issue of Automobile Quarterly, which had a short article about Ganz. Intrigued by the story, he began a quest to document Ganz’s life story. That quest involved visiting archives and museums in Germany, tracking down a complete set of the issues of Motor Kritik, establishing contact with Ganz’s surviving relatives and associates, and finally getting access to Ganz’s personal archive in the possession of Ganz’s former attorney. The result is an important contribution to automotive history. The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz is meticulously researched, with hundreds of footnotes citing original documents. Because he was a working journalist in addition to his engineering consulting work, the Ganz archive included hundreds of photographs of Ganz, his cars, and other contemporary German cars and automotive events. The original Dutch edition integrated those photos with the text of the book. RVP Publishers, for the English edition, has instead decided to highlight those photographs, facsimiles of Motor Kritik, and Ganz’s patents, printing them separately on 128 insert pages of special paper, with extensive new captions contributed by the author. Schilperoord writes in an engaging and mostly entertaining style. He’s a fine storyteller and it’s a heck of a story to tell.
Schilperoord’s claims are, ain’t no bout a doubt it, controversial. Dr. Porsche has a large body of acolytes that protect his history. Hans Ledwinka has his defenders as well. It’s a controversial story and when you add in the issue of Nazis and Jews, it only gets more controversial. I’ve known about Paul’s work for a few years now and I sometimes exchange bits of historical information with him so this review is not the first time that I’ve published about the Ganz story. Whenever I bring up the topic of Ganz online there will usually be someone who will pooh pooh Schilperoord’s case for Ganz and argue in favor of Porsche. Others will take up the cause of Hans Ledwinka’s role in VW history. Nothing wrong with debating history. I prefer to assume that those who disagree with Paul do so out of a regard for historical accuracy and not because of less savory motives. Some, though, seem to have an “anyone but the Jew” approach. Almost invariably, when I write about Ganz there will also be those who say that this is a non-story and that there must be some bias on my part because of my own Jewish faith. I suppose that’s possible, though nobody has ever complained when I’ve written about Ab Jenkins and his Mormon Meteors.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS