By on April 28, 2010

That Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle would permute into a highly successful off road capable troop transport vehicle in a matter of one month was one of the more remarkable and successful adaptations in automotive history. And that the first mass-produced light amphibious vehicle was the second adaptation added to the growing reputation of the VW and the Porsches. In almost every way the opposite of the specifically-designed American military Jeep, the battle of the two has never quite ended, and their respective fans still argue as to which was the better vehicle. It’s a bit like comparing a tractor and a sports car: it depends on the job at hand.

While the KdF wagen (Volkswagen Beetle) was not designed specifically from the outset to have military application, it was clear to the military planners that it had the potential. Already in January 1938, prior to the completion of the VW factory, an order to develop a miltary version was given. The first version, the Type 62 (prototype above), cobbled up by Ferry Porsche in a month, was essentially a Type 1 (Beetle) with a primitive body and 19″ tires to give it added ground clearance. It was pressed into service for the 1939 Polish invasion, and although it acquitted itself well enough, certain shortcomings in that first outing needed to be addressed.

The Type 62 lacked gearing low enough to allow it to crawl along at 2.5 mph, the speed of walking troops. And sitting on the Type I chassis, its ground clearance and off road capability were modest. Ferry Porsche headed up a complete redesign, commonly know as the Type 82, but actually the Type 2 in VWs internal numbering system.

A sturdier platform frame, and the use of reduction gears on the ends of the rear axle shafts were the most significant and critical changes. The reduction gears not only brought the gearing down for the walking tempo, but was more favorable in war terrain overall. And they had the benefit of increasing ground clearance, along with corresponding change in the front suspension mounting location. And it received a more substantial body, which was built by Ambi-Budd, an American-owned company.

One of the Kübelwagen’s most remarkable features was its use of a limited slip differential, the first application ever outside of the legendary thirties Audi GP cars, for which purpose it was first invented. It was the key ingredient (along with the rear engine and light weight) that allowed the VW to be effective off-road without having four wheel drive. In fact, under certain situations, like crossing a trench on the diagonal, a four wheel drive vehicle like the Jeep could potentially get hung up if one wheel on each axle was briefly suspended in the air.

The Type 82 Kübelwagen was about as different from the Jeep as possible, and as alluded to at the top, they both had respective strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, the 985 cc 22.5 hp VW lacked the grunt power of the 60hp Jeep, which made it much more suitable for towing. But the Jeep rode on a precariously short and and narrow wheelbase, with a tall body sitting high above the frame and and running gear. The number of deaths from Jeep rollovers was insignificant in the big picture, but alarmingly high nevertheless. And the Jeep rode roughly, especially for anyone who had the misfortune to have to ride on the rear seat directly over the axle. And with a party of four aboard, the Jeep had no extra carrying space, unless in a trailer. The high metal doors and bodywork of the VW also provided a bit more protection from the elements and might even slow down a bullet. And there was room for luggage behind the back seat.

The VW was certainly the more comfortable of the two for its passengers, with its four bucket seats (that gave their name to the vehicle; a shortened version of Kübelsitzwagen) well within the axle lines. Its center of gravity was lower, and the long-stroke fully independent suspension gave a vastly superior ride and handling. The Jeep, whose origins reflected the deep mud conditions of the American Midwest, made a great tractor; the Kübelwagen, which was a product of more densely built up Europe, was a comfortable transport.

Even in the Sahara, Rommel’s troops were well served in their Type 82s equipped with 690×200 airplane tires. Air cooling had its obvious benefits wherever stray bullets fly. And the Kübelwagen’s flat smooth belly allowed it to slide over sand, snow or mud.

There are conflicting stories about what the Americans thought of the VW. According to wiki: “In November 1943, the U.S. military conducted a series of tests as well on several Type 82s they had captured in North Africa; they concluded that the vehicle was simpler, easier to manufacture and maintain, faster, and more comfortable for four passengers than the U.S. Jeeps. This statement is at odds with U.S. War Department Technical Manual TM-E 30-451, Handbook on German Military Forces, dated 15 March 1945. In this manual (p. 416), it states “The Volkswagen, the German equivalent of the U.S. “Jeep”, is inferior in every way except in the comfort of its seating accommodations.”

Not really surprising, given the nature of military politics; even the German High Command had conflicting opinions about the Type 82. They initially resisted the Kübelwagen until Hitler himself forced the issue.

Americans learning the VW valve adjustment ritual (1944)

As an interesting aside, captured Kübelwagen were put to use by the Americans, and resulted in the first comprehensive English-language Technical Manual for the operation and service of the Volkswagen in 1944. Regardless of what the US high command thought of the VW, plenty of GIs came home with positive memories or grudging respect, helping the Volkswagen became a popular import in the early fifties based on its rep for toughness.

The VW’s basic drive train configuration made it eminently suitable to convert to four wheel drive, by extending the output shaft through the front of the transmission through the central tunnel. The Porsches obviously saw it too, and developed it, and a limited number of Kübelwagen were built with it. But the extra expense and weight didn’t justify themselves with enough added capability to make it worthwhile. The lack of four wheel drive on the Kübelwagen was a pragmatic and conscious decision.

Ironically, it was a Beetle-bodied vehicle, the Type 87 Kommandeurwagen that was given four wheel drive, in order to assure that its high ranking officers could get through (or away) even in the most extreme conditions.

Although the Kübelwagen acquitted itself very well, there was a perceived need for a more extreme-conditions vehicle, combining four wheel drive and amphibious capability. The Type 166 Schwimmwagen was a superb accomplishment, making it the most numerous mass-produced amphibious car in history.

Porsche chief designer Erwin Komenda had to design a completely new structure, as early tests with converting a Kübelwagen showed its smooth underbody to be totally unsuitable to moving through water. So a shorter, more boat-like unitized structure was designed, and it used the four wheel drive system from the Type 87 Kommandeurwagen.

The propeller was ingenious, as it was simple was flipped down in water, which caused it to engage in an extension from the the VW engine out the rear. There was no reversing it, of course; that’s why paddles were standard equipment. Steering was via the front wheels.  The Schwimmwagen was given a larger 1100cc engine with 25hp, which soon also became standard on the Kübelwagen too.

Watching a Schwimmwagen drive right into the Inn River and cross it as a very young child left a deep impression, reenacting something I’d only experienced in dreams. Now if VW had built a Flugwagen, my even more more common dream of cars taking to the air would have been realized too. Given the VW’s remarkable adaptability, it’s almost surprising they didn’t.

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28 Comments on “VW Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen: Germany’s WW2 Jeeps...”

  • avatar

    Quite ingenious and your analogy goes even father given that some companies tried to promote war surplus Jeeps as tractors.

    • 0 avatar

      In the early fifties my grandparents used a 1948 Jeep CJ2 as a tractor. It had a PTO on the rear, a winch on the front, a full-length brush guard over the driveshafts, and a short canvas top over the front (only) seats, which was independent from the windshield – i.e. the windshield could be laid flat on the hood with the top up. Wouldn’t that be a fun one to have today!

      My father commuted to college for a year with it.

  • avatar

    awesome history, paul. i of course being of the ’70’s generation remember this as the vw “thing.” i think i remember versions of it that had a handle in the rear corner so that the occupants could free the vehicle if it got stuck in the mud. am i right?

  • avatar

    Now I see where The VW Thing came from…

  • avatar

    “And it received a more substantial body, which was built by Ambi-Budd, an American-owned company.”

    Quite ironic, and almost as bizarre as the fact the Sperry Company, the maker of the ball turrets on the B-17, was supposedly held in a common industrial grouping along with Focke-Wulf AG by a holding company in Switzerland. Nice symmetry, considering the operators of two products were trying to blow one another out of the sky.

    Business is business . . .

    • 0 avatar

      GM and Ford not only greatly aided the Nazi pre-war build up, they profited from it.

      Though they made some noises that they weren’t in control of their factories during the war (GM was the worst) somehow the US taxpayer ended up funding reparations to the US based company for the German factories that they lost.

      Interesting, easily researched bit of history. The usual theatre – Lies, coverups, deceptions, public outrage, Congressional hearings, still they they got paid and nobody got prosecuted.

      It never changes….

    • 0 avatar

      No doubt, what GM & Ford did in Germany before the start of hostilities more than offsets whatever good they did as US military suppliers during the war. In fact GM & Ford’s complicity with the Third Reich was even worse than that of Porsche. After all, Dr. Porsche and his son were just loyal Germans with no political affiliations who designed military equipment for mass murderers and used slave laborers, while GM & Ford did it for filthy lucre.

      It’s a shame that every time German industrial complicity with the Nazis comes up, someone has to bring up Ford and GM holdings in Germany and their compensation after the war for damaged or seized assets. I believe this is an attempt at historical revisionism, or at least putting a different spin on history and diminishing the role of American industry in winning WWII. Just another case of knocking the USofA down a peg or two.

      How many folks know that “Engine” Charlie Wilson, who was president and later CEO of GM, ran the War Production Board during WWII? It was Wilson who told Presidents Truman and Eisenhower that the US needed a dedicated defense industry because they wouldn’t have time in the next war to switch from consumer to military production.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s nowhere near as bad as IBM carefully designing tabluation machines to help the Germans more effectively exterminate Jews.

  • avatar

    Here is a good photo of the ingenious Schwimmwagen propeller coupling for you.

  • avatar

    Great piece Paul!

    Just one minor point. The LSD was first in Auto Union cars – Ferry Porsche commissioned ZF to build it, back when he was an engineer at Auto Union. He had already left Benz. Lotsa progress and weirdness due to Hitler’s personal interest in racing as a political tool, but there still was competition between Auto Union and Benz.

    The later model Benz M25’s were very impressive beasts (~500HP under 5L!), but as far as I know the transaxle wasn’t fitted with a LSD. That was for the Auto Unions.

  • avatar

    If one asks a German soldier of the era which was better, the Jeep or the Kubelwagen, the Jeep wins hands down. The VW was a good vehicle but it was not all wheel drive. It was also comparatively frail.

    On the Russian front, captured Jeeps were highly prized by German HQ units as the only vehicle could allow them to reliably run away, oops, strategically withdraw when the Russians attacked in overwhelming force.

    Finally, lets not forget that the much vaunted Whermacht was chronically under equipped for the entire war.

    • 0 avatar

      That was probably only because almost any vehicle with a “Made in Germany” stamp on it was rendered useless by the Russian Winter. The Kübelwagen was never developed for such extreme conditions.

      Even the Luftwaffe’s was grounded while ancient Russian planes were zipping around.

    • 0 avatar

      Finally, lets not forget that the much vaunted Whermacht was chronically under equipped for the entire war.

      There are a number of factors involved. To begin with, in a fascist system the government tells corporations what to do. The Reich assigned military production. That led to production inefficiencies. For the most part, the US took bids and companies that had formerly made consumer goods and were used to large scale mass production. Yes, in some cases the US gov’t kind of screwed companies when a particular item, like the Jeep, was in very high demand. The Jeep was originally designed and built by American Bantam, but eventually was built by Ford and Willys as well because Bantam couldn’t meet the demand.

      In any case, the American system ended up building a lot more weapons. Yes, the German tanks were superior but the Americans built 75,000 Shermans vs 25,000 Tiger and Panther tanks. Quality vs quantity is an old military debate, but quantity seems to have helped the Allies win the war.

      Also, one can’t discount the impact that implementing the Final Solution had on German military materiel needs. Killing Jews was the Nazis primary goal, more important than winning the war. That’s what the high ranking Nazis said, that if they lost the war and succeeded in exterminating the Jews, it was worth it. While the Nazis were losing the war, they were still pouring resources and manpower into killing Jews. Trains that could have carried troops were used to transport Jews and other victims to concentration camps.

      Another factor is the use of slave labor. Many German companies were supplied with slaves by the Reich.

      A five-year study by a team of German historians [sponsored by the Volkswagen company] found that as much as 80 percent of VW’s wartime workforce of 16,000 may have been slave laborers.

      In 1991 the head of the investigative team, Bochum University history professor Hans Mommsen, declared at a symposium, “It’s quite clear that Porsche was responsible for hiring concentration camp inmates for the factory’s labor camp.” Porsche contacted SS leader Heinrich Himmler directly to request slaves from Auschwitz, Mommsen said.

      Simply put, slaves are not the best workers. Even if they weren’t predisposed to sabotage, they’re not the most eager workers. Compare the motivation in terms of quality work of a slave forced to make munitions for the regime that persecutes him with the work of an American in Detroit with a son in the US Army.

      The Reich’s devotion to Nazi ideology ended up compromising their ability to win the war.

    • 0 avatar

      Ronnie: Timely comments on the slave labor situation … just tonite, a British friend, in town, and I discussed this topic (w.r.t. V-2 rocket production in the underground Dora/Mittelwerk complex built in a former salt-mine) and there are three other key aspects, in addition to those you cite, about using slave labor.

      1. When you are regularly killing your employees, you lose any expertise they may have acquired … so your production workers are continually starting from zero and making all the newbie mistakes over and over again …

      2. Language-based issues: When your workers speak a different language, they may find it difficult to understnad and complete a task.

      3. Education-based issues: When your workers are not trained, or experienced, in the task they perform, they will make mistakes.

    • 0 avatar

      Germany faced a severe shortage of industrial workers throughout the war. The majority of foreign workers were not slave laborers, at least in the way previous comments mean. The Vichy French government for instance sent a large number of French workers to Germany; these people were not worked to death.

      Also, German industrial methods were inefficient at the time relative to the US & Soviets. Albert Speer eventually improved the situation, but it was too late (even by 1943) to reverse the Soviet’s initiative on the Eastern Front. Additionally they had too few experienced tank crews to take full advantage of their superior equipment, even when it was available in decent numbers.

      It is incorrect to say German companies did not compete. Bids were routinely sought for all sorts of military equipment. The only real exceptions were instances where only one company was capable of meeting the requirements (e.g., Rheinmetall high-velocity tank guns; some Krupp turrets and Maybach vehicle engines also lacked alternatives).

      Nor did violence towards Jews or other civilians impede the war effort. The Wehrmacht was not involved at all, and even the SS devoted almost all its resources into fighting capacity (and by 1944 was often better equipped than the Wehrmacht).

  • avatar

    I’m surprised VW never adapted this into a submersible Unterseewagen…something akin to a mini U-boat!

    • 0 avatar

      The Japanese developed some two man subs. One was found sunk near Oahu.

      The Japanese also had a submarine aircraft carrier, a sub that could carry three torpedo bombers. While three planes is not much of a squadron, the Japanese had been doing advanced germ warfare research (killing a half million Chinese in Manchuria with cholera) and were looking at delivery systems that would allow them to attack US cities. With biological weapons, one plane can do a lot of damage. Also, equipped with convention weapons, the planes could be used to attack strategic targets like the Panama Canal, where disabling even a single lock could shut down the canal.

  • avatar

    Actually, the Germans produced less than 2000 Tiger I and II models and slightly less than 6000 Panthers Auf A, D and G.

    The USA produced about 50,000 Shermans, the Russians and equal number of T-34s.

    In the final battles on Eastern Front the Germans were outnumbered in Russians tanks 16 to 1. Even if they had possessed more, they would not have had the fuel to run them.

    Shortly before his death in 1942, Fritz Todt realised the war was lost because Germany was not able to produce anywhere near the quantities of weapons necessary to win the war.

    And actually, the Nazis believed that if they killed all the Jews, they would win they war. It was their greatest priority.

    • 0 avatar

      Wonder what Todt would have thought had he lived a bit longer … in 1944, after Albert Speer had become Minister of Armaments & Production, Germany produced more planes than it had produced in any previous year (although by that time, other factors essential to Germany’s defeat had solidified.)

  • avatar

    The quick conception and fabrication of the original Jeep is also legend … IIRC … due to the tight timing of the Army RFP, the prototype was assembled on the drive down from Detroit, with a stop in Ohio to get the proper transmission or transfer case from Dana …

    As said before, Jeep could tow a howitzer … or just about anything you could pile into it …

    Luggage? Comfort? These are hardly pre-requisites for war wagons … if you want that (and 4-wheel drive), you would get either a Ford or Dodge Command Car…

    The whole air v. water cooled argument was also well played-out in the aircraft segment … one big critique of the P-51 Mustang is that the (GM Harrison-built) radiator was in the belly … many felt that a stray-shot would drain that system and put put paid to the Packard Merlin in short-order … thus the planes would not be suitable for the ground-attack role (despite being originally-built and designated as the A-36 dive bomber) … but after D-Day, and in Korea, this plane with the oh-so-vulnerable water-cooled set-up became the preferred ground-attack weapon (as evidenced in the preP-80/F-86 days in Korea) carrying 2 500-lb bombs, 8-rockets, and 6-0.50 Cal machine guns). I rather suspect that, similarly, the air-v-water cooling argument is not as significant as many think. If ROP was such a big issue back then, it would have been easily solved with a roll-bar, so this was likely not on the radar of the Army (just like the HUMVEE never came equipped with airbags… and it to, 50 years after the lessons of WWII, was a water-cooled design.)

    Finally, let’s talk accessories: One of the items developed in Germany was the famous “Jerry Tank” gas can … story goes that the Allies picked-up a few of these, sent them back to the U.S.of A., where the pouring spout and flange assy were reengineered to reduce spillage-related fuel loss … then put into mass-production … it was said that this played a major role in victory by reducing the spilled-fuel ratio to far below the ca. 50% in the previous German design … taken over several years, this eliminated the need for a whole lot of ships and trips crossing the Atlantic filled with gasoline…

    • 0 avatar

      With aircraft the air-cooled versus water-cooled debate was a bit more complex than just the P-51 was great. While the radiator was not as vulnerable as originally thought, the preferred ground attack planes were the air-cooled P-47 and postwar, the Skyraider. Also the P-51’s bottom mounted radiator’s air scoop would tear the plane apart if you ditched it in the water so not a win for the P-51.
      Getting back to military trucks, air versus water cooling seems to have been a matter of national preference, the US always used water cooled engines while the Germans had a number of air-cooled postwar vehicles, notably the Deutz diesel powered MAN high mobility trucks and the VW 181.

    • 0 avatar

      Interesting aspect on the ditching aspect, in years of fascination on the Mustang, I never heard of this issue … I’d like to read up on this, could you toss a few references my way?

      IIRC, the AD-1 came into being because it was later possible to put a whopper engine on a huge airframe and have it carry a tremendous load (Mustang was from an earlier era which did not have a heavy-duty ground-attack aircraft.)

      And back to the water v air story … I agree on the historical background on the use of these technologies … but I can also tell you that the US was interested in air-cooled diesels … in the mid-80’s, I worked on a DARPA project where we were studying adiabatic diesel designs, the idea being to reduce the 30% fraction of energy input that is converted into rejected heat, so that water cooling could be eliminated (or vastly downsized) … the other reason was to reduce the IR-footprint of a hot engine and heat-exchanger unit…

  • avatar

    Last June I had the pleasure of seeing and sitting in a 1942 Kubel at a small car show. The Holy Grail if your a aircooled VW fan like me. The owner said he paid $1700 for it in ’76….wonder what they are worth today.

  • avatar

    I recently drove a VW Thing. Understand that I am a VW enthusiast and own two aircooled VWs and one watercooled VW. Man, was that VW Thing scary at 45 mph! Seemed tippy. Fragile. Twitchy. Can’t imagine going out on the road in one of those and ever feeling confident. I’d love to drive a second one for comparison. It felt half as solid as a Beetle and twice as vulnerable in a crash. Ahhh, no thanks! GRIN! I should add though that it felt like it could go ANYWHERE with it’s limited slip diff and 2WD.

  • avatar

    The Jeep was just what the US government wanted. Bantam started it, modified by Ford and Willys added to it’s design, with flat fenders, stamped grill and the Go Devil 4cyl. This covered regular terrain, desert and jungle. Was it a masterpiece for its time, yes. Plus it was light enough for two to lift it out of a ditch, still be able to carry cargo and act as a scout car under all conditions. Before the war ended, Willys looked for ways to market the Jeep. They tested it at several AG colleges. It was great as a farm work horse. As many farmers were still using horses it was a way for them to have a tractor and a car to go to town. Wisely Willys did not just market it to farms and ranches, but to the general public. The rest is history. Was the Jeep better than the VW, yes in it’s over all utility. Was the VW an great design? Yes in it’s day and for limited use.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that , for trading purposes in the U.S. Army during WW2, a Kubelwagen was worth 2 Jeeps . Don’t remember who was trading the Kubelwagens , the Germans or the U.S Army .

  • avatar

    Anyone know whether the Kubelwagen was in general use in the German air force and the German navy in WWII?

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