1940 Volkswagen Kubelwagen
1940 Volkswagen Kubelwagen. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

The Volkswagen Beetle was created in the mid-1930s by Ferdinand Porsche’s design office on a commission from German Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Government. The mandate was to design an economical, affordable and sturdy family car, and the first prototype was completed in 1935. After exhaustive testing, the Beetle, a small two-door sedan with an air cooled rear engine, was production-ready by 1938.

To build the Beetle, a huge state-owned factory was constructed east of Hannover, near Wolfsburg Castle in the state of Lower Saxony. By the time it was completed in 1939, however, Hitler was moving inexorably toward what would become the Second World War. The result was that most of the plant’s resources were directed toward war material, and only approximately 600 of the Porsche-designed cars, called KdF-Wagens, would be built between 1940 and 1944.

One of the Wolfsburg plant’s products was a German “Jeep,” a small, versatile, Volkswagen-based, four-passenger utility vehicle. It was called the Kubelwagen (bucket car), and there would also be an amphibious version called the Schwimmwagen. Unlike the American Jeep, the Kubelwagen did not have four-wheel drive, although the Schwimmwagen did.

Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the Kubelwagen had a back-bone chassis and four-wheel independent suspension via torsion bars. The horizontally-opposed, air cooled, four-cylinder engine was in the rear, and began with 985 cc and 22.5 horsepower, which in 1943 was increased via a five mm bore increase to 1131 cc, and 25 horsepower.

The body was produced by the Ambi-Budd coachworks in Berlin, and like the Jeep, had a simple rectangular shape. It had side ribbing for added stiffness, four doors, a folding windshield and a convertible fabric roof. The spare tire was mounted on the sharply sloped hood, and there were external carrying brackets for a shovel.

For increased ground clearance at the front, the steering spindles were lowered on the two trailing arms. At the rear, the use of reduction gears at the ends of the axles raised ground clearance and gave increased pulling power. These gears would later be used on the Volkswagen Transporter series of vans and micro-buses.

The Schwimmwagen, with its amphibious capability and four-wheel drive, was a more elaborate and expensive vehicle. It had no doors, and the hull was completely sealed. Like the Kubelwagen, its engine was in the rear, and the muffler and engine air intake were mounted high behind the passenger compartment.

In the water it was driven by a propeller that was hinged so that it swung down and coupled with the end of the crankshaft. Top speed was said to be 80 km/h (50 mph) on land and 10 km/h (6 mph) in the water.

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