MILITARY INTELLIGENCE

By Graeme Hurst

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Think of a WWII military runabout and you’ll probably come up with the Jeep. Thanks to its role in liberating Europe, it found fame and is arguably the four-wheel equivalent of the Spitfire when it comes to symbolic hardware from the conflict. However, Hitler’s Wehrmacht had an equivalent that was arguably a more accomplished piece of design: the Kübelwagen. What’s more, it was the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche. I love hearing about the history of unusual cars and how they eventually came into the owner’s hands. And over the years I’ve heard some interesting tales of accidental barn finds and randomly spotted classified ads, but somehow the history of Barrie Gasson’s 1942 Kübelwagen is particularly fascinating. “It was traded in on a new VW Kombi at Lindsay Saker in Krugersdorp in the early 1970s,” explains Capetonian Barrie, who acquired it 15 years ago.

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Now I can just picture the salesman’s utter bewilderment back then when he moved in to clinch the deal with the chap getting behind the wheel of the shiny VW Kombi on his showroom floor.

So, beplan meneer om dalk iets in te ruil op die Kombi?”

Ja graag; my 1942 Kübelwagen Tipe 82? Dit staan juis buite!”

Net ‘n oomblik, meneer,” replies the salesman as he pretends to look up the model’s trade value in his little black book…

That’s right. A German military vehicle delivered new to a Luftwaffe base south of Berlin at the height of WWII (13 May 1942 to be precise) was now parked outside a Volksie dealer in Krugersdorp. It’s just one chapter in the colourful past of this rather extraordinary vehicle, although quite how the Kübel survived the war and later turned up 6 000 miles away on the other side of the world isn’t entirely known.

What is known is that this Volkswagen Type 82 Kübelwagen is the 8 463rd example of the 50 788 produced at Wolfsburg in a dedicated factory during WWII. A factor y that would famously later be resurrected from the ashes after the onset of peace to sire the Beetle and indeed the entire Volkswagen empire… but that’s getting ahead of the story: first we need to step back to 1930s Germany to understand the background to the Kübel. And, of course, the name.

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Kübelwagen is an abbreviation of the German word kübelsitzwagen (bucketseat car). It refers to the shape of the seats favoured for pre-war German Wehrmacht utility vehicles which generally only sported canvas sides (to aid entry and exit) and so needed seats that offered a degree of support to ensure the occupants didn’t fall out. The Kübelwagen concept was fairly common before the war and Mercedes, Opel and Tatra – among other car makers – produced examples. And, although the doors eventually designed into the Volkswagen variant rendered bucket seats unnecessary, it nevertheless retained the Kübelwagen designation.

The origins of the Volkswagen Kübel go back to the great Ferdinand Porsche who, in early 1938, received a request from the Army Ordnance Office to explore the development of a light utility vehicle based on his Type 38 KdF-Wagen – the prototype for the legendary Beetle. That had been developed in cabriolet, sunroof and hardtop versions. The possibility of a military version had been discussed at the outset of the KdF project, as early as 1934, but the idea wasn’t pursued. But the threat of war saw an about-turn and, four years on, the Wehrmacht was set on the idea, issuing detailed specifications: 1. Maximum kerbside weight of 550kg, or 950kg when loaded with three men and equipment. 2. Ground clearance was to be a minimum of 240mm. 3. Power no less than 25hp.

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The Kübel’s development took around two years, by which time the initial rounded body form derived from the KdF-Wagen had given way to multiple ribbed flat metal pressings that were cheaper to produce and lent the car – by then designated Type 82 – a more military appearance. Underneath, the Kübel boasted a chassis based around a central tube (carrying all the control cables and fuel and brake lines out of harm’s way) with a metal floorpan welded either side. The front end of the central tube carried the transverse torsion bar suspension on just four bolts while two transverse arms at the rear of the tube carried the flat-four powertrain and transverse gearbox – again using just four bolts.

The use of the KdF-Wagen’s rear-engined format had a design benefit as it put 60% of the weight on the driving wheels, aiding traction, while the flat-four design and its modest capacity – initially set at just 985cc but increased to 1131cc from 1943 – kept weight to a minimum, as did the lack of a traditional cooling system.

During cross-country trials, it became clear that the design fell somewhat short of the military’s requirements: they wanted lower first-gear ability, greater ground clearance and improved traction. Porsche solved all this by the clever addition of reduction gears in the rear wheel hubs which both halved the speed in first gear down to 4km/h (the walking pace of a soldier with full kit) and reduced top speed from 100km/h to 80km/h, but had the bonus of raising ground clearance by 50mm.

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The reduction hubs also increased the torque applied by the wheels and this gave the Kübel impressive off-road manners: it could ford water close on half a metre deep and traverse a 45% slope. The Kübel also boasted a locking differential – based on a mechanical design Porsche developed for the mighty Auto Union race cars. Together with its light weight, these technical specifications made the vehicle inherently more capable than a lot of heavier four-wheel-drive machinery.

Several variants tailored to the military’s needs followed, including an evacuation car (it could take two stretchers) and a rail car, complete with wheel rims adapted with metal flanges. There was also a half-track variant and a ‘dummy tank’ model which Field Marshal Rommel allegedly used to good effect in North Africa to fox enemy intelligence operatives. Famously there was also an amphibious version, the Type 166 or Schwimmwagen.

Kübel production kicked off at Porsche’s Stuttgart in April 1940 but, a month on, moved to the newly established KdF-Stadt at Fallersleben, east of Hannover, which would later be renamed Wolfsburg. By all accounts the Kübel was highly regarded in the field, particularly in the desert, where Rommel is reputed to have commented that “anywhere the camel can go, the Kübel can go.” Its light weight also made it less susceptible to mines, as Rommel later allegedly elaborated to Porsche himself: “You saved my life! Your Kübelwagen that I used in Africa took me over a minefield without incident, but the heavy Horch following with my luggage blew up!”

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Kübels were equally appreciated on the Eastern front, particularly in the extreme winter conditions where the air-cooled engine wasn’t susceptible to frost damage and the Kübel could traverse slippery terrain. Its abilities were also recognised by the enemy, with wartime legend having it that Allied soldiers used to joke that they would readily swap two Jeeps for one captured Kübel!

After the war the KdF-Stadt works were resurrected to start up production, with the need for civilian cars – particularly exportable ones – taking preference. A few hundred Kübels were produced before the focus switched to the Beetle, which inherited a lot of the technical underpinnings of the Kübelwagen. The German military later relied on a DKW design for future demand for a utility vehicle, although that wasn’t entirely successful. By the end of the 1960s this was set to be replaced by the Europa-Jeep (a joint German-French-Italian project) but when that stalled, Volkswagen offered a solution with the Type 181 or Kurierwagen.

Using a similar format (and indeed near-identical wheelbase dimensions) to the Kübel, the Type 181 was essentially a Beetle front end married to a Karmann Ghia floorpan, which was attached to the back end of a Kombi. It also featured corrugated panelling and, although it lacked its predecessor’s amazing cross-country ability, it was good enough for the Bundeswehr to order some 15 000. Volkswagen capitalised on the car’s ‘fun’ factor by offering them for sale in the US, where it was marketed as ‘The Thing’.

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It was Type 181 ownership that led Barrie to buying the Kübelwagen, but his interest in them (and indeed in Volkswagens in general) began when Type 181s were new. “In the early 1970s I spent 2½ years overseas. I had a split-window camper which I bought and travelled around Europe in before I went to the US, where I bought a Beetle which I drove around the US for 2 months. VWs proved themselves in travel in both summer and winter conditions,” recalls Barrie.

It was while on his European travels that Barrie first clocked the Type 181. “I saw one in 1971 in a VW dealer in Germany and later a Type 82 in the Austrian Tyrol. I thought they were interesting cars,” recalls Barrie, who was attracted to their inherent design. “Practical, simple and reliable; they have all the things that go with air-cooled VW and they’re both great pieces of industrial design.” In 1990 he was finally lucky enough to buy a Type 181 from a car dealer in Benoni. He quickly put it into daily use, commuting to UCT, where he lectured in city planning. And the regular use soon put him in touch with other Type 181 enthusiasts.

“People would stop me and say: ‘I know someone with one of these in PE,’ and so on and I’d always reply: ‘I want to know about that car, can you give me the owner’s name and number?’” Travels around the country for work were beneficial too. “I was walking through Durban once and came across a garage restoring cars and they knew of a doctor at Addington Hospital who had one,” adds Barrie, who built up a directory of all the Type 181s he’d heard of.

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His various enquiries led to somebody sending him photos of a wrecked Type 82 in Namibia, and through that Barrie subsequently became aware of two other examples in South Africa. One (in bad condition) with Werner Alker in Centurion and another with Faan Meintjes in Thabazimbi. Faan had been a VW dealer in Stilfontein and collected unusual vehicles. And it was he who had acquired the Type 82 that turned up at Lindsay Saker all those years ago.

Barrie mailed the directory out to all the owners he’d unearthed over the years and Faan got in touch to thank him for the information. “We had a nice chat and at the end of the call I told him I was interested in his car and should he ever think of selling could he please remember me. I didn’t press him but just let it germinate.” That was in 2002 and four years later his diplomacy paid off when Faan rang to say he was keen to sell his Kübel to Barrie.

He was delighted with the Type 82 when it arrived in Cape Town. “It had some mechanical wear in the drivetrain, but the body had virtually no rust.” The mileage of 82 000km looked to be genuine and it was clear that his Kübel was unlikely to have been used in combat. “It probably lived under cover as a staff car as it’s rare for a wartime vehicle to survive from so early in the war,” surmises Barrie, who liaised with AutoMuseum Volkswagen for background on his Type 82.

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He established that it was delivered new to Jüterbog Luftwaffe Base some 50km south of Berlin. Jüterbog fell into the Russian zone after hostilities ended so Barrie reckons his car must’ve been driven west and impounded in the British zone. “It then passed into the inventory of the Bundeswehr and was sold into private hands in 1951.” It was sold again in ’63 and ’67 but after that the trail to Krugersdorp goes cold, although it’s believed to have arrived in SA via Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) at the hands of two Germans.

In Barrie’s care the Kübel has undergone extensive mechanical refurbishment, along with minor bodywork (new sill panels) and a switch to a set of correct 16in wheels to bring it to the standard you see here. Today it remains an ongoing project and he has plans to re-create the side screens which are missing but, until then, the Kübel is a regular on Crankhandle Club runs where Barrie inevitably spends time fielding questions about its design and origins.

Seeing the Kübel in the metal underlines just what a clever design it represents. Everything on it is strictly functional and has been designed to limit weight and cost, while maximising practicality. The scuttle brace and the backs of the front seats double up as hand grips and the doors are all identical to limit build cost and promote reuse. It’s the same with the large cover over the rear storage unit behind the seats (which are Beetle items in Barrie’s car) which is made from the same pressing as the engine cover. The storage unit also affords access to the transmission (unlike with a Beetle) to aid servicing and the front foot well has a recess to hold a jerry can – complete with original canvas tie-down strap!

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Outside, the Kübel has bracketry to allow a shovel to be clipped on and for the windscreen to be folded flat. There’s also a set of hooks on both ends of the car, but even more impressive is the Kübel’s lighting: the front of the Type 82 has a headlight on a pod featuring a special hood over the lens to ensure enemy aircraft can’t spot the beam in a blackout, while the tail-lamp unit has a hinged flap to do the same at the rear if needed. All in, it really is a masterpiece in utility, one that demonstrates Ferdinand Porsche’s ability for penning a simple yet robust design that punches well above the sum of its parts – much like his better-known KdF-Wagen.

Thankfully the allies ultimately trounced the axis powers but if they hadn’t, the world would arguably be a very different place on several fronts today. And I reckon it’s quite likely that on the automotive front, the iconic Willys Jeep may well have had some serious competition when it comes to being the ultimate four-wheel symbol of military hardware.

Thanks to Barrie Gasson for details on the Kübelwagen’s development.

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