In 1945, major Ivan Hirst convinced the British Army to rebuild the bomb-battered VW factory in Wolfsburg and by the following year the plant was producing 1,000 cars every month
EUROPE’s biggest car giant Volkswagen is a byword for reliability and strength – however its dark past has more than a few bumps in the road.
After being started by Adolf Hitler in 1937 as a scheme to give ordinary Germans an affordable family car, VW quickly became part of the Nazi war machine.
But out of the ashes of war, British army major Ivan Hirst rescued the plant from being dismantled and helped transform the company into what is now the world’s second biggest car maker behind Toyota.
When was Volkswagen set up by the Nazis?
Created by the Nazi trades union organisation in 1937, the company was named Volkswagenwerk GmbH in 1938 and had a factory built in the city of KdF-Stadt, now Wolfsburg.
Hitler demanded that Germany’s “people’s car” should carry two adults and three children and would cost no more than a motorcycle.
Designed by Ferdinand Porsche, the car had an air-cooled rear engine and was encased in a “beetle-style” shape – a design which eventually became synonymous with the swinging sixties.
Despite over 300,000 Germans signing up to a scheme in which they could buy the car through monthly savings, very few vehicles are actually produced before the outbreak of World War II.
During the conflict, the firm became a supplier for the Nazi army using 15,000 slave labourers shipped in from concentration camps.
How was the Volkswagen transformed following WWII?
After the bomb-battered factory came under the control of the British military in May 1945, the plant was set to be dismantled with parts being sold for war reparations.
But, the firm was rescued by 29-year-old Major Ivan Hirst, who had a background in watch and clock manufacturing, who convinced his superiors of the potential of the factory and the beetle’s unique design.
And while the plant itself had been heavily damaged, and looted by US and Russian soldiers, much of the machinery remained intact in numerous outbuildings.
Along with partner Colonel Charles Radclyffe, Hirst rebranded the company as Volkswagen.
The British Army placed an order in September 1945 for more than 20,000 green Type 1 Beetles to assist with the running of post-war Germany.
And by 1946, VW was producing 1,000 cars per month.
The Beetle has since become a classic and one of the biggest selling cars ever with more than 20million produced.
Who was major Ivan Hirst?
Hirst was born to a family of watch and clock manufacturers in Saddleworth, Yorkshire in 1916.
After attending Hulme Grammar School in Oldham, he studied optical engineering at the University of Manchester before setting up his own optical repair firm.
While at uni he was a member of the Officers’ Training Corps contingent and eventually became a lieutenant in the Territorial Army in 1937.
After joining the war effort in 1939, Hirst became a Mechanical Engineering Officer in 1941 and eventually joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
After the D-Day landing, he was in charge of tank repairs for the British Army in Belgium.