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Pkw Der Wehrmacht

February 18, 2002, by Bill Cawthon

The title translates roughly as “Cars of the German Army.” The inspiration for this column comes from two sources. One is Ron Kutch, a fellow model railroader and Texan. The other is an online discussion that took place a while back. Ron’s layout focuses on Germany’s Eastern Front late in World War II, when the Soviet Army was advancing through Germany. As you might expect, Ron is constantly looking for appropriate period vehicles. The online discussion was more specifically centered around civilian vehicles used by the German Wehrmacht. With a lot of help from Jens O. Mehner, a German modelbuilder with a wealth of knowledge about military vehicles, I was able to find a number of models that are both prototypical and readily available in North America.

Germany is the birthplace of the modern automobile and is today home of some of the world’s major automobile companies. However, Germany has not always been such an automotive powerhouse. In the decades following the First World War, Germany’s economy was in ruins with runaway inflation and rampant unemployment. In addition to the damage inflicted by the Allies, the country’s industrial production capacity was hampered by the punitive terms of the Versailles treaty. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, only one German family in 25 owned a car, a figure that lagged far behind the rest of Western Europe.

This all changed in the early years of the 1930s. The worldwide economic depression caused manufacturers to look for new ways to keep their doors open. In addition, one of the prized public works projects of the National Socialist Party was the construction of the autobahn system. Since they were building roads, the Nazis were eager to see more Germans owning cars. As a result, by the mid-1930s, there was a growing number of small, affordable autos being built by Germany’s auto industry. Since Hitler was rebuilding Germany's military machine, all German carmakers also produced at least some military vehicles.

One company that was already producing smaller cars was Opel, a General Motors subsidiary since 1928. Following GM Chairman Alfred Sloan’s dictum of, “A car for every pocketbook,” Opel produced economical cars for the workingman. In 1935, Opel introduced the Olympia, named for the Olympic games to be held in Berlin the following year. The Olympia was quite a success and remained in production, in one form or another from 1935 to 1940. During that time, Opel sold over 87,000 Olympias. After the war, when the Allies permitted civilian automobile production to resume, Opel started out with a revised version of the Olympia they built until 1953. Opel was one of the most important suppliers to the Wehrmacht, supplying vast numbers of cars and trucks.

Just as in the United States, one of Opel’s chief competitors was Ford of Germany. Both the German Ford operation, based in Köln (Cologne), and the English Ford, based in a huge factory complex in Dagenham, had begun producing their own designs independent of Dearborn. The English subsidiary introduced a model called the C-20, which Ford Werke used as a basis for their Eifel. The Eifel was also introduced in 1935 and became a best seller. Over 60,000 were built in its five-year production run (1935-1939). The Eifel and its successor, the Taunus, were widely used by the German armed forces in a variety of roles, including light scout cars.

Mercedes-Benz also began building a line of economical cars. In 1931, the company introduced the 170, one of the most important cars in Daimler-Benz history. Fast, and equipped with features like hydraulic brakes and independent suspension, the 170 sold well enough to keep the Mercedes factory running during the Depression. In 1936, the 170V, an economy version of the 170, made its debut. The 170V remained in production until the early years of World War II and was built in a variety of body styles, including a panel delivery truck. More than 71,000 170Vs were produced in the prewar years and they were common in both civilian and military roles. There was even a military version called the 170VK. Like the Olympia, the 170V survived the War and the early years of the Occupation. It was the first civilian car built by Mercedes after the war. A revised version, called the 170S, was introduced in 1949 and stayed in the Mercedes lineup until the introduction of the “ponton” cars in the early 1950s.

Of course, Mercedes still had their larger cars. The legendary 540K, built from 1936-1939 was a favorite ride among German generals. Sleek and powerful, the 540K is still regarded as one of the classics of automotive design.

Another Mercedes that found widespread use in the Third Reich was the 260D sedan. Mercedes built the 260D from 1936-1940. Because it had a diesel engine, it saw only rear-echelon use with the Heer, but both the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, which had other diesel engines, used a number of them. The unfortunate 260D has a very dark side to its history. It was the car of choice for the dreaded Gestapo. As Jens Mehner put it, “I would call the 260D a thug's car since that is a name those leather-coat-clad subhumans deserve...”

While many of the cars in military service were used in their civilian form, a number were built with specialized bodies with no doors and cloth tops. They were also modified for use as trucks and ambulances and even pulled light artillery pieces. The Opel Admiral, a larger car originally designed to compete with Mercedes and Horch, was often modified for such use because it had the same engine as the Opel Blitz truck.

One marque of particular interest is Horch. Horch was among Germany’s oldest automobile companies and was one of Mercedes’ chief rivals in the luxury market. By the mid-1930s, Horch was part of Auto Union, a group of four manufacturers in eastern Germany who united for financial reasons in 1932. Horch cars were big, powerful and often had custom bodies from Germany’s finest coachbuilders. Only a few thousand were built each year. Horch automobiles were highly prized status symbols and, as such, were favorite staff cars for high-ranking Wehrmacht officers. Horches were not only popular with German officers; they were favorites among Allied occupation forces. At least a few were repainted in olive drab and wore U.S. Army markings after the war ended.

During the war, the Wehrmacht kept the Horch factory in Zwickau very busy.

Thousands of Horches were built for military use. In fact, military production during the war years far exceeded Horch’s annual output in the years before the war. There was a wide variety of special variants including half-tracks and dual-rear-axle models. A surprisingly large number of both civilian and military versions still survive.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn the Volkswagen Beetle did not see widespread military use, at least in its civilian form. Although Dr. Ferdinand Porsche had completed his initial design in 1932, it was not until six years later the Nazi government set up a state-owned corporation to manufacture the car and built a factory. The “KdF-wagen,” as it was officially known, did not go into production until shortly before the invasion of Poland in 1939. At that time, the factory was converted to building military versions of the Beetle. During the war, the plant at KdF-stadt delivered over 70,000 military vehicles including various types of  Kübelwagens (short for “Kübelsitzwagen” or “bucket-seat car”) and amphibious Schwimmwagens.

Since the Volkswagen was the pride of the Third Reich, a small lot of about 640 Beetles, called the KdF-11 or Type 60 (Porsche’s original designation), were built between 1939 and 1945 for government officials, including members of the Japanese embassy. Another group, known as the Type 82E or 92SS (for the Waffen-SS version), combined the Beetle body with the Kübelwagen’s offroad chassis. There were about 667 of these.

Ironically, the first large military order for the civilian Beetle was placed by the British Army, which bought thousands of them after the war.

Busch Automodelle offers models of the Opel Olympia and Ford Eifel in both sedan and open versions, both of which were used by the German armed forces. The prototype for Busch’s Olympia is the OL38, a second-generation model introduced in 1938. Busch also makes models of the Horch 853 convertible and Mercedes 170V in sedan and panel delivery versions.

At the Nürnberg Toy Fair this year, Busch announced a new model of the 1937 BMW 327 coupe. While BMW did build a number of military vehicles in the mid-1930s, they were based on the earlier 325. Of course, there is nothing to stop you from adding one - perhaps as the stylish personal ride of a senior officer.

Wiking includes models of the Horch 850, Mercedes-Benz 540K and Mercedes-Benz

260D in their “Classic” line. Wiking recently announced production of the 260D model is to be discontinued, but there should still be a number in distribution. One of the nice things about the Wiking models is their relatively low price. Depending on where you buy them, none should be priced over $10.00 in the U.S. The Horch can be purchased for between $6-$7, making it a perfect subject for a bit of military re-working.

Both Busch and Wiking offer a model of the original Volkswagen Type 60 “Brezelkäfer” with the split rear window. There is no real reason why you could not add a couple, but don’t go overboard. To make the 82E, you will want to at least add different wheels and raise the suspension slightly. The Wiking is quite inexpensive, so I would start with that to create a modified version.

Models of some of the military versions of these cars are produced by companies like HO Military Depot, Roco and Trident.

As to prototypical paint, markings and military modifications, there are so many possible choices; I can only suggest research with some of the many reference works available. One invaluable online resource for more information as well as pictures is Andrei Bogomolov’s “Oldtimer Gallery” (, an English-language Russian web site offering a wealth of detail about the cars and trucks of the period as well as many photos and sources for more information.

One special note: This is my 24th column for Promotex Online, rounding out my first year. I have enjoyed writing these columns and I hope you have enjoyed them as well. I’ll be back on March first to kick off the second year with a column on one of my favorite airplanes, the legendary DC-3. Comments and suggestions for future columns are always welcome.

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.

In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.

Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 12, 2005