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A new car for an old favor

June 15, 2002, by Bill Cawthon

On May 29, 2002, Queen Elizabeth II received a new state limousine. It was a gift from the British auto industry to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her coronation. The Queen's new car is a one-of-a-kind Bentley. It is the product of two years of work by a consortium of companies under the overall management of Bentley, which supplied the chassis and design.

Full-size clay model of the Bentley State Limousine.

 Photo: Bentley Motor Cars, Ltd.

The Queen's new car marks a few firsts. It is the first time a Bentley has been selected for use as the monarch's official state vehicle. It is also the first English state limousine to be completely custom-designed instead of a variation of a production vehicle. And it is the first ever supplied by a non-British-owned manufacturer. Although the manufacturing still takes place in Crewe, Bentley is now owned by Volkswagen. (Author's Note: When Queen Elizabeth received her last state limousine, a 1987 Phantom, Rolls-Royce and Bentley were still in British hands. Daimler, the exclusive supplier of official automobiles to the crown until the early 1950s, was an English company with no relation to Mercedes-Benz.)

A lot has been made of this. I know; I was one of those quick to point it out when the project was announced. In a way, however, it is quite appropriate that Volkswagen should present a gift to the British people. Volkswagen owes England a huge debt. Without the British Army, it is quite likely Volkswagen would never have emerged from the ruins of the Second World War.

Before the war, Volkswagen was one of the centerpieces of Hitler's economic programs. However, hostilities broke out before the newly constructed plant at KdF Stadt could begin full production. Only a handful of civilian Beetles were built. A few more were built during the war (see "PKW der Wehrmacht" February 2002).

On April 10, 1945, the American Army occupied KdF Stadt. On May 25, the town was renamed Wolfsburg, after a local castle, and the factory was turned over to the British. As was the practice with many former Axis plants, they put it to work repairing military vehicles. From May until June, along with the other work, factory laborers assembled 1,785 Beetles from components mothballed since the plant was converted to wartime production. The cars were assigned to the occupation forces and the German Post Office. Since the factory was not considered to have been in civilian production before the War, it was assumed the plant eventually would be dismantled and the tools distributed to the allies and formerly occupied countries as war reparations under the Morgenthau Plan.

In August, the British Army sent Major Ivan Hirst to Wolfsburg. While the Beetle owes its birth to Ferdinand Porsche and Adolf Hitler, it owes its life to Ivan Hirst.

Ivan Hirst

Hirst was born in Saddleworth, one of a group of small villages in northern England, on March 4, 1916. His family owned an optical instrument business. He attended the University of Manchester then spent some time in the family business. Even as a youth, Hirst was interested in motor vehicles and when he enlisted in the British Army, he managed to obtain a posting to a tank repair unit.

A member of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, Hirst went through the fall of France in 1940 and was one of thousands of British soldiers evacuated at Dunkirk. He later transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and commanded a tank repair group in Belgium.

After the fall of the Reich, Hirst was seconded to the British military government and sent to Germany with the occupation forces. He was on leave in England when he got a telegram ordering him to Hanover.

In a 1999 interview for the BBC, Hirst said when he arrived in Hanover, no one knew what he was supposed to do other than go to an ex-Nazi factory. When he asked what he should do then, he was told, "Just take charge. Sit there."

When Hirst arrived in Wolfsburg, he found a bombed-out factory and a workforce composed of slave laborers, POWs and ex-Nazis. He quickly sent the slave laborers and POWs home, but hopeful Germans, seeking employment, kept arriving in Wolfsburg and Hirst needed to find work to keep the factory going. The solution came when another officer, Colonel Michael McEvoy, remembered driving a Volkswagen before the War. Hirst and McEvoy found a pre-war version and spray-painted it green. They then drove it to the local British headquarters. They suggested the Army use the Beetle as a light transport. Since the British were chronically short of vehicles and, as war reparations, the cars wouldn't cost taxpayers back home anything, headquarters agreed. The first order, for 20,000 cars, was issued on September 17, 1945.

Hirst scrounged the materials to keep the plant going. Soon, American, French and Russian forces were also interested in the Beetle. Since the factory was now engaged in production for the occupation forces, it received a four-year reprieve.

In 1946, the factory employed 8,000 workers and produced 10,020 Volkswagens. Incidentally, the British named the company "Volkswagen." Under the Nazis, the company was called "Gesellschaft Zur Vorberitung des Deutsche Volkswagens," (Group to Plan the German Peoples Car, Inc.) and the car was the "KdF Wagen."

The road to success was not easy. Sir William Rootes, one of the barons of the British auto industry, told Hirst the whole project would collapse in two years and called Hirst a "bloody fool." Even the British Army found the VW lacking. After a technical study, they said it did not meet the basic requirements of a car. Hirst thought differently. In the 1999 BBC interview, he said the Beetle was a "damn good little car," adding he did think it had stayed in production too long.

There was also a long-term problem: the British Army did not want to be in the auto business and nobody in the English auto industry wanted Volkswagen. The Army offered it to Ford, but they declined, saying it was a waste of money. They offered it to the French government, which considered moving the whole operation to France, but was dissuaded by its domestic automakers who were too busy building those uniquely Gallic postwar cars to be interested.

In the end, it was obvious that if Volkswagen was going to stay in business, it was going to be as a German company.

In 1947, Hirst recruited Heinrich Nordhoff, previously with GM's German subsidiary, Opel, to run Volkswagen. Nordhoff assumed all operational responsibilities on January 1, 1948. On October 8, 1949, the British military government transferred the trusteeship to the German government, which named the State of Lower Saxony as trustee.

By that time, Hirst had already returned to England. He left Wolfsburg in August 1949.

After leaving the Army, Hirst worked for the British Foreign Office and later with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, France. He retired in 1975.

On May 15, 1981, Hirst was on hand when the 20,000,000th Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. More Beetles have been built than any other vehicle in automotive history.

On March 10, 2000, less than a week after his eighty-fourth birthday, Ivan Hirst died at his home in Yorkshire.

Volkswagen still honors Ivan Hirst. At the car museum in the company's popular Autostadt complex in Wolfsburg, visitors can watch a videotape of the retired major in which he recounts the early days of Volkswagen after the war. One of his khaki-green Beetles is also on display. In October 2001, VW presented three T4 Caravelles (over here, it's the Eurovan) to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. The vans, which display the emblems of the REME and VW, carry the slogan "Partners in Engineering" and are used in recruiting drives. In its press release about the occasion, Volkswagen remembered Hirst, saying, "In difficult conditions, and against the predictions of prominent members of the British motor industry, Hirst was successful in not only re-starting production of the Volkswagen Beetle, but placing Volkswagen on a commercial footing for the first time as a motor vehicle manufacturer."

I wonder if that new state limousine came with a "Thank-You" note?

See you next time!

- 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