Adolf Hitler is remembered as a pretty terrible guy. As everyone knows—or should know—this is entirely warranted, but because he is so terrible a certain fascination has arisen around him. People like to look at different aspects of him, such as his love of architecture and his desire to be a painter. A less inspected aspect is his contributions to the automotive world of Germany, and his slight fascination with cars personally. Because Hitler is never a light-hearted topic, I decided to reserve his car history for Halloween, and in keeping with the festive nature of the day, there is a spooky car story connected with Hitler and his cars.
While Hitler may have had any number of cars as gifts and state vehicles, three vehicles usually get the focus. There is the obvious Volkswagen Beetle, which Hitler is connected with in perpetuity, as well as two state vehicle types which he heavily used and which feature prominently in archival images and film. These are both Mercedes-Benz offerings, the Models 770k ‘Großer’ and the off-road W31 model. Hitler also has a sketch of a car attributed to him, which we will also look at, as well as his contributions to Germany’s famous Autobahn.
Hitler’s little Bug
For some of us, the original Beetle isn’t really a means of transportation. It is a symbol of Hippie culture, that hipsters drive ironically now-a-days; something we saw on TV decked out as Herbie the Love Bug. It is cute, in a simple way, and if you are young enough, was a reason to slug your siblings on road trips—which is always a plus. And yet, since I was a child, I have heard it connected with Adolf Hitler, probably the most reviled man of recent times. The dichotomy was always strange to me, even as a child. As I grew older, and more involved in the history field, I wondered just how true it was, or if it was an urban myth. Luckily for me, I procrastinated acting on my curiosity long enough for James May of BBC’s Top Gear to make a documentary on the subject in his program Cars of the People, which details the origin of the Volkswagen Beetle, or as it started out in life, the KDFwagen, as designed by Ferdinand Porsche. The full German is Kraft durch Freude Wagen, which translates to the ‘Strength through Joy Car’. Catchy.
Extraordinarily long story short, Hitler scammed millions of German families out of a few dollars a month, as part of a sort of ‘lay-away’ program for the KDF car, which he promptly used to build armaments factories. Once war was declared, he promptly declared the savings program null, due to constraints of war. Shocker. Despite a few hundred copies being made, for the most part, the design and production was shelved for the duration of the War. After the war, production was resumed and an icon was born. For a full story on the actual production of the car, I highly recommend that you rent the James May program, which you can find here.
While the program does explain a lot about the production of the Beetle, and how Hitler used the little car to scam his people while simultaneously providing them something to hope for and look forwards to, it doesn’t look at whether Hitler was personally involved in the design of the car. Further research shows that it probably was not included because nothing can be said for certain. The below sketch is credited to Hitler in 1932, and is supposedly the gestation point for the car which became the Beetle. While nothing can really be proven, Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the Beetle, gave design credit to the Mercedes-Benz 150H, which looks strikingly familiar to Hitler’s sketch. Whether Hitler can be credited with designing the Beetle, he certainly can be credited with influencing early design and production goals.
Mercedes-Benz 770k-Because Bigger is Safer, Right?
To sit seven people today in a Mercedes, you need the very large GLS SUV. It measures a lengthy 202” long, and 76” wide, and has the presence of an elephant within its own lane. To seat seven of the most important members of the Wehrmacht government, Hitler and his staff often turned to the Mercedes-Benz 770k, based on the more widely available Großer model. While a car, and not an SUV, the 770K still measured a staggering 240” long, and 81” wide. Such a large ride is often pictured carrying Hitler around, and is the most common car he was filmed in.
The Nazi elite certainly did not skimp on technology for their cars. Often armored, every frame was fully boxed, ensuring a stable framework to build off. Every car featured an inline-8 cylinder 7.7L engine, which relied heavily on aluminum in its construction. All but 13 cars opted for the optional Roots-type supercharger, which not only made for brisk (for the time) acceleration to get away from trouble, but also was the first supercharged inline-8 cylinder engine in the world. An interesting tidbit is that each cylinder required enough spark that two spark plugs were required. The car is believed to be the most expensive Mercedes up to this point, however price is hard to nail down as it was listed as “Please Enquire”. If you have to ask…
Mercedes-Benz W31 G4 6-Wheeler-The Original Awesome 6 Wheeled G-Machine
Whereas the 770k is ostentatious because of its size, Hitler’s off-road vehicle of choice was ostentatious not only for its dimensions but also for the number of wheels it boasted. While most dictators are satisfied with four wheels, the Mercedes-Bens G4 W31 features six. Where the new 6-wheeled Mercedes features all of its wheels driven, this one was only driven by the rear four.
This Mercedes was Hitler and his staff’s choice when the going got tough. Hitler’s infamous Eastern Front command center, the ‘Wolfs Lair’ had several on site, as the car was often used to tour the rough and changing conditions of the Eastern Front. Before the war, and during the early stages, the cars featured the very good looking gloss-grey over gloss-black paint scheme above, however realities of war—and Allied bombers—ensured that this paint scheme was quickly ditched in favor of a Matte scheme. While not as technically remarkable as the 770k, featuring a smaller inline-8, the vehicle itself was certainly impressive, and would have made an impact on the front-line soldiers who saw their leader roaming the lines in his off-road convertible.
Hitler the Gearhead? Not really but…:
While Hitler was more than likely not a gearhead, and simply viewed cars as a tool—either actual or political—he did surround himself with car people. Because of this, he rode around in some pretty sweet rides from Mercedes-Benz, and had Ferdinand Porsche design him his ‘people’s car’, while at the same time he gave the world the Autobahn. The Autobahn came around from the need to solve many problems with one solution. Hitler was faced with the need to solve rampant unemployment, secret rearmament, and the desire to display a technological Germany. The answer to this problem was to put his people to work making a large paved road system, which impressed the world, and could be used to secretly improve logistics, and as airfields in emergencies such as war. While his motives may have sucked, and the results of his motives awful, the roads he constructed were the beginning of the Autobahn system that so many gearheads hold in reverence today.
Hitler is remembered for his Blitzkrieg tactics—attacking fast and far with mechanical units—so it may be somewhat logical that so much of Hitler’s life was mechanical itself. Not only responsible for the Autobahn, he ensured the designs for a car to populate it existed, although he did cheat his people out of it in the end. Fitting for one remembered as he is. And while his staff cars were very stylish, and timelessly classic, Mercedes-Benz was on the design path for his vehicles long before he came into power. Hitler simply reserved the production of later, improved models, for the Wehrmacht, and as such the car is forever related to him. While interesting facts of history, while reading about the cars of the man, it is important to remember the man behind the cars, and recall that there is a reason I reserved the topic for Halloween.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.