Prior to World War II, the rising chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, announced plans to make Germany into a motorized nation. This led to the adoption of the Volkswagen Beetle. But Hitler also ordered military versions of the vehicle developed, and these vehicles would go on to fill the same niche for the Reich that the Jeep served in America.
The road to the Kubelwagen began in the 1933 Berlin Auto Show. That was when Hitler called for a motorized Germany and then heard the plans for Ferdinand Porsche’s 25-horsepower vehicle with an air-cooled engine. Hitler demanded that it seat four and get good gas mileage, and they were off to the races.
It took a few years for Porsche to finalize the design and begin mass production under the newly formed Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Volkswagens company, soon shortened to Volkswagen.
But Hitler quickly rose from chancellor to Fuhrer, and his SS officers asked this new Volkswagen company if it could make a militarized version of its KdF Volkswagen in January 1938. The company fast-tracked the project, and the first prototypes came off the line in November.
The initial prototypes had some shortcomings in testing. They could not run at walking speed due to their gearing, and they had insufficient ground clearance as well as a less-than-robust suspension. All of these problems were quickly ironed out, though. By the time the Type 82 version, the vehicle’s second iteration, went into production in 1940, it was a capable machine well-liked by the troops.
It was fuel efficient for the time, reliable, and could carry four soldiers and the lion’s share of their gear. It was not, by default, armored or armed, though. So it rarely acted as a front line troop carrier. Instead, it served in a logistics and support role, ferrying spare parts or other key supplies to where they were needed or getting key leaders into position to observe the enemy or their own troops.
So, you know, similar to the Jeep. But there were a number of traits that separated the two vehicles.
For instance, the Kubelwagen had a 22.5 hp engine, much weaker than the Jeep’s 60 hp or even the civilian Volkswagen’s 25-hp engine. But the engine was air-cooled, which did make it a little less prone to breakdowns. And it had a wider and longer wheelbase than the Jeep as well as more storage space.
But the Kubelwagen wasn’t the only military version of the Volkswagen. A command vehicle, the Type 87 Kommandeurwagen, had 4-wheel drive and looked more like a Beetle. And the Type 166 Schwimmwagen was the most-produced amphibious car in history.
In all, there were 36 variants of the Kubelwagen as well as numerous versions of the Kommandeurwagen and Schwimmwagen. In all, about 50,500 Kubelwagens were built during the war, and thousands survived as museum and collector’s pieces. And, luckily for the owners, the vehicles shared many parts with the Beetle, and so owners could keep repairing them for decades.
When Allied troops got their hands on any of these variants, the vehicles were generally met with grudging respect. So much so that Americans put together an English-language version of the manual to help other troops maintain their captured vehicles.