• Germany's news in English

How VW was rebuilt by a stubborn Englishman

Jörg Luyken · 25 Sep 2015, 15:51

Published: 25 Sep 2015 15:51 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

When Major Ivan Hirst arrived in Wolfsburg – the home of Volkswagen cars - he was less than impressed with what he found. The streets were overgrown and potholed. The small population lived in barracks.

And the Volkswagen factory was even worse.

"A disgusting smell hung over the whole property," Hirst later recalled. "All the drainage systems had been damaged in Allied bombing and hadn't been repaired. The toilets were broken and completely unhygienic. It was awful!"

It was August 1945 and Hirst – a 29-year-old major in the British Army - had been assigned the task of dismantling the factory by his military superiors. Germany was to have no industry worthy of the name, allied commanders had decided.

Ivan Hirst. Photo: Volkswagen archive

But Hirst saw enough potential in the town and its sole source of income to try and save the plant.

He had himself worked as an engineer during the war and had been impressed by the Volkswagen cars that Allied troops had captured from the Germans.

So he found the best remaining version of the car left over from the Nazi period, painted it in camouflage, and presented it to his superiors as the solution to their urgent need to replace vehicles damaged during the war.

The military hierarchy agreed and on August 22 work began on a contract for 20,000 Volkswagen, plus 500 trailers and 500 military vehicles.

"That saved Volkswagen,“ Hirst, the son of Oldham industrialists, said years later.

On 27th December 1945 the factory went into production, two months late – and before new year 1946 55 Volkswagen had already been wheeled pout of the factory doors. By March they had hit 1,000.

In the first years the company grow almost exponentially, with 10,000 cars produced by the end of 1946 and turnover already hitting 55 million marks. In 1947 the company tied up its first export deal.

14 men to a room

The barracks where Volkswagen workers lived. Photo: Volkswagen archive.

But malnutrition was a significant problem. In the winter of 1946/7 the small town with a population of 20,000 faced a "starvation winter" in which hundreds of thousands of people died nationwide.

At the plant, employees collapsing due to exhaustion was a common problem. Vitamin deficiencies resulting in tooth loss were also rife.

Hirst also had to deal with a lack of qualified employees. Many of the engineers and factory workers who had been active at the factory during the war now sat in prisoner of war camps.

The conditions in the town - also renamed earlier in the year from the catchy City of the Strength through Joy Car to Wolfsburg – were also miserable.

Story continues below…

Men were sleeping 14 to a room on straw mattresses, often without woolen blankets. Many workers moved away shortly after arriving.

But Hirst was a master motivator and himself showed an incredible work ethic, working ten- to twelve-hour days.

By wrangling army connections, the young man from west Yorkshire managed to struggle through. At one point he persuaded his commanders to release 1,000 previous builders of the car - known in Nazi times as the Strength through Joy car – from camps.

On another occasion he secured a shipment of fish from Hamburg to fend off hunger.

By the time the Englishman left the company in 1949 it had been transformed into the biggest car company in Germany.

The irony is that the world's largest car maker might have been founded by the Nazis in 1937, but it can thank its survival to a plucky British officer – and the need of the British army for reliable, efficient cars.

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Jörg Luyken (joerg.luyken@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German town, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

Student fined for spying on women via their webcams
Photo: DPA

Student from Munich fined €1,000 for spying on 32 different computers, using their webcams to take photographs, or record their keyboard history.

This is how much startup geeks earn in Germany
Photo: DPA

A comprehensive new survey of 143 startup founders shows how much you are likely to be earning at a German startup, from entry level all the way up to sitting on the board.

Man dies after beating for peeing near Freiburg church
The Johannes Church in Freiburg. Photo Jörgens Mi/Wikipedia

A middle-aged man from southern Germany has died after being attacked by a group of men who took umbrage with the fact he was urinating in the vicinity of a church.

The Local List
Seven German celebrities with uncanny doppelgängers
Former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and actor Alec Baldwin. Photo: DPA; Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

Check out these seven look-a-likes of well known German figures - we admit that some are more tenuous than others...

Israel seeks to buy three new German submarines: report
A Dolphin class submarine. Photo: DPA

Israel is seeking to buy three more advanced submarines from Germany at a combined price of €1.2 billion, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

Here’s where people live the longest in Germany
Photo: DPA

Germans down south seem to know the secret to a long life.

More Germans identify as LGBT than in rest of Europe
Photo: DPA

The percentage of the German population which identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is higher than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new study.

'Reichsbürger' pair attack police in Saxony-Anhalt
File photo: DPA.

A "Reichsbürger" and his wife attacked police officers on Thursday, just a day after another Reichsbürger fatally shot an officer in Bavaria.

Five things not to miss at the Frankfurt Book Fair
Photo: DPA

From consulting a book doctor to immersing yourself in an author's world with the help of virtual reality, here are five things not to miss at this week's Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing event.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd