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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Who should receive primary credit for the Volkswagen? Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, or Hans Ledwinka, Josef Ganz, or Bela Barenyi?

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 I am always interested in issues of priority and the role of history to "save history from itself." The question of the origins of the Volkswagen design is of no small significance.  I realized that today while driving my 1971 Porsche 911 and how that car's design shares so much DNA with the 1930s Volkswagen. And so when I get in that car for a Sunday ride I am intimately connected with technologies that crystallized in the 1930s and the men who thought them out and made them real.

 I also remember a rather strong response to a question I asked Karl Ludwigsen at an SAH Awards dinner at Hershey.  When I asked about the Volkswagen design priority claim of Bela Barenyi, I seem to remember an emphatic 'No." But I also am very leery of Porsche and their history, whether it be reflected to Adolph Rosenberger and early Porsche history or the WWII years of Dr. Porsche. The Porsche firm knows well to control the past for their own advantage. 

My colleague Sean Falkowski  often asks students enrolled in his automotive technology course "who invented the automobile?" Was it Henry Ford? Carl Benz? George B. Selden? Charles and/or Frank Duryea? The list goes on. Similarly, a question about primary credit for the Volkswagen results in a conundrum. Particularly so, when we look at the context of the subject in Europe between the early 1920s and the mid- 1930s. The Volkswagen design was "in the air," so to speak, and several people shared design ideas. 

In addition to my Porsche 911 I also have a 1982 Mercedes 380 SL and have an interest in M-B history that is reflected in this blog. Last night I re-read a chapter from Harry Niemann's Bela Barenyi: Pioneer of Passive Safety at Mercedes-Benz (Mercedes-Benz Classique Car Library, 2006). So my first source in talking about Barenyi is Chapter 6, "The Volkswagen Dispute."  This effort is the start of more sustained work.

The "People's Car" was an important subject in Germany by the early 1920s and certainly long before the Porsche-designed Volkswagen Beetle appeared during the late 1930s. Post-WWI Weimar Germany experienced considerable turbulence and at the same time phenomenal creativity in science, psychology, the arts, and technology. Few Germans owned cars when compared to Americans or even the British and French. And Germans, like many of those living in the West, were passionate for automobility and speed. The Berlin Avus track was opened in 1921, the Nurburgring in 1927. The Autobahn began construction in 1929. Numerous firms produced vehicles in small numbers (for example, NAG, Protos, Brennabor, Wanderer, DKW, Daimler, Benz). But only the 1925 Hanomag 2/10 "Kommissbrot" (Army Bread) because of tis loaf shape, Ego 4/10, Dixi (a knocked-down Austin 7), and Opel 4/12 PS targeted the middle classes, many gradually recovering from the post-WWI economic collapse and hyperinflation.

Bella Barenyi was born in 1907 in Hirtenberg Austria, near Vienna. His father was an army officer, and his mother the daughter of one of the wealthiest industrialists in Austria. While a child of privilege, WWI changed everything for Bela and his family. His father died in 1917, and his mother's family fortune disappeared by the early 1920s. The Barenyi family moved to Vienna, where Barenyi received a diploma from the Technikum Wien in 1926, as well as a training certificate from Muller & Ott, a machinery and foundry firm, apprenticing there 370 days.


 It was during this time between 1925 and 1926 that he drew drivetrain layouts for his people's car. It consisted of a tubular backbone chassis that could accommodate a four- or six- cylinder engine, mounted either in the front where it drove front wheels or at the rear. The rear version called for a horizontally opposed engine, mounted behind the rear axle. The crankshaft ran lengthwise along the car's midline, the gearbox was located in front of the rear axle, and the differential was positioned between the engine and the gearbox.

1926 design sketches


 A design drawing of the 1929 version was published on the cover of Motor-Kritik magazine in 1934.  Barenyi continued to work on this design until 1931, but in the meantime he was fully occupied with just making a living.

The body of Barenyi's 1929 design, in a 1934 issue of Motor-Kritik


He was unemployed between June 1926 to January 1928, and then found work for seven months a a draftsman at STeyr's bodyworks in Vienna. Subsequently he landed a job at the Osterreichische Automobile-Fabrik AG (formerly Austro-Fiat) in chassis design, that ended during the Great Depression in 1931.

Bela Barenyi on his first motorcycle, a Puch 250cc


 For Barenyi it was hard times, moving from country to country calling on automobile manufacturers (and Ferdinand Porsche's Stuttgart design firm), before finally gaining employment at Adler in Frankfurt in early 1934. Joseph Ganz(another inventor who needs to be discussed with regards to the Volkswagen design), editor of Motor-Kritik, recommended Barenyi to Gustav Rohr, Adler's chief designer,  The former's intervention proved critical to Barenyi, who was also able to continue freelancing. That led to making the acquaintance of Czech designer Hans Ledwinka and his Tatras. In April, 1934, article in Automotive Industries, Barenyi stressed the Tatra's  tubular backbone chassis with an independent suspension system and the feature of streamlining as it related to a rear-engined car. 

In sum, Barenyi was one of a number of automotive design visionaries in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. The story is complex and will be sorted out in forthcoming posts.


This is the first of a series of posts on the topic of the genesis of the Volkswagen design.

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