Unusual. Was the Volkswagen Beetle really German?
We are at the beginning of the 1930s. Like many car manufacturers around the world, Tatra had to reinvent itself. The global economic crisis still makes the automobile an object reserved for the upper classes.
The car is too complicated, and above all too expensive to be found in every home. The engineers of the Czech manufacturer Hans Ledwinka and Erich Übelacker. Hans Ledwinka had the idea of designing a more modest car, equipped with an air-cooled rear engine.
Tatra V570, the first people’s car
After a few prototypes, the team of engineers finally presented the results of their studies in 1933. The Tatra V570 was unlike anything else on the market. The body design is inspired by aerodynamic principles established by Hungarian engineer Paul Jaray in the 1920s.
At the same time, a certain Ferdinand Porsche had his own automotive design office. The German is in regular contact with Hans Ledwinka.
He would later say: “Sometimes Porsche looked over my shoulder.” Finally, the Tatra V570 project remains at the unmarketed prototype stage. Tatra will use these innovations on a larger model. But it is not lost for everyone.
Hitler wants a people’s car
In Germany, Adolf Hitler came to power. In the midst of the führer’s disastrous projects, a place is kept for the automobile. He wants to give the Germans highways and cars.
It is said besides that Hitler likes to walk on the motor shows in search of inspiration. At the 1933 and 1934 Berlin shows, he spent a long time on the Tatra stand, a brand of which he himself had a copy in his garage.
Exchanging a few words with the engineer Ledwinka, he confides to him: “This car is made for our roads”. A few days later, Hitler summons his friend Ferdinand Porsche.
Ladybug was born
When Porsche finally presents the prototype of the Kdf-Wagen, the first Beetle, Tatra is amazed. Not only does the car look like a sister to the Tatra, but it carries over a number of filed patents from it.
The air-cooling system comes directly from Tatra’s work, as does the position of the engine, the gearbox and of course the design. The very concept of an accessible and easily repairable car seems directly inspired by the V570.
Tatra goes on the counter-offensive
The engineer Ledwinka initially asks his ex-friend Ferdinand Porsche for an explanation. The German’s response, in the form of a semi-confession, will not please him. Ferdinand Porsche explains to the Czechs that he had to act quickly, having to respond to an order from Hitler to use all possible patents.
But promised, the intellectual property stories will be settled “later”. Clearly, Porsche admits having copied the Tatra but has no immediate response to provide as to possible compensation. The manufacturer then filed several legal actions against Porsche and the Germans.
War as arbiter
Obviously, the annexation of the Sudetes, these regions of Czechoslovakia mainly populated by Germans by Hitler, will put an end to the country of the Tatra, as it then appeared. Difficult for Tatra, passed under the German flag, to persevere in its accusations of industrial espionage and copying. But all wars come to an end.
The heirs of Baron Hans Ringhoffer, main shareholders of Tatra resume the prosecution at the end of the Second World War. The procedure will last for years, before the German court in Düsseldorf. But on October 12, 1961, it was Tatra’s first victory against Volkswagen: one of the ten copying charges was officially upheld by the court.
Volkswagen ends up paying dearly
Finally, after years of litigation, and faced with an increasingly obvious outcome, Volkswagen’s lawyers advised the Beetle manufacturer to capitulate. Volkswagen offers a transaction to the Ringhoffer heirs to put an end to this story.
Volkswagen signs a check for three million Deutschmarks to Tatra. Erich Ledwinka, the engineer who imagined the Tatra V570 will die before receiving his share estimated at 100,000 DM.