The Mysterious Beetle. Unknown pages in the history of the most popular Volkswagen
The Mysterious Beetle. Unknown pages in the history of the most popular Volkswagen

The Mysterious Beetle. Unknown pages in the history of the most popular Volkswagen

Whatever the future development of this type of car in Germany, there is no doubt that Hitler’s government will help to popularize it”, an excerpt from an article by W.H. Millgate in The Detroit News, April 1933. Of course, you guessed that we’re talking about prototypes of the VW Beetle, an absolute bestseller that, by and large, won’t be out of production until July 2019. However, there is one page in the history of this car that few people are familiar with.

The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz

This is the title of a book that tells the amazing story of Josef Ganz, a Jewish engineer from Frankfurt, who in May 1931 created a revolutionary tiny car


стандард супериор
The engineer’s first car, was built by the Ardie motorcycle company in 1929-1930. Behind the wheel – Josef Ganz

You may not know the tragic story of Josef Ganz, the highly influential German auto journalist and engineer who was one of several people who designed cars in Germany in the 1930s that directly and strongly influenced the design of the famous Volkswagen Beetle. But this car is known to everyone. And it started like this.

стандард супериор
The original version of the Standard Superior

In 1923, as a student, Ganz began developing an innovative little car with a mid-engine layout, independent wheel suspension, and a streamlined body… In 1930 the Ardi Motorcycle Company of Nuremberg gave Ganz the opportunity to build the first prototype of his Volkswagen.

The prototype was a chassis with an engine in the middle, semi-independent all-wheel suspension with suspension axles, and a simple, open, austere body, which in profile resembled a beetle…

Standard Superior
One of the first commercially available Standard Superior cars, 1933

Later, in the summer of 1932, the director of the Standard Fahrzeugfabrik of Ludwigsburg, Wilhelm Gutbrod, approached Josef Hans to discuss the possibility of developing a small “people car” based on his student prototype and his other patents of his various patents. The agreement was accepted and tried out in the fall of 1932.

Шасси Standard Superior, 1933 г
Chassis Standard Superior, 1933

Like the Maikäfer, the Standard prototype had a central tubular spine frame and a mid-engine chassis with independent wheel suspension with oscillating rear half-axles. As described in one of Ganz’s patents, a 396cc two-cylinder two-stroke in-line engine was mounted horizontally, in front of the oscillating rear half-axles, on one side of the tubular chassis and with a gearbox on the other side.

Standard Superior
Monoblock: engine, transmission and oscillating half-axles with gearbox and transmission

In February 1933, Standard Fahrzeugfabrik presented a pre-production model of the new Standard Superior at the International Motor Show (IAMA) in Berlin. The revolutionary chassis was equipped with a simple bug-like body made of wood and faux leather.

While the chassis design, based on many of Josef Ganz’s patents, was praised for its revolutionary design, the body was criticized for being unattractive. Ganz responded to the criticism and developed an improved design for the production model.

Standard Superior
In September 1933, the Standard Fahrzeugfabrik received upgrades – a longer wheelbase, improved body design with additional side windows on both sides, and a large child seat in the back. It was advertised as “the cheapest and fastest German people’s car”.

The advertisement stated so, Volkswagen. After Hitler committed himself to the Volkswagen project in mid-1934, the Standard and all other automakers were forbidden to use the Volkswagen name in their advertising. In fact, the Führer appropriated the term “people’s car” to the project he patronized.

Дойче фольксваген, Standard Superior
Deutsche volks wagen, Standard Superior, for only 1,590 reichsmarks

In September 1934, along with the new Superior, Standard Fahrzeugfabrik also introduced the Standard Merkur Schnell-Lastwagen, a light truck. The Merkur was built on an enlarged and reinforced Superior body, equipped with a differential and forced water cooling. It was built in various body configurations, including pickup, van and ambulance.

Tatra makes a complaint

At the time, Volkswagen was on the verge of death. One mistake in the court documents, and we would have seen neither the Beetle nor, apparently, VW.


After the successful launch of the new Superior and Merkur, Tatra in Czechoslovakia began to develop a very similar compact rear-engine car with oscillating half-axles. In an effort to protect its wrongful primacy, Tatra tried to block production of cars based on Josef Hanz’s patents.

Standard Superior, 1933.
The Standard Superior model from 1933

In December 1933, Tatra accused Ganz of intellectual property infringement, as stated in the DRP 549602 patent, with his DRP 587409 patent. Although both patents described the positioning of a medium horsepower engine, they differed from each other in many ways.

The Tatra patent described a three-wheeled car with a driveshaft from the engine to the single rear wheel, while the Ganz patent was a monoblock of engine and gearbox, clutch, differential and oscillating half axles.

All of this was placed on the spine frame. Tatra’s claims were rejected by the Patent Office in Berlin at the end of March 1934, and the appeal two weeks after the rejection of the claim was dismissed in May 1934.

Standard Superior
Standard Superior, 1934

A little later, Tatra was preparing to file a second complaint. This time Tatra claimed that Ganz’s DRG 587409 patent infringed its DRP 469644 patent describing an engine mounted on the front of the center frame. Although the claim was extremely weak, the case dragged on for longer and resulted in Director Wilhelm Gutbrod at Standard ceasing production of Superior in May 1935 for fear of an “unfavorable verdict,” thereby ending production of Standard passenger cars and then ceasing production of Merkur in 1936.

Eventually, after trials lasting more than seven years, Tatra’s charges proved so weak that in 1941 the trial in Berlin ended in favor of the Jewish engineer, Josef Ganz. Tatra was ordered to pay him more than 4,000 reichsmarks

Standard Superior
Standard Superior 2 of 1935, a modified version of the car

How the Josef Ganz era ended

Ganz’s role in the birth of Volkswagen and the VW Beetle in particular is still unappreciated


The Standard Superior was produced from April 1933 to May 1935 in very small quantities. According to historians, about 150-200 of the 1st generation cars and 250-300 of the 2nd generation cars were built. Only 381 Standard Superior were registered in Germany before the start of World War II.

Standard Superior
First-generation Standard Superior chassis in the VW Museum

Hitler appreciated the work of the German engineers, and during his visit to the factory he expressed a serious interest in improving the Standard Superior. He supported the idea that Volkswagen would motorize the German people. One of the first new laws introduced by his administration was that motorcycle license holders could drive small cars like the Standard Superior.

Standard Superior
Josef Ganz on the roof of the Standard Superior Type 2 in Zurich, 1935

Hitler was by then eager to strengthen the development of Volkswagen, but finding no support among the major automakers, an independent consortium headed by Ferdinand Porsche was created. As a Jew, Ganz was automatically removed from the leadership of the company.

Now Porsche was tasked with designing a people’s car for 1000 Reichsmarks, the maximum retail price announced by Ganz in Motor-Kritik. The Nazis erased any Jewish ties to Volkswagen from history. They forbade Ganz to publish, and also forbade the German press to publish anything about him. Overnight, the name Josef Ganz disappeared from the German automobile scene forever.

Йозеф Ганц
Josef Ganz, engineer, constructor, journalist, designer. 1898-1967

Moreover. In 1933, Ganz was arrested by the Gestapo. In May 33, his house was searched and absolutely all drawings and documents were seized, which were then handed over to Ferdinand Porsche. Of course, Porsche never mentioned a word about Ganz’s involvement in the people’s car project, and the magazine where the engineer worked, Motor-Kritik, was closed as a “hotbed of Jewish propaganda”.

Things could have ended worse, but Josef still managed to leave Germany and live and work for a while in Switzerland, at the Rapid company, on a new compact car project. After the war he went to France, and since 1951 he worked in the Australian company Holden, where he emigrated in the early 50s. The engineer died in 1967 and during his lifetime the world never learned about who actually stood at the origins of the German people’s car.

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