The Beloved Bug and a British Army Officer

Does the name Ivan Hirst ring a bell? We’re guessing it doesn’t, but it is one of the most important names in automotive history. If it weren’t for this curious officer, there would be no Volkswagen today.

Born on the 4th of March 1916 in Yorkshire, England, he studied optical engineering at Manchester University. After graduation, he completed his Officer Training and was commissioned as a full Lieutenant in 1937.

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When WWII broke out, he was transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and then to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. By 1945, the war was drawing to a close and Wolfsburg was a town seized by the Allied forces. Hirst was transferred to Germany and tasked with dismantling a factory.

Post-war production. Image credit – Getty images

As with any other businesses that had been captured by the Allies, it was dismantled and assets liquidated by the Allied nations to be used for reparations. However, before Hirst could begin the process, his curiosity took him into the depths of the factory and he made a startling discovery.

The factory had so much of debris and also suffered damage from the bombing. But upon further investigation, Hirst discovered that the debris were strategically placed camouflage. This was staged so that the Germans could restart production should they regain the area. This only heightened his curiosity and going further into the factory, came to a workshop and, under the grubby conditions, was hidden a prototype –  the “KdF Wagen”

British officers inspect a car. Ivan Hirst is on the left. Image credit –

The wagen was a prototype conceived by Ferdinand Porsche. It was unique with a flat engine layout, and compact and aerodynamic design. Hirst’s gut feeling told him that this small car had immense potential and it would be a waste to dismantle the factory.

He requested his superiors for the factory to resume production under Allied control. He also requested for them to produce 20,000 cars for use by the British Army. And thus, the Volkswagen Type 1 was born.

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By 1946, the Wolfsburg plant was producing 1,000 cars a month, limited only by availability of materials, and it was around this time the company became known as Volkswagen, “the people’s car”.

In 1949 the factory was officially handed back to the German government, with Hirst leaving the army as a Major. Over the years, rising from the rubbles of war, it became an automotive colossus. His colleagues remembered his role in reviving Volkswagen and they presented him with a scale model of the Beetle and named the road leading to the factory after him.

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What would have happened if Major Ivan Hirst did not have that foresight to keep the factory up? Or did not see the potential of the unpolished jewel? We shudder to think, but thank goodness he did, and the world have come to enjoy many of its cars and definitely fell in love with the Bug.

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