The success of the Volkswagen Beetle was referred to as the economic miracle in Germany, and we can’t think of a better way of putting it. The rapidity of the escalation in sales was, quiet frankly, mind-boggling. How ironic that shortly after the end of WW2, two leading automotive companies at the time had been invited to take over the production of the unorthodox car but saw no future for it. Ford and Rootes were basically offered the VW free of charge but they dismissed the car in short order.
The British Military Government had been in control of the VW factory at Wolfsburg since the end of the war and planned to pass it back to Germany as soon as the time was right. The first step to this was finding and appointing the man they felt would be able to take the company forward into the future – Prof. Dr.-Ing. Heinrich Nordhoff. He took office as General Director on 1 January 1948. At this time Volkswagenwerk GmbH employed 8,719 workers who by the end of the year had produced 19,244 vehicles. By the time Colonel Charles Radclyffe signed the trusteeship over to the federal German government on 8 October 1949, production had risen to 46,154 vehicles.
Already proving to be the right choice, Nordhoff continued to administer VW’s rapid rise in production and sales. The real secret to the success of the VW was in export sales and this was based on an exceptional aftersales network with solid spare parts availability. The popularity and focus on founding strong export markets for the Beetle actually held back the Type 2, both in terms of it reaching production and the ability to produce enough vehicles once it had gone into series production.
It is common knowledge the idea for the vehicle came from the entrepreneur who was first to export the Beetle outside of Germany, Benardus Marinus Pon, better known as Ben Pon, from Amersfoort in the Utrecht area of The Netherlands. Pon did his famous sketch that lead to the Split van in April 1947 but it wasn’t until May 1949 that Heinz Nordhoff gave it the go ahead. The Type 2 went into production at Wolfsburg on 12 November 1949, although just eight examples were built by the end of the year.
With the arrival of the new year, production became more focused and VW built 8,509 vehicles by the end of 1950. In exactly the same way as the VW Beetle had shocked the automotive giants, the VW Type 2 was very quick to establish itself. Sales kept coming and the order books were filling up faster than VW could have ever expected. The plant at Wolfsburg had gone from manufacturing 46,154 vehicles in 1949 to 242,373 in 1952, of which 40,199 were Type 2s. In anyone’s book that’s a phenomenal ascension!
It must have been a logistical nightmare though, as the Transporter was offered in 30 different variations and the highest number of units per day VW could produce was 80, as so much of the factory capacity was in use building Beetles.
As Volkswagen headed towards the mid-1950s, the situation was clear for Heinrich Nordhoff; if the company was to meet the immediate demand from buyers of both the Type 1 and the Type 2 and the forecasted increases the future would bring, it was essential production of the Transporter was moved to a dedicated factory. That way Volkswagen could then instantly raise the daily production figures of both its vehicles.
The question was where would be the most suitable location for the new plant? It wasn’t like Nordhoff and his board would have a problem with potential sites, as the success of Wolfsburg, not just in terms of the factory, or as a city that went on to become the fifth largest in Germany, but as an employer!
Since taking over in 1948, Nordhoff had increased the Volkswagen workforce from 8,719 to 31,570 by 1955. That’s only the employees working directly for VW at Wolfsburg and does not factor in the thousands more employed by the sub-contracted companies such as SWF, Bosch, and Hella for example, which were involved in the production of the parts VW itself did not produce.
VW was inundated with offers from around 230 cities and towns throughout West Germany all keen to win benefit from the huge income the new factory would provide.
Nordhoff made his choice, but had to convince the Supervisory Board of the benefits one of the 12 districts of Hanover offered. The location he had his eye on was Stöcken, situated to the North East of the city. His reasons for choosing this site were the important advantages it offered in terms of logistic potential; firstly there was a large railway marshaling yard on one side which would provide direct mainline links to major cities and ports for vehicle transportation. Secondly the Mittelland Canal ran past the proposed site. The Mittelland canal also runs straight past Wolfsburg, which was chosen originally for this very reason! Therefore the Hanover Stöcken site offered not only a direct link with Wolfsburg but would also give excellent access and connection to the waterway network of Germany and links outside of Germany including France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic Sea.
The VW Supervisory Board signed off the new factory proposal on 24 January 1955 and on 4 February 1955 a contract was signed between Volkswagen and the city of Hanover for the sale of the 1.1 million square meter plot of land situated in the Mecklenheide area of Hanover Stöcken.
The façade of the new factory was to have similarities to Wolfsburg, likewise the characteristic saw tooth roof. All architectural work was carried out in-house by the VW Building Design Department. The speed in which new factory was built is truly astonishing. Nordhoff himself carried out the foundation stone laying on March 1, 1955, but it was far from the pomp and ceremony seen at Wolfsburg in May 1938 when Hitler laid the foundation stone in front of 80,000 people. This time around there were just 372 employees, most of whom were builders, it was freezing cold and the ground was covered in snow.
As the month progressed and the winter thaw kicked in, the site became a mud bath causing real headaches for the workforce that had now grown to over 1,000. This resulted in numerous lorries delivering loads of bricks, steel, cement, glass and roofing felt becoming stuck. The only option was to create makeshift roadways.
Due to the magnitude of the construction, numerous temporary buildings were erected as site offices and housing for the workers. After three months the workforce had swelled to 2,000 and the walls were already about 4m high. Around 30 cranes worked around the clock and cement mixers churned out 5,000 cubic meters of concrete per day. This was used to create 600,000 square slabs. A mind-boggling 256,000 truckloads of earth was removed from the site in total.
As the new factory was well underway, Volkswagen knew it wouldn’t be able to manufacture any Type 2s without a full-trained local workforce. Nordhoff was of the view the workers were what made Volkswagen and is quoted as saying, “The value of a company is not in buildings, machinery, nor banknotes, but the people who work for it and the spirit in which they do it.”
VW paid employees very well and therefore people were keen to secure a position at the new factory. To give you an idea, with VW you’d earn over twice the average factory worker’s salary: with an hourly wage of 2.5 Deutsch Marks as opposed to 1.2 Deutsch Marks.
The company employed 3,000 people locally, long before the new plant was completed and paid for dedicated train services to transport the new workers from Hanover at 4.10am to the Wolfsburg station directly outside the factory. The new trainees literally disembarked, walked over a footbridge and were in the VW factory. They were trained up on the Type 2 production line in groups so when the new factory was ready they were up to speed.
The Beetle was fast approaching a huge landmark in production. On 5 August 1955 the One Millionth Beetle rolled out of the factory and the need for more Beetles was insatiable. This proved, beyond any doubt how essential the Hanover factory was.
By February 1956 the new factory was nearing completion and was internally at the stage where the body presses were in place. Externally, logistical essentials such as the 10km of railway lines had been laid to provide connection directly into the plant. Just 14 months after the foundation stone ceremony the factory was completed and, on March 8, 1956, the first test of the new VW Type 2 Transporter production line was carried out.
The magnitude of this achievement would be impressive even today. The vast new plant had risen out of the fields and demonstrated the positive changes and progress, both economically and socially Germany was going through.
Full series production commenced on April 20, 1956 with 250 Type 2s being produced per day. This soon rose to 300 units and by the end of the year 62,500 units had been made at Hanover.
The workforce had reached 6,044 by 1957 aiding a total production of 91,993. The important thing is two-thirds of these vehicles were exported, as this resulted in VW bringing valuable foreign currencies into the Germany economy and bolstered the firm’s buying power.
Hanover employees had every right to celebrate by 1962 as the One Millionth Type 2 rolled off the ’line, they were now knocking out between 700 to 800 Buses every day!
One element you may not be aware of is VW Hanover was far from just a Bus factory, although this is what we know it for. You see there’s something equally important to the history of Volkswagen that took place there. With Wolfsburg at capacity churning out the Beetle, the decision was made to build a new factory within the Hanover confines specifically to build air-cooled engines, Type 1 front suspension and rear transaxles along with Type 2 front ends.
Work started on what became known as Hall 2 on October 20, 1957. The new 1,705,000 square foot building was to be 1023ft long and 948ft wide. If these figures mean nothing to you, perhaps if we explain that a quarter of a mile equates to 1320ft it will help. The combined frontage of the two Halls is 3,480ft and that’s over half a mile!
Hall 2 was completed is less than a year and in November 1958 the first pieces of machinery installed and ready to produce Type 2 front end assemblies. VW was now faced with the logistical nightmare of transferring all the production machinery involved with engine production from Wolfsburg to Hanover. This needed to take place without disruption of production, as VW stood lose the revenue of 4,000 vehicles for each weekday engines were not made!
The planning and organisation involved had to cover every minute detail with no room for error. Every machine location had to be not just planned but ready to accept the machinery; mounting points needed to be exact, all electrical elements in place and checked. Ditto plumbing for water pipes and so on. Equally, the numerous components manufactured by sub-contractors, such as pistons, barrels, distributors and coils, needed to be ready and waiting at Hall 2.
Eight VW departments worked on the project, four at each factory. The Planning team worked with Factory Maintenance, Hall Management, Transportation and Electrical Departments and on Friday March 22, 1959 they were all ready to remove the machinery at Wolfsburg and load it all on trains to Hanover. In total a mammoth 70 railway trucks were needed.
On Saturday everything was lifted into place by crane and workers wired and plumbed them all in. Sunday was spent testing all the hardware. Amazingly, on the morning of Monday 25 the four engine production lines were ready and waiting to go to work. It was business as usual, just not at the usual place!
Hall of plenty
Along with the four engine production lines, Hall 2 had 11 other component production lines and provided another 6,000 jobs to the area. The assemblies destined for Hall 1 of the factory to be fitted to Type 2s were via a raised steel conveyor between the buildings. The engine production lines made 1,000 engines every day, most of which were for Wolfsburg. These were delivered by rail, on trucks holding 166 engines (nine crates of 36 engines) at a time. The complete Type 1 front and rear end assemblies were also transported by rail to Wolfsburg. Hall 2 went on to produce not only the Type 1 engine, but also Type 3 ‘pancake’, Type 4 and later water-cooled engines, including the T25 Wasser-Boxer.
In July 1967 during the annual factory holiday closure, Hall 1 and 2 at Hanover was re-tooled ready for production of the new Bay Window Transporter to commence in August. In 1968 production of the Type 2 passed two million vehicles. In just six years Hanover had built a million Buses!
In 1980 the Bay was replaced by the T25, and in 1981 the factory had built five million Buses. In January the front-wheel drive T4 Transporter entered production, heralding the format that remains used in today’s T6.
Aside from the VW Type 2, VW Hanover has made the Load Transporter (LT), Taro Pick-Up, 26,531 Type 181s, 2600 Basistransporter CKD kits, MAN Trucks and today the Amarok and Porsche Panamera bodies.
The Type 2 necessitated the construction of the factory originally and we doubt anyone back then could imagine VW would still be making them 65 years later… Congratulations VW, you’ve earned your Bus Pass!
Words: Ivan McCutcheon
As featured in Camper & Bus Dec 2020