While post-war Volkswagen never built a four-wheel drive Beetle, the wartime incarnation of the company produced several hundred. It was known as the Kommandeurwagen

Although the Beetle was pretty good off-road – hence the TV advert showing how snowplough drivers got to their snowploughs – all of its rough ‘n’ tumble capabilities came from just two-wheel drive. Having power to the back wheels, with the weight of the engine over them, meant that mud, snow, gravel and other loose or rough terrain could be coped with quite competently. Maybe that’s why Volkswagen never really explored all-wheel drive on the Beetle, even though it dabbled with it for the Type 2 Bay (five prototypes were produced) before coming up with the Syncro 4×4 for the third generation Type 2 from 1985.

Or did it? Well, back in the very early days of the Beetle, there was a factory 4WD model. But it pre-dated Volkswagen as a commercial company, appearing during the darkest WW2 days of the Type 1. It was called the Type 87 Kommandeurwagen.

Beefier Baja 

Although the Beetle had been launched in 1938, by the time WW2 kicked off in September 1939, very few had been built. Instead, the factory in Wolfsburg – or Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben, as it was ponderously and ominously known then – went over to military production. The Type 1 formed the underpinnings of the well-known Type 82 Kubelwagen and its aquatic sibling, the Type 166 Schwimmwagen, both now de rigueur as background furniture in any period war movie. However, unless it’s a very bad film, you probably won’t see a Beetle hanging around in any 1939-45 drama despite the fact that they were around in the now-familiar shape of the Kommandeurwagen. Unlike the angular, corrugated flat-pack Kubelwagen or the tub-like Schwimmwagen, the Kommandeurwagen used the Beetle body, mounted on a four-wheel-drive chassis.

Looking for all the world like the evil cousin of a Baja Bug, the Kommandeurwagen was a bulky-tyred Beetle with bigger wings and raised ground clearance. It was born out of the prototype four-wheel drive Type 86 Kubelwagen, which in turn gave rise to the first Schwimmwagen, the Type 128 of 1940. These had all-wheel drive as standard, and were developed into the improved Type 166 of 1942. The Type 87 utilised a modified Kubelwagen chassis, but fitted with the drivetrain and engine of the Schwimmwagen. Quite the hybrid.

Bigger, bulkier

As its name suggests, the Kommandeurwagen was intended primarily for high-ranking German officers needing a little more luxury and security than an open-topped vehicle – although most Type 87s came with a roll-back canvas sunroof, which rather negated some of their effectiveness at withstanding bullets and shrapnel. Those with the full tin-top were designated Type 877. If you wanted to be official about it, the full title was ‘Leichter geländegängiger PKW, 4-sitziger, 4-radgetriebener Geländewagen Typ 87’. Rather a mouthful, especially in the heat of battle. Translated into English, this was the only slightly less cumbersome ‘Light off-road passenger car, four seats, all-wheel drive, off-road vehicle Type 87’. Production began in 1941, using the pre-war style Type 60 Beetle body. However, because of the large 16in Kronprinz cross-country tyres, metal spacers had to be fitted, to move the front and rear wings outwards and stop them fouling the chunky rubber. This also necessitated wider running boards. Up front, in addition to a 40-litre fuel tank and spare wheel, a handy 20-litre fuel can, shovel and jack were standard. Even handier was the installed infra-red lamp, allowing use at night without getting too pestered by enemy aircraft.

Underneath, the four-wheel drive system was rudimentary but effective. The propshaft to the front wheels ran through an enlarged backbone chassis tube to modified steering knuckles. The rear axle had reduction gears and there were lockable front and rear ZF differentials. To bring all four wheels into play, the driver had to pull a lever inside – but only if the car was in first gear or reverse. That gave a top speed of just over 6mph, along with a 34 degree slope climbing ability. Okay, hardly blistering stuff, but Type 87s did still have the bog-standard 25bhp 1131cc engine and if the Volkswagen’s natural rugged abilities weren’t enough to extricate it from a tricky situation, then the 4×4 provided a useful boost, even at walking pace. 

Testing times

Prototype Type 87s were tested in Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania between 1939 and 1941, before going into service in Germany. The production models, from 1941 onwards, spread much further but were particularly useful in North Africa, where they were able to conquer the harsh and sandy landscapes. To properly cope though, they had to be fitted with suitable equipment to protect the air filter, carburettor and electrics from dust. Kronzprinzrader sand tyres were also adopted.

Other offshoots were the 82E, effectively a two-wheel drive variant on a conventional Kubelwagen chassis, and the 98, which had a cabriolet body. Yes, a four-wheel drive open-top Beetle! There was also the 92 SS, which had leather seats, map tables and hooks for firearms. Most of these found their way, with the sinister Waffen-SS, to the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union. 

Major manufacture of the Kommandeurwagen continued until about 1944, when the war started turning against Germany and the Wolfsburg factory found itself increasingly on the receiving end of Allied bombs. However, it seems limited numbers were built in underground bunkers until 1945, which at least guaranteed a supply of Beetle bodies when the British Army took control of Wolfsburg after the war ended, and restarted production of the 2WD models. 

It’s believed that 688 Type 82E and 667 Type 87 Kommandeurwagens were built during hostilities. Pictures of Wolfsburg immediately post-war show British officers with vehicles that look suspiciously like high-riding Type 87s… but they weren’t. Many early peacetime Beetles had to use Kubelwagen chassis, until a supplier could be found to make civilian-type reduced height axle forgings. These Beetles on stilts – 295mm above the road instead of the usual 220mm – were known as Type 51s. The lowered versions were Type 11s.

Full metal jacket

However, in November 1946, Wolfsburg did produce two more four-wheel drive Kommandeurwagens (of the Type 877 variety, with a full metal roof) for testing purposes. The trials obviously didn’t go that well, because no more appeared. Today, just five examples are thought to survive – there’s a 1943 car in the Porsche Museum in Gmünd, Austria, another – one of the 1946 British army efforts – in Volkswagen’s own Wolfsburg museum, while a prototype is with a collector in Hong Kong. Some enthusiasts have built replicas, using Schwimmwagen mechanicals, a Kubelwagen chassis and a wartime Type 60 Beetle body – but, as faithful as they are, they’re not the real McCoy.

So, if you really want a four-wheel drive Beetle, that might be your best option… unless there’s one still lurking in the abandoned outbuilding of a Russian dacha or buried by drifting dunes in a Libyan desert. Or maybe a Type 2 Syncro would be a little less trouble… 

Words: Richard Gunn