A Kubelwagen for £60? They were the days says former Safter Motoring editor Robin Wager
It’s not every day you come across someone who owns one Kübelwagen, let alone a pair of them. But looking through the 1975 volume of Safer Motoring recently, I was reminded of the time I met someone who did – the remarkable Tom Dobson.
The Kübelwagen, of course, is the military ‘Jeep-type’ runabout, hurriedly created from largely Beetle and Type 2 parts at the start of WW2. A recently retired BOAC pilot from Lewes in Sussex, in 30 years of travelling all over the world VW enthusiast Tom had come across more than a few odd variants of the marque. His soft spot for the Kübelwagen had grown from when he bought his first, in 1958 in Tripoli, for £60, only to be thwarted from importing it to the UK by regulations in force at that time.
Then in 1966, in Syria with a colleague, they located three early examples in a cave in Benghazi, keeping one each and breaking up the third for spares. Tom’s 1941 model was renovated and eventually sold to a friend in Sydney, Australia where it went into a museum.
The two Kübels Tom still owned when I visited him in the mid-’70s were both slightly later versions. The 1943 Type 82 model was bought from a student who had driven it to England and needed some cash to pay his fare to the USA. He was lucky – the flywheel detached itself after 50 miles! In this one Tom had installed a 1959 1200 Beetle engine, but it kept its original crash gearbox and limited-slip differential.
Tom’s second vehicle, a 1945 Type 21 (a later model designation) was found in a Somerset barn after lying idle for some12 years. This too had been fitted with a replacement 1200 engine and synchro gearbox, and converted to RHD, before being handed on to Tom by a relative. He was using this Kübel, with its more authentic dashboard, as a daily driver, often taking it into London, saying it cruised easily at the speed of most of the traffic on the busy A23 Brighton road.
Neither Kübel had needed too much renovation, only some rusting of the doors requiring patching up. The fuel tank on the ’45 had rotted out, however, and was replaced by one half of the tank from a Fordson tractor, which fitted perfectly. The seats had been renovated too, with the cushions from an old London taxi coming in very handy!
Tom’s many contacts around the world had helped him acquire genuine replacement parts and accessories like the fuel jerrycan and convoy blackout lamp adorning the ‘45, and an original shovel carried by each. “You gotta have a shovel,” said Tom at the time. Other fascinating bits I noticed were the khaki canvas bag marked Beschreibungen (presumably to hold the vehicle papers) and the wooden battery box under the seat of the ’43.
I travelled several miles with Tom in the 1945 car, and also briefly drove the ‘43 myself. In both cases I was struck by the similarity to the 1951 split-window, crash-box, cable-braked, LHD Beetle that was my first car (and traded in for £25 against an Oval – idiot!).
I noted at the time that Tom’s military vehicles had the same rugged, almost agricultural feel, solidly efficient suspension, and nostalgic items like the metal three-spoke steering wheel, choke control on the tunnel beside the straight gear lever with its dimpled knob, and the press-button starter (which, oddly, now seems to be in vogue all over again!). With the hood of the Kübel erected, there was the same rearward visibility through the two small, translucent (rather than transparent!) panels – a snag Tom had largely overcome by fitting side mirrors.
Tom also owned at the time a 1950 hunting car, built in Cologne by coachbuilding specialists Papler. The four-door convertible, which had eventually become a German police vehicle, was acquired by Tom in 1964 and was away being restored with a few improvements. Registered 6 EXP, this car has been seen at various VW shows over the years.
Tom’s VW story didn’t end there. He had earlier owned a 1946 Split, brought from Czechoslovakia, on which he had just done a deal and it was on its way to an enthusiast abroad. Lurking in his garage was the immaculate Ford Model A, which was driven as regularly as the Kübels and was preferred by Mrs Dobson for its superior comfort. Tom could get any spares he needed for this on regular visits to California.
A Kübelwagen may be an unusual sight for most people, but when Tom and I parked the ’45 in front of his local pub for a spot of lunch, no one batted an eyelid. To most of the regulars, it was quite a regular occurrence!
Words: Robin Wager