Robin Wager wonders at the prospect of a 80p Wolfsburg lunch

I always find on looking through past editions that the many and varied stories published can always surprise and fascinate on renewed acquaintance, and are often invaluable for giving a unique picture of the way things were at the time. One such feature, titled ‘Busman’s Holiday’ in the July 1966 issue of Safer Motoring, concerned a visit made, unannounced, to Volkswagenwerk in Wolfsburg by a Beetle owner who also happened to be a journalist.

Like so many enthusiasts, Ray Miller had been keen for some time to see the cars being made and witness the ‘German miracle’ – remember, this was just 20 years after that country’s crushing defeat had left the VW factory largely in ruins. (And only four years after Safer Motoring was first published!) When Ray announced to his wife that he was going to Wolfsburg, she looked at the map and saw the black dotted line close by, indicating a border. “That’s the Iron Curtain,” she said, “so watch it!”

Arriving after a trouble-free drive in his Beetle at the unmissable mile-long factory site, Ray first went to the wrong gate; it was a goods entrance, and he expected a hostile reception. On the contrary – an English-speaking guard supplied a small map, inking in the route to ‘Wache 17’, the correct gate, and the car park. There Ray was issued with a lapel badge colour-coded for ‘English’ and guided to Tours Reception. Finding himself about 10 minutes late for the morning tour, he joined a group in the cinema watching a colour film of the complete car-building process. From there everyone proceeded to a large, airy lecture room where they shook hands with a plump, jovial little man who reminded Ray of someone he couldn’t bring to mind…

They learned how Ferdinand Porsche’s blueprints for a cheap peoples’ car were taken up in 1933 by Hitler, leading on to the laying of the foundation stone of the Volkswagenwerk in the asparagus fields of the area in 1938. The guide pointed out that none of this was political – Hitler, he said, did “some things bad, some good.” Then came the statistics which, Ray thought, “clubbed you with their immensity.” (This was 1966, remember…)

VW already produced 7,000 vehicles a day in six German plants and four abroad. It employed some 125,000 people, more than 49,000 of them at Wolfsburg alone. After the wartime destruction it re-emerged to produce the millionth vehicle by August 1955, and the ten millionth just 10 years later, comprising 7,600,000 Beetles, 800,000 Type 3s and 1,600,000 commercials.

What Ray describes as “the sweet smell of success” was everywhere. They had just one question: where were all the 49,000 people who were said to work there? You certainly wondered – the plant was spread over 384 acres and two shifts were worked, but only a handful of workers seemed necessary to tend the huge robotic machines. A show-stopper for visitors, he said, was a merry-go-round robot assembling the rear end of a bodyshell. On their way around, the components stopped at 10 stations and 326 welds were performed. In this way 246 complete sections an hour were turned out, all supervised by just five men! A similar machine assembled the front body section, then both were stitched together with 42 spot welds, a completed bodyshell rolling off the line every 18 seconds. Automation in a nutshell! Ray was amazed how it was possible to stroll through the factory in white shirt and flannels, and still be unmarked and fresh at the end. The guests remarked that “everywhere was spotless – you could eat your dinner off the floor.”

Impressive as it all was, says our man, it was strangely satisfying to see human testers taking over a car at the end of the assembly lines. After checking the electrical equipment, they drove off to do further inspections and track tests, and you thought “no robot could do that!”

Lunch was served in the visitors’ restaurant from a menu printed in four languages. Ray partook of chicken soup; pork chop, French fries and salad; pineapple and cream, and coffee, plus a carafe of red wine – all-in cost 16 shillings (80p). Afterwards, wanting some literature, he met a press officer who, with an interpreter, provided all the facts.

He was then whisked up to the 13th floor, through Prof Nordhoff’s palatial suite, and on to the roof where, with not a trace of pollution, they gazed down on the hundreds of cars just off the production line, and the town of Wolfsburg, surrounded by green fields. With the Iron Curtain just five miles away, he suddenly realised who the guide had reminded him of. It was Nikita Khrushchev…

Words: Robin Wager