Dipl.-Ing. Josef Ganz (1898-1967) was the engineering father of the Volkswagen Beetle – the most famous car ever built – and laid many of the foundations for modern lightweight streamlined motorcars.
Josef Ganz was born in a Jewish family with a Hungarian mother and a German father in Budapest on July 1, 1898 and was already fascinated by technlogy at an early age. After relocating to Germany in 1916 and serving in the German army during the First World War, Ganz started a mechanical engineering study.
During this time, he became inspired with the idea of building a small people’s car for the price of a motorcycle. Josef Ganz made his first Volkswagen design sketches in 1923, designing an innovative small lightweight car with a mid-mounted engine, independent wheel suspension and an aerodynamic body, but lacked the money to build a prototype. Therefore, he passionately started publishing articles on progressive car design in various magazines.
Shortly after his graduation in 1927, Josef Ganz was assigned as the new editor-in-chief of Klein-Motor-Sport. He used this magazine, which he renamed into Motor-Kritik in January 1929, as a platform to criticize heavy, unsafe and old-fashioned cars and promote innovative design and his concept for a ‘Deutschen Volkswagen’ (‘German Volkswagen’).
‘With the ardent conviction of a missionary’, so post-war Volkswagen director Heinrich Nordhoff would later say, ‘Josef Ganz in Motor-Kritik attacked the old and well-established auto companies with biting irony.’ These companies fought against Motor-Kritik with law-suits, slander campaigns and an advertising boycott. However, every new attempt for destruction only increased the publicity for the magazine and Josef Ganz firmly established himself as the leading independent automotive innovator in Germany.
In 1929, Josef Ganz started contacting German motorcycle manufacturers for collaboration to build a Volkswagen prototype. This resulted in a first prototype built at Ardie in 1930 and a second one completed at Adler in May 1931, which was nicknamed the Maikäfer (‘May-Beetle’). News about these amazing constructions quickly spread through the industry.
Besides at Adler, Josef Ganz was assigned as a consultant engineer at Daimler-Benz and BMW where he was involved in the development of the first models with independent wheel suspension: the highly successful Mercedes-Benz 170 and BMW AM1 (Automobilkonstruktion München 1). Furthermore, Josef Ganz managed to pursuade director Wilhelm Kissel and technical director Hans Nibel of Daimler-Benz to develop new rear-engined models under his supervison. His brilliant engineering work and critical journalistic writings jump-started a revolution in the automotive industry to build affordable, lightweight, comfortable, safe and efficient cars.
The first company to serially manufacture a Volkswagen according to the many patents of Josef Ganz was the Standard Fahrzeugfabrik, which introduced its Standard Superior model at the IAMA (Internationale Auto- und Motorradausstellung) in Berlin in February 1933. Here the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler expressed great interest in its revolutionary design and low selling price of 1,590 Reichsmark. Under the new anti-Semitic government, however, Josef Ganz was an easy target for his old enemies.
‘Whatever may be the future development
of this type of car in Germany,
without doubt the Hitler government
will be responsible for its popularization’
Ironically, while German car manufacturers one by one took over the progressive ideas that had been published in Motor-Kritik since the 1920s, Josef Ganz himself was arrested by the Gestapo in May 1933 based on falsified charges of blackmail of the automotive industry. He was eventually released, but his career was systematically destroyed and his life endangered.
This lead to his escape from Germany in June 1934 – the very month Adolf Hitler assigned Ferdinand Porsche to realize the prophecy of Josef Ganz: designing a mass-producible Volkswagen for a consumer price of 1,000 Reichsmark. The Standard Fahrzeugfabrik, which had recently released a new model with place for a family with two children, was now forbidden to use the name Volkswagen in its advertising.
Josef Ganz settled in Switzerland where with government support he started a Swiss Volkswagen project. The first prototypes were constructed in 1937 and 1938 and plans were formed for mass-production inside a new factory. After the start of the Second World War, however, Josef Ganz was again under serious threat from the Gestapo and corrupt Swiss government officials who tried to claim the Swiss Volkswagen project as their own.
After the war, Josef Ganz in a desperate attempt for justice took his Swiss enemies to court. Numb from five years of highly complex court battles, Josef Ganz left Switzerland in 1949 and settled in France. Here he worked on a new small car for Automobiles Julien, but could no longer compete with the German Volkswagen – his own vision – which was now conquering the world in its hundreds of thousands and within a few years in its millions.
In 1951 Josef Ganz decided to leave the old world behind and boarded an ocean liner to Australia. For some years he worked there for General Motors – Holden, but became almost bedridden after a series of heart attacks in the early 1960s. Despite some attempts to restore his name, it was too little too late. Josef Ganz died in obscurity in Australia in 1967, his legacy known and admired by all but his name forgotten. His desk lay full of evidence for his bizarre life story that he so desperately wanted to be told.
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