Cody's Car Talk: The Volkswagen Kubelwagen

A 1945 Kubelwagen


One of my favorite pastimes is playing an MMO (Massively multiplayer online) game called Battlefield Heroes. There I was, deep behind enemy lines, capturing their home base. Suddenly I was swarmed by the enemy. Guys with machine guns, shotguns and tanks came from out of nowhere. Dodging bullets, I blasted my way through, searching desperately for a way out. As luck would have it, an enemy flew up in a military vehicle, jumped out and tried to take me down. After quickly subduing him, I leapt into his vehicle to make my rapid escape back to friendly lines. Still dodging bullets and enemy fire, I found myself in the home stretch to safety. At that moment, my Mom came up, saw what was happening on the screen and said, "Isn't that a Kubelwagen?"

No sooner were the words out of her mouth, when a tank shell blasted my vehicle out from under me, to which I replied, "That WAS a Kubelwagen!" The Kubelwagen (which is short for Kubelsitzwagen, means "bucket seat car") was designed by Ferdinand Porsche as a military vehicle and built by Volkswagen during World War II for use by the German military, both the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. Based on the Volkswagen Beetle, it was prototyped as the Type 62, but eventually became known internally as the Type 82.

The Kubelwagen was for the Germans what the Jeep was for the Allies. As early as April 1934, Adolph Hitler discussed the military applications of the Volkswagen with Ferdinand Porsche. But it wasn't until January of 1938 that high-ranking Third Reich army officials formally approached Porsche about designing an inexpensive, light-weight military transport vehicle that could be reliable both on and off road, work in extreme conditions and suggested that the Beetle could be the basis for it. Porsche began work on it immediately and in a matter of a month one of the most remarkable and successful adaptations in automotive history was achieved. In almost every way the opposite of the Jeep which was specifically designed for American military use, the Kubelwagen was redesigned for the task and according to some, superior to the Jeep.

Porsche's initial prototype, the Type 62 lacked gearing low enough to crawl along with walking troops. Sitting on a Type I chassis, it's ground clearance and off road capability was modest. Hence the redesign of the Type 82, with a much studier platform frame and the use of reduction gears on the ends of rear axle shafts. This not only brought the gearing down to a walking speed, but it was also more favorable in war terrain overall with increased ground clearance and a corresponding change in the front suspension mounting location. It also received a more substantial body, built by Ambi-Budd, an American-owned company.

One of the Kubelwagen's most remarkable features was its use of a limited slip differential. This was the first application ever outside of the legendary thirties Audi GP cars, for which it was first invented. It was the key ingredient, along with the rear engine placement and light weight body that allowed the VW to be an effective off-road vehicle without having four wheel drive. With 985cc, 22.5 hp, it lacked the power of the 60hp Jeep, but it made up for that with a taller body, sitting high above the frame and running gear. The Kubelwagen was more stable, with less rollovers than the Jeep and the ride was much better with bucket seats. Its center of gravity was lower and the long-stroke fully independent suspension gave it superior handling and a much better ride. To sum it up, the Jeep became a great tractor after the war; the Kubelwagen was a comfortable transport.

As an interesting side note, captured Kubelwagen's were put to use by the Americans, and even resulted in the first comprehensive English-language Technical Manual for the operation and service of the Volkswagen in 1944. Allied High command called the German equivalent of the Jeep inferior in every way except comfort, but GI's came home with positive memories or at least grudging respect for this vehicle. This respect propelled the Volkswagen into a popular import in the early 1950's based on its military earned reputation for toughness and dependability.

My uncle, Boyde Banks of Carlsbad, N.M., sent me scans of the TM E9-803 War Department Technical Manual for the German Volkswagen Kubelwagen. A member of the Commemorative Air Force in Hobbes, N.M., my uncle Boyde is currently restoring a 1942 Kubelwagen which will be used for parades and shown in a museum for its historical value in military service. According to my uncle, only a handful are known to exist in the United States. The Kubelwagen he is working on had an exciting history, serving in the Afrikakorps with German Field Marshal Rommel during WWII, and after the war it was shipped to Spain and used during filming of the first season of the Rat Patrol TV series. From there it traveled to the United States and was used in Hollywood, Calif. during filming of the second season of Rat Patrol and was on loan to film companies for the making of other war movies. It will be restored to the original African Mustard paint color with authentic German markings.

With production numbers just over 50,000 units, the Kubelwagen holds a definitive place in military history as a solid, dependable vehicle re-engineered for war, and surprisingly useful, reliable and durable. So, if you find yourself in a World War II MMO game and you're behind enemy lines, grab yourself a Kubelwagen and see what I mean.

Cody Facteau is a 16-year old homeschooler from East Burke. He enjoys anything to do with cars, particularly the Classics. He loves Le Mans racing, his favorite TV shows are Gearz with Stacey David & Top Gear (BBC), hobbies are Legos and PlayStation. Career goals? What else, cars!


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