The Volkswagen Kübelwagen (literally translated as bucket car, for its resemblance to a metal bathtub on wheels) was a light military vehicle designed by Ferdinand Porsche and built by Volkswagen during World War II for use by the German military with both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS. Based heavily on the Volkswagen Beetle, it was prototyped as the Type 62, but eventually became known internally as the Type 82.
Kübelwagen is an abbreviation of kubelsitzwagen, meaning bucket-seat car because all German light military vehicles that had no doors were fitted with bucket seats to prevent passengers from falling out. The first VW test vehicles had no doors and were therefore fitted with bucket seats and so acquired the name VW kubelsitzwagen that was later shortened to kubelwagen. Mercedes, Opel, and Tatra also built Kubel(sitz) wagens.
With its rolling chassis and mechanics built at Stadt des KdF-Wagens renamed Wolfsburg after 1945, and its body built by US-owned firm Ambi Budd Presswerke in Berlin, the Kübelwagen was for the Germans, what the jeep was for the Allies.
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Although Adolf Hitler discussed with Ferdinand Porsche the possibility of military application of the Volkswagen as early as April 1934, it was not until January 1938 that high-ranking Third Reich army officials formally approached Porsche about designing an inexpensive, light-weight military transport vehicle, that could be operated reliably both on- and off-road, in even the most extreme conditions. This implied that the Beetle could provide the basis for such a vehicle.
Porsche began work on the project immediately, having a prototype of the vehicle ready within the month, but realized during development that it would not be enough to reinforce the Beetle’s chassis to handle the stresses that military use would place on it. In order to guarantee the adequate off-road performance of a two-wheel-drive vehicle with a 1,000 cc FMCV 1 engine, it would have to be lightweight. In fact, the army had stipulated a laden weight of 950 kg (2,090 lb), including four battle-dressed troops, which meant that the vehicle itself should not weigh more than 550 kg (1,210 lb). Porsche, therefore,sub-contracted Trutz, an experienced military coachbuilder, to help out with the body design.
Developmental testing by the military began after a presentation of the prototypes designated as Type 62 in November 1938. Despite lacking four-wheel drive, a mainstay of the American military Jeeps, the vehicle proved very competent at maneuvering its way over rough terrain, even in a direct comparison with a contemporary standard German army 4×4, and the project was given the green light for further development. The vehicle’s lightweight and ZF self-locking differential compensated for the lack of 4×4 capabilities.
Further development of Type 62 took place during 1939, including a more angular body design, and pre-production models were field-tested in the invasion of Poland, that started in September that year. Despite their overall satisfaction with the vehicle’s performance, military commanders demanded that a few important changes be made: the lowest speed of the vehicle had to be reduced from 8 km/h (5.0 mph) to 4 km/h (2.5 mph) as an adjustment to the pace of marching soldiers. Second, it needed some improvement of its off-road ability. Porsche responded to both requests by mounting new axles with gear-reduction hubs, providing the car with more torque and more ground-clearance all at once. Revised dampers, 41 cm (16 in) wheels, and a limited slip differential, as well as countless small modifications, completed the specification. In order to reflect the changes, the vehicle was renamed Type 82.
Full-scale production of the Type 82 Kübelwagen started in February 1940, as soon as the VW factories had become operational. No major changes took place before production ended in 1945, only small modifications were implemented, mostly eliminating unnecessary parts and reinforcing some, which had proved unequal to the task. Prototype versions were assembled with four-wheel-drive (Type 86) and different engines, but none offered a significant increase in performance or capability over the existing Type 82 and the designs were never implemented. As of March 1943, the car received a revised dash and the bigger 1,131 cc engine, developed for the Schwimmwagen, that produced more torque and power than the original 985 cc unit. When Volkswagen production ceased at the end of the war, 50,435 Kübelwagen vehicles had been produced, and the vehicle had proven itself to be surprisingly useful, reliable, and durable.
Long after the end of the war, VW resurrected the basic Kübelwagen design as the 1969 Type 181, developed for the German Federal Armed Forces and later also produced for the civilian market, known as Thing in the US, Trekker in the UK, and Safari in Mexico. Although similar in looks and design, almost no parts were interchangeable with the Type 82.
Technology and Performance
When the German military took delivery of the first vehicles, they immediately put them to the test on- and off-road in snow and ice to test their capability at handling European winters. Several four-wheel-drive vehicles were used as reference points. The two-wheel-drive Kübelwagen surprised even those who had been a part of its development, as it handily out-performed the other vehicles in nearly every test. Most notably, thanks to its smooth, flat underbody, the Kübel would propel itself much like a motorized sled, when its wheels were sinking into sand, snow, or mud, allowing it to follow tracked vehicles with remarkable tenacity.
In November 1943, the U.S. military conducted a series of tests as well on several Type 82s they had captured in North Africa. This evaluation, done at the Army’s Aberdeen (Maryland) Proving Ground, resulted in the publication of War Department Technical Manual TM E9-803, 6 June 1944. It was intended for distribution after the D-day invasion of Europe to US military personnel who might encounter ones that had been abandoned, possibly for lack of fuel or a minor technical problem, and with the help of this manual, might be put into service as additional vehicles. So thorough was the analysis that it included information beyond what could be done as field servicing, plus ways of dealing with very low temperatures. In 1972, it was reprinted by Post-Era Books, and several used copies have frequently been available from US booksellers. In U.S. War Department Technical Manual TM-E 30-451, Handbook on German Military Forces, dated 15 March 1945 (p. 416), it states “The Volkswagen, the German equivalent of the American ‘Jeep’, is inferior in every way, except in the comfort of its seating accommodations.”
At the same time, another Kübelwagen, also captured in North Africa, had been dissected in Britain by engineers of the Humber Car Company, whose report was equally unfavorable and dismissive.
Among the design features that contributed to the Kübelwagen’s performance were:
- Lightweight, although some 41 cm (16 in) longer than the Willys MB, it was over 300 kg (660 lb) lighter.
- Very flat and smooth underbody, that allowed the car to slide over the surface it was traversing.
- Considerable ground clearance, roughly 28 cm (11 in), in part thanks to:
- The use of portal gear hub reduction, providing more torque and ride height simultaneously.
- Independent suspension on all four wheels.
- Self-locking differential, limiting slippage and retaining traction.
- Apart from that, the air-cooled engine proved highly tolerant of hot and cold climates, and less vulnerable to bullets, due to the absence of a radiator. For starting under winter conditions, a specially volatile starting fuel was required, contained in a small auxiliary fuel tank.
- As the body was not a load-bearing part of the structure of the vehicle, it could easily be modified for special purposes.
- The Kübelwagen could reach a top speed of 80 km/h (50 mph).
The following body types and variants of Type 82 were produced:
- Type 62: Prototype Kübelwagen, constructed from 15 May 1938; pre-production models (1939) field tested in the invasion of Poland.
- Type 67: 2-stretcher ambulance; Type 60 Beetle chassis with modified Type 82 body.
- Type 82/0: Basic four-seater.
- Type 82/I: Three-seat radio car.
- Type 82/2: Sirencar, Siemens motor-driven siren mounted on the passenger side in place of the rear seat.
- Type 82/3: Mock-up armored vehicle/command car with machine gun-fitted turret over the cabin.
- Type 82/5: Kübelwagen chassis with the Type 60 LO Lieferwagen (open pickup truck) body.
- Type 82/6: Tropical version sedan-body box van.
- Type 82/7: Three-seat Command car made up of a Type 82 chassis, fitted with a Beetle body and roll-up canvas roof section. These three-seaters had a co-drivers seat with fully reclining backrest for the commander.
- Type 82/8: Like Type 82/0 but had an open body made of wood.
- Type 82/E: Kübelwagen chassis with Beetle body, 688 manufactured.
- Type 86: All-wheel drive prototype, 6 fabricated.
- Type 87: “Kommandeurwagen”: a Type 86 4×4 Kübelwagen chassis with Beetle command car body. Fitted with running boards, under-hood-mounted spare tire accompanied by a gas can, a jack, a small tool kit, and a shovel, and widened fenders for its larger-diameter Kronprinz (Crown Prince) off-road tires, some were provided to preferred officers, who could push through virtually any kind of terrain with them, 667 produced.
- Type 89: Fitted with an experimental automatic transmission.
- Type 98: Beetle cabriolet body with the Kübelwagen 4×4 drivetrain.
- Type 106: Fitted with an experimental transmission assumed different from the Type 89.
- Type 107: Fitted with a turbocharger.
- Type 115: Fitted with a supercharger.
- Type 126: Fitted with a fully synchronized gearbox assumed different from the Type 278.
- Type 155/1: Half-track / snow-track Kübelwagen prototype. Pictures of several track-set designs exist, although it is possible, that these were consecutively fitted to the same prototype. Trials proved, that the Type 155 was able to cover the most difficult terrain, but the modifications necessary to the standard Kübelwagen were extensive and the resulting vehicle was both very slow and forbiddingly inefficient.
- Type 157: Railway car equipment, used for Types 82 and 87
- Type 164: Six-wheeled, twin-engine, dual-control prototype; never entered production.
- Type 177: Fitted with a five-speed transmission as opposed to the standard four-speed unit.
- Type 179: Fitted with fuel-injected Volkswagen engine.
- Type 179-F: Later updated directly to the Schwimmwagen (mentioned above)—Could cross water and temporarily be used as a small boat and/or landing craft. Because of a thick and bulletproof skid plate, the engine was protected and all valves in the rear were airtight. The engine had a flush-activated 179 Fuel Injected engine, that would act as a drainer to push water out and prevent the engine from flooding.
- Type 198: Fitted with a PTO and auxiliary gearbox for starting the engines of armored fighting vehicles.
- Type 235: Fitted for power by an electric motor.
- Type 239: Fitted for power by a wood-gas generator mounted on the nose also listed as Type 230.
- Type 240: Fitted for power by bottled gas.
- Type 276: Type 82 fitted with a towing hook to pull a 37 PAK gun.
- Type 278: Fitted with synchronized gearbox.
- Type 307: Fitted with a heavy-duty carburetor.
- Type 309: Prototype fitted with a diesel engine.
- Type 331: Prototype fitted for power by a “native fuel system” (acetylene gas) engine also listed as Type 231.
- Type 332: Fitted for power by anthracite coal.