In the years after the First World War the idea of the 'people's car' gained significant traction in Europe. The war had dealt a blow to the era of class and privilege and accelerated the rise of the middle class. Cars were no longer seen as simply items of luxury but as an essential method of transport. However, although mass production techniques, such as those used by Ford in the United States, may have significantly reduced the cost of motoring cars, cars remained out of reach for the majority of people.
During the 1920s the bottom end of the market was serviced by cyclecars; flimsy contraptions built of wood and fabric, with bicycle wheels and motorcycle engines. In the mid 20s though, a new generation of budget cars appeared. Often called 'baby cars', these too were wooden and powered by small engines but with many of fittings and features of true cars. Cost being such a critical factor, the companies servicing this market were far more open to innovation than the established majors.
The Slaby-Beringer of 1920 was typical of cyclecar of the period, being little more than a plywood box body on bicycle wheels. These little wooden cars were either powered by an electric motor or a two-stroke motor cycle engine. The example in the picture above is powered by a DKW single cylinder two-stroke mounted at the back.
The 'Panhard system' of front engine and rear wheel drive had become automotive orthodoxy since the turn of the century, but the transmission of power from front to rear added complexity, cost and loss of power. Therefore, to save cost and reduce engineering complexity, an obvious solution was to move the engine to the rear. In 1925 the Hanomag company did just that in their budget 2HP Kommisbrot. The Kommisbrot's 500cc single cylinder water cooled four-stroke engine used a chain to drive the rear wheels.
Wooden and boxy, the utilitarian Kommisbrot were a solid and reliable budget car that sold well.
Another innovative pioneer of this period was the English Trojan company, whose wooden bodied Utility Car was powered by a two cylinder two-stroke engine mounted beneath the floorboards, behind the drivers seat. Power was delivered by chain drive to the rear wheels. Unusually for a British budget car, it had independent suspension on both axles that allowed it to traverse the kind of ground even a four wheel drive wouldn't dare to cross.
The Trojan Utility car was simplicity itself and came as a 3 door soft top, 4 door sedan and a utility/delivery van.
The Trojan's amazing suspension made them a terrific rally car, many racing well into the 1950s. For a video of the Trojan in action go here - https://youtu.be/Ais64mPRzhs
In Germany, auto engineer and motoring critic, Josef Ganz, was developing his own cyclecar. His first attempt was for the Ardie motorcycle company. The prototype was a very basic cyclecar of fabric and plywood on a tube frame. A single cylinder air-cooled motorcycle engine was mounted behind the driver, ahead of the rear axle, with chain drive to the rear wheels. A single headlight was mounted in the nose of the car. In terms of engineering, despite current claims, there was little to differentiate Ganz's Ardie cyclecar from dozens of other cyclecars. None of the features modern writers seize upon were new, unique or revolutionary as rear mounted engines, backbone chassis and independently sprung rear suspension had all been developed earlier. Ardie passed on the car but Ganz obtained a contract with Adler to develop a prototype for them.
Josef Ganz behind the wheel of his Ardie-Ganz prototype.
The rolling chassis in the workshop. You can see the tube chassis and sprung half rear axles. The engine is placed ahead of the axles.
The Adler 'maikafer' (May-beetle) unveiled in 1931 was basically an improved Ardie, but its performance was mediocre as the car's anemic 200cc single cylinder water cooled 5 hp two-stroke could barely push it along at 40kph. Two passengers could be seated in scarcely disguised discomfort in the tiny vehicle. That said, the maikafer was a prototype not a production vehicle and although Ganz wanted to put the car into immediate production and improve the design later, Adler decided not to proceed. The fact of the matter was that the maikafer was closer akin to the cyclecars of the early 1920s than the 'people's car's of the 1930s and the maikafer and its kind were simply no longer practical and only a single example was built.
Josef Ganz is joined in the maikafer by aerodynamic streamlining specialist, Paul Jaray.
The maikafer up on its side highlights it light weigh and the tube chassis.
Nevertheless, Ganz' engineering credentials resulted in him being engaged by Mercedes-Benz on a serious budget car project. Mercedes had developed a new rear-engined car, designated the 120H. The 120H was designed by Hans Nibel and showed would could be achieved in a rear-engined car design. The prototype was powered by a 1.2 litre four cylinder boxer engine. Mercedes also trialed a rear mounted transversely mounted four cylinder in-line engine in the car.
In styling terms, the Mercedes-Benz 120H could be said to be a precursor of the Volkswagen beetle.
The 120H concept appeared sound so Mercedes-Benz began work on a production model, the 130H, however, at the last minute problems with the boxer engine caused them to substitute a four cylinder in-line engine. The shape, weight and placement of the engine completely ruined the handling of the car. Ganz had been engaged on the project to work on the swing axle suspension but the engine decision turned him into a vocal critic of the Mercedes team's design - which won him few friends. In desperation Mercedes engaged Ferdinand Porsche to review the design, but he too could do little without undertaking a complete redesign. It was too late for comprehensive changes however and Mercedes pressed ahead with production. Thanks to its poor handling the 130H and its various successors proved relatively poor sellers.
Only 1500 rear engined Mercedes-Benz' were built over approximately 5 years.
The 130H's Achilles heel was the weight of its rear engine, which was intended for a conventional front-engined car and threw out the car's handling.
Ganz' criticism of Mercedes-Benz wasn't without merit as it was their decision to place a heavy, water-cooled, in-line engine behind the rear axle that threw the cars handling out of balance. For stability, Ganz advocated that the engine in a rear engined car should be placed ahead of rear axle. However this was impractical in anything other than a two-seater as mid-mounting a large in-line engine would eat into the passenger space. Two years later Hans Ledwinka would show how a rear engined car could be done with his spectacular Tatra T77, with its air-cooled V8 engine and gearbox mounted well behind the rear axle.
In 1932 another motorcycle company offered Ganz an opportunity to develop his ideas into a practical automobile. Wilhem Gutbrod's Standard Farhzeugfabrik produced a small range of motorcycles and delivery tricycles and saw an opportunity to move into budget motorcars. With a greater budget and team behind him, Ganz expanded the maikafer concept into something more substantial. The resulting Standard Superior includes all his trademark design features - the backbone chassis and independent suspension, and was powered by a 400cc air-cooled two-stroke engine mounted on the right, ahead of the rear axle.
Photographs of the Standard Superior prototype.
Styling was conventional for a budget car of the period
The nose of the car swung open like a door for luggage.
The Superior was unveiled in 1933 but although the car's plywood and faux-leather bodywork was reasonably streamlined and modern, sales were sluggish at best.
The Superior Mk1 version one is identifiable by its lack of rear quarter windows. This version made no allowance for a rear seat, with only a parcel shelf behind the driver. Again, the cars small size is clearly evident.
The Standard Superior chassis on display at the Berlin Motor Show in 1933. It's notable that Standard's stand predominately featured their motorcycle range.
Also attending the 1933 Berlin Motor Show was the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and in his opening speech he proclaimed his intention to start an automotive revolution in Germany. The German people would have a great car industry and there would be a road building program for them to drive their cars on. He challenged the auto industry to build 'the cheap car' that would support this revolution and put a car in every driveway.
Hitler's call for 'the cheap car' was a catalyst to companies like Standard and within a year a range of similar budget cars hit the market. Jorge Rasmussen's Framo company unveiled their Piccolo, powered by a rear mounted 200cc two-stroke motor. Carl Borgward upscaled his Goliath Pioneer tricycle as the four wheeled Hansa 400, also powered by a rear mounted two-stroke motor. And motorcycle company, Zundapp engaged Ferdinand Porsche to develop a rear-engined budget car, which would be come known as the Type 12. Standard, Framo and Opel began marketing their budget cars as 'volks-wagens' or 'peoples-cars', mirroring the wording in Hitler's speech.
"The German volkswagen is yours for 1590 Reichmarks."
The Superior that was shown at the 1934 Berlin Motor Show appeared like a completely new vehicle. It had received a make-over which made the most of the latest developments in streamlining. The Superior now boasted expanded bodywork that included swept wheel arches and smartly curving bonnet and roofline.
Standard Superior brochure
Tractor manufacturer, Bungartz approached Josef Ganz and purchased a license to build an even cheaper version of the Standard Superior prototype of 1932. This car was released as the Bungartz Butz and was also unveiled at the Berlin Motor Show of 1934.
The Bungartz stand at the Berlin Motor Show 1934. The Goliath and Hansa-Lloyd standards behind them would have shown very similar vehicles.
In styling terms, the Butz is almost indistinguishable from the original Superior prototype.The small size of these cars is readily apparent in this photo.
All these companies hopes were soon dashed however. Adolf Hitler, an enthusiast for technical innovation, had been drawn to Hans Ledwinka's stunning Tatra 77 streamliner on display at the Tatra-Ringhoffer stand. Ledwinka enthusiastically explained the details of his ground breaking car to a rapt Hitler, who came away with a totally new vision for Germany's automotive future.
In comparison to the Tatra, the German budget cars Hitler viewed were disappointing in the extreme. When budget car innovator, Jorgen Rasmussen, presented his Framo Piccolo to Hitler, Hitler snubbed the car as being 'not half a grape" and at a speech later that day he openly criticized the German motoring industry for its lack of vision. The German people would not make do with second-rate baby cars, three-wheelers, and motorcycle-engined plywood and leather contraptions, the German people deserved a modern, innovative, steel car - a true 'people's car.'
The Framo Piccolo was the cheapest car on offer in 1934 but even so its 1295 Reichmark pricetag exceeded Hitler's 1000 Reichmark price cap for the proposed volkswagen. Although the Framo looks like a standard car - it was much larger than the Superior - its fittings were spartan, having no instruments except a speedometer. It also only had one door on its right hand side. Although it looks like a front engined car it was in fact powered by a 200cc DKW single cylinder two-stroke engine mounted above the rear axle. A kick starter was provided near the rear wheel.
Shortly thereafter the government changed the road tax scheme which granted small and baby cars cheaper license rates, giving the larger car manufactures a better opportunity to compete in the market. This put many of the small car manufacturers out of the market. Bungartz withdrew the Butz within the year after selling only a small handful of cars. No survivors are know. Carl Borgward withdrew the Hansa 400 and 500 and was soon manufacturing large, well engineered saloon cars to the rising middle classes. Framo surprisingly continued to find a small market for the Piccolo for a number of years - although they tactfully dropped the word 'volkswagen' from their advertising to avoid causing political offense.
Standard continued with the Superior and made progressive improvements, such as extending its wheelbase to allow the addition of a small rear bench seat suitable for two children. It can't have been comfortable though. Rear quarter windows were also added. A four-seater adult version was also built but this was really pushing the car up into the mid-range market, where it stood little chance against more advanced competitors.
A few 'stretched' Superior's were built to seat four adults. This was also stretching the cars performance to the very limits of its tiny engine.
The Superior remained in production until 1938 when the Schell Plan rationalised the German auto industry and Standard's vehicle lines were withdrawn. The number of Standard Superiors manufactured over its four year production run isn't know for certain but Paul Schilperoord, author of 'The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz', suggests 1000 to 1500 cars were built, but this may be overstating both demand and capacity. The annual output of small manufacturers like Standard and Framo were usually counted in the low hundreds.
Josef Ganz did not get to enjoy the relative success of his design. In 1934 he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned on charges of blackmail - he had made a long list of enemies in the motoring industry. He was released after six months and fled to Switzerland. There he recommenced work on an improved maikafer design. This became the Rapid, a few dozen of which were built by a Swiss lawnmower manufacturer after the war. In the Rapid, Ganz was stepping back to a design and an austerity of the late 1920s. Even in war-shattered Europe, where microcars and budget vehicles dominated, the Rapid was too primitive to find any buyers and less than a dozen were sold. The remainder were scrapped.
Ganz' maikafer and two Standard Superior's survive. One is unrestored and on display in the Oldtimer Museum, Cunewalde, Germany.
The other restored example is owned by a private collector.
Two chassis also survive, one of which is owned by author Paul Schilperoord.
Schilperoord's chassis was on display at 'James May's Cars that Changed the World' exhibition as one of the 12 most important cars ever made - a-historical revisionism at its worst.
Thanks to Paul Schilperoord's controversial book 'The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz', the Standard Superior has gained a level of fame and notoriety it never enjoyed in its lifetime. Although it was called a 'volkswagen' at a time when that word was a generic term, and although it shares a number of superficial features with the later, more famous car, it is NOT the predecessor of the beetle - but that will be the subject a whole article in itself.....
For more about this interesting era, see:
1. Tatras http://www.heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2011/12/tatras-streamliners-yesterdays-car-of.html
2. Volkswagens http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/volkswagen-world-beating-peoples-car.html
3. Tatra vs Volkwagen lawsuit http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2015/07/the-tatra-versus-volkswagen-lawsuit.html
4. DKW's rear engine prototype http://www.heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2014/01/dkws-1933-rear-engined-streamliner.html
5. Framo http://heinkelscooter.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/framo.html