If there’s one thing that the Germans are famous for across the world, apart from their bread and beers (they’ve about 1200 breweries in the country making over 5000 different brews), it’s their engineering, especially in the automotive sector. And they’ve been leading the automotive revolution for over a century now too, being at the helm of the development of the modern car since the very beginning.
It all started with the creation of the 4-stroke internal combustion engine in the 1870s by German engineers Nikolaus Otto and Karl Benz (yes, the same guy who’d later go on to found BMW). German automotive brands such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Opel and over eighty others came into being and began to produce cars on a considerable scale in the1920s, although only a very small percentage managed to survive the global economic crises. And while the poor politics of the Weimar Republic, as also the collapse of the global economy during the period of the Great Depression, would stifle the development of the automotive industry to an extent till the mid-1930s, the coming to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party would provide a fillip to the entire engineering sector, and especially the automotive industry (well, there’s at least one thing that the guy did right!).
The Nazis brought about a policy of Motorisierung (Motorization) in the country, in order to improve the living standards and conditions of the people. Taking a Keynesian approach, the Nazi Party started a number of infrastructure and manufacturing schemes, such as that of the Autobahn (Germany’s famous highway network), and the Volkswagen project which was started by the German Labour Front, a Nazi union, in the newly created industrial city of Wolfsburg.
The Motorisierung policy of the Nazis was responsible for giving Hitler and his forces an edge over his adversaries, allowing the Germans to completely dominate the Second World War in its initial stages. The Panzerkampfwagen (armoured fighting vehicles) series of tanks that were at the forefront of Hitler’s Blitzkriegs had no equal, except perhaps the ones made by the Soviets (the T-34 being one such example), and were largely responsible for the death and destruction unleashed by the Nazi forces across Europe and Russia. However, apart from the Panzer forces, the Nazis had one other secret weapon that they were confident would help them win the war.
The VW Type 166 Schwimmwagen (literally swimming car!) was an amphicar (it could reach speeds of about 80/km on land and about 9km/hr on water) with a 1,131cc 4-cylinder engine and a 25 horsepower rating that was developed by Volkswagen and one that till date remains the most mass produced amphibious vehicle (in terms of number) in history. The engine and the mechanicals used by the Type 166 were largely based on those of the Volkswagen Beetle, while the chassis was completely redesigned and created from scratch by Erwin Komenda, the man who was also responsible for creating the bodies of a number of Porsche cars. Owing to the design errors of the earlier, much bulkier Type 128 prototype, the Type 166 was built smaller than its predecessor, taking 40 cm off the wheelbase.
The Schwimmwagen was a 4-wheel drive in its first gear and in some models, on the reverse gear as well and had ZF self-locking differentials on its axles, both front and rear. Being a vehicle that was to traverse difficult war-torn terrain, it also had portal gear rear hubs that gave it a much better ground clearance while reducing the stresses on the torque as well. When in water, a screw propeller lowered from the rear would get its drive from an extension of the main engine’s crankshaft itself, with the front wheels doubling up as rudders. The Schwimmwagen certainly was an engineering marvel of its time, and can still be seen today in a number of war museums across the world.