Best of British? Did a Welshman help to design the Volkswagen Beetle?

It is a mystery that has fired the imagination for 65 years. TOM SCANLAN looks at the claims that a Brit designed the Volkswagen Beetle’s air-cooled, flat-four engine.

It just crossed my mind that it was half a century ago that I drove my first Beetle.

The passage of time got me thinking: it was 43 years earlier that the Volkswagen ‘Kaefer’ (as Germans soon nicknamed it) was introduced.

As we all know, Adolf Hitler got Ferdinand Porsche, pictured above with a Volkswagen Beetle in 1938, to come up with the design of a People’s Car, didn’t he?

But, dig deeper.

There’s another name, well-documented, that appears to have been very much part of the story: Josef Ganz.

Ganz, who was Jewish, was born in Hungary in 1898. From his childhood, he was fascinated by things technical. As a young man, he started designing and building his own cars.

Around 1930, he produced his ‘Mai Kaefer’ or May Beetle; it’s thought that Hitler would have seen this at a motor show.

Then came the Standard Superior, the second version of which, in 1934, looks very familiar. It contained many of Ganz’s patents.

The story took a sinister turn when Ganz, who was also an influential journalist with opinions often at variance with the automobile industry establishment, fled to Switzerland after a failed attempt by the Nazis to finish him off — a Jew responsible for designing the new cheap car-for-all was, to them, beyond contemplation.

And so Herr Porsche continued the VW’s development and, there, history rests.

BUT, the next question: was it a British engineer who designed the engine? A Welshman, in fact?

In the September 1956 issue of Motor Sport magazine, its editor WB (Bill) Boddy described some recent correspondence. Another publication (un-named) had published a letter from a correspondent saying that he had been told by a VW dealer that the Beetle’s air-cooled, flat-four engine had been designed by a Brit but the conclusion in the letter was that this was totally unfounded.

Two weeks later a letter arrived to Motor Sport from one Erwin Tragatsch.

Tragatsch was a motorbike historian, the author of a motorbike encyclopaedia and, in the end, 20 or more books.

He told Motor Sport that he knew ‘positively’ that the basic VW design was that of, as Motor Sport printed it: ‘the Englishman, Walter William Moore’.

Moore had been the highly-respected head of the Norton racing team and then head-hunted to work for NSU in Germany in 1929, where he remained until 1935.

Tragatsch said Moore was responsible at NSU for the design and prototypes of the People’s Car engine during that time.

Upon this, Bill Boddy wrote: ‘So he may well have been responsible, either wholly or in part, for the brilliant air-cooled flat-four engine of the Volkswagen…’

So, further to that, Englishman or Welshman?

The website refers to Moore as a ‘short, slim Welshman with sharp features’.

But, and maybe it’s a big ‘but’, back in 1956, a man called Terry Shuler, author of his book, Origin and Evolution of the Volkswagen Beetle, contacted the then-president of NSU, GS von Heydekampf. Asked about Walter William Moore, Von Heydekampf stated that Moore had nothing to do with the Beetle’s design.

Back to square one, then? Or was Von Heydekampf another with his own political agenda?