Article by Mark Trotta
Simple, rugged, and reliable, the Volkswagen Kubelwagen was produced during the Second World War, and is often compared to the American Jeep. Although there were more contrasts than similarities between the two, both were immensely useful, and both served in every phase of World War Two.
The Kubelwagen, or 'tub car', was originally named 'Kübelsitzwagen' later shortened to Kübelwagen. In the English language, we generally don't use the umlaut over the "u", and is optional when spelling. As it's name implies, the Kubelwagen is a car, not a truck, and was based on the Volkswagen Type 86.
The body style was first developed by Karosseriefabrik Nikolaus Trutz in 1923. The original design had no doors, and were fitted with bucket seats to help prevent passengers from falling out. Doors were later added.
In January of 1938, the German military approached Volkswagen with specifications for a new vehicle. It was to be light-weight, capable of transporting troops, and operable both on- and off-road. It also needed to be inexpensive and suitable for mass-production.
At this time, Volkswagen already had the rear-engine Beetle in development. It's steel chassis was thought to be a sturdy basis for the new vehicle. Additional reinforcement helped handle the stresses that the military would place on it.
Powered by an air-cooled engine mounted behind the passenger compartment, the Kubelwagen needed no radiator, making it less susceptible to gunfire or shrapnel damage. The flat-four engine displaced 985cc and produced 23.5 horsepower. Transmission was a four-speed manual unit.
Independent suspension was utilized on all four wheels, with long-stroke suspension travel that gave a desirable ride and handling. Tall tires were added to allow for more ground clearance.
Volkswagen Type 62
The first version of the Kubelwagen was produced in November 1938 and designated as Type 62. These early models were field-tested during the invasion of Poland (1939). In that first outing, several shortcomings were revealed, which were quickly addressed.
Two major changes were needed; to improve it's off-road ability, and to reduce it's lowest speed to match the pace of marching soldiers. Volkswagen responded by replacing the rear axle with a self-locking differential, mounting new axles with gear-reduction hubs, and adding more ground-clearance. After the changes were implemented, the Kubelwagen was renamed Type 82.
Volkswagen Type 82
Full-scale production began in February 1940. Soon after, thousands of Kubelwagens were being shipped out, ready for the Western campaign in May 1940.
From 1941-1945, Kubelwagens supported German troops in Russia. For extreme cold winter starting, a volatile fuel was required, and was stored in a small auxiliary fuel tank. These battles on the Eastern Front were the largest and bloodiest of World War II.
Kubelwagen Models And Variants
Since the body was not a load-bearing part of the structure, the Volkswagen chassis could receive dozens of configurations and modifications for different needs. This included transporting troops, carrying stretchers, or be a radio car or reconnaissance vehicle. Here are just a few of the many body types and variants produced:
- Type 62: Prototype Kubelwagen
- Type 67: Two-stretcher ambulance
- Type 82/0: Standard four-seater
- Type 82/I: Three-seat radio car
- Type 87: Four-wheel drive Beetle-bodied Kommandeurwagen
The Schwimmwagen, or "swimming car". was a four-wheel-drive version of the Kubelwagen. It was capable of floating in water, and contained an adjustable propeller for forward movement when on the water. The Type 166 Schwimmwagen was the most produced mass-production amphibious car in history.
In March 1943, the Kubelwagen received a revised dash and a larger 1131cc engine, producing 25 horsepower. This engine was developed for the Schwimmwagen, and produced more torque and horsepower than the original 985cc unit.
Kubelwagen vs Jeep
The Kubelwagen was designed as a light passenger vehicle, whereas the Army Jeep is categorized as a light truck. Compared to the Willys MB, the Kubelwagen is 16 inches (41cm) longer, but 660 pounds (300kg) lighter. Fuel mileage was better, with a range of 280 miles per tank. Maximum speed was about 50 mph.
The American Jeep had an 800 pound payload and a 1000 lb towing capacity, nearly double that of the Kubelwagen. The Jeep had 54 horsepower vs the Kubelwagen's 25 horsepower.
Off-road capacities of the two vehicles were more or less equivalent. Along with the rear engine, light weight, and a limited-slip differential, Kubelwagens were effective off-road without needing four wheel drive. Being flat and smooth underneath helped keep it moving if the tires sank in muddy conditions.
The Jeep rode on a very short and narrow wheelbase, with a tall body sitting above the frame and drivetrain. The longer Kubelwagen had independent-arms suspension and lighter steering, giving a more comfortable ride.
When Volkswagen production ceased at the end of the war, 50,435 Kubelwagens had been produced. American Jeep production was over 650,000 units.
Volkswagen Type 181
In 1969, Volkswagen resurrected the Kubelwagen design as the Type 181. Although originally developed for German Federal Armed Forces, it was later produced for the civilian market as well. In the United States, the Type 181 was given a few modifications and marketed as the VW Thing (1973-1974).
Read: Jeeps In World War Two
Sadly, the prices of original Kubelwagens are out of reach for the average enthusiast. Since they were originally based on the Volkswagen Beetle, several aftermarket companies began to offer retro Kubelwagen bodies that attach to standard VW Beetle frames. Regardless if you have an original Kubelwagen or a replica Kubelwagen, parts are generally easy to find and repairs are affordable.