The amphibious 1942 Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen
Continuing our series looking back at the early days of Ferdinand Porsche’s engineering career, we chart the design and development of the Type 166 Schwimmwagen, an amphibious off-roader… Words Neil Briscoe. Photography John Colley, Porsche, Volkswagen Aktiengesellschaft.
SINK OR SWIM
The amphibious Type 166 Schwimmwagen.
Dwight D. Eisenhower — then still a general, not yet a president —famously said, “the Jeep, the Dakotaairplane and the landing craft were the three tools which won the war.”His point was well made, for while in popular imagination it’s the bravery, guts and glory of front-line troops which wins wars, in reality, it’s far more important to be able to get personnel, plus the supplies that they need, to where they need to be. The Dakota and landing craft would deliver troops and supplies to the battlefield, while the doughty Jeep would keep them mobile once they were there.
THE SS HAD BEEN SEARCHING FOR A FAST SCOUT VEHICLE WHICH COULD MORE EASILY TRAVERSE DIFFICULT TERRAIN
If the Jeep won the war for the Allies, then is the reverse also true? Did the Schwimmwagen lose the war for Germany? Certainly not. What lost the war for Germany was its lack of material resources and the criminal insanity of its leaders. In fact, the Schwimmwagen, or Type 166 to give it its official name, is something of an outlier in Second World War German technology. An outlier in that it was actually quite simple. The Type 166’s story starts, unsurprisingly, with the Beetle, or the KdF-Wagen (Kraft Durch, Freude, translated into English as Strength Through Joy) as the Volkswagen was originally named. Engineered at the behest of the Nazi government as a theoretically affordable family car (although none were ever sold to the public pre-war, and it was never available for its originally advertised price of 990 Reichsmarks), the German army — the Wehrmacht — naturally turned to the car’s creator, Professor Ferdinand Porsche, to create military variants.
THE US ARMY TOOK A CAPTURED SCHWIMMWAGEN HOME AND PUT IT THROUGH ITS PACES AGAINST A JEEP
Ferdinand Porsche, as has been so forensically documented, was indeed a member of the Nazi Party, and had been inducted into the dreaded SS by none other than Heinrich Himmler. Porsche later claimed he ignored his SS rank, using it only when necessary to get what he needed. Though this statement has been the subject of much scrutiny, his engineering expertise was of enormous potential use to the German armed forces — already, Porsche had helped to create the famous slant-nosed Type 82 Kübelwagen, which was rear-drive, but could clamber over poor terrain thanks to its low weight and ZF-designed self-locking differential. The Kübelwagen was in widespread use by the time of the German invasions of France and the Low Countries in the summer of 1940 (the so-called Blitzkrieg, although the Germans never called it that — to the Wehrmacht, it was Bewegungskrieg or ‘War of Movement’), but its use in combat showed the potential need for an amphibious version. After all, even with the heavy mechanisation of warfare, getting troops across rivers and canals was still critical. Indeed, it was the unexpected crossing of the River Meuse at Sedan, by leading elements of the German Army Group A under General Heinz Guderian, that caused an unassailable breach in the defence of France and beginning of the end for the French army.
If vehicles could cross rivers themselves, rather than having to capture intact bridges or wait for engineers to build pontoon crossings, then armies could advance that much more quickly. And so, Ferdinand and his son, Ferry, were quickly put to work on a swimming version of the Kübelwagen.
Except it wasn’t the Kübelwagen Porsche used as the basis for the new Schwimmwagen, but a more recent development — the Type 87 Kommandeurswagen, which was then also under development. The Kommandeurswagen is recognisably a Beetle, with its unmistakable curved shape, but under the skin it is modified. The wings are wider, to take chunkier off-road tyres, while the chassis’ central backbone has been widened too, to make space for a driveshaft to send power to the front wheels, giving the Type 87 four-wheel drive. In July 1940, when development started, Porsche simply welded the doors of an early Type 87 shut, attached a basic propellor setup at the back and drove the car into a reservoir.
It worked, but not well enough — it was clear that simply modifying an existing vehicle wasn’t going to be good enough. A unique design was needed.
Porsche started work on the Type 128, which although based on both the Kübelwagen and the Type 87, featured a completely integrated hull-style body with no door openings. All driveshafts and control openings were sealed up to be watertight, and an engine-driven propeller sprouted from the back. There was no rudder — the Type 128 would be steered by its front wheels, a simple but reasonably effective solution.
BATTLING THE ELEMENTS
According to Classic Porsche contributor, Karl Ludvigsen, when assessed at the Max Eyth reservoir near Stuttgart, the Type 128 “worked well enough, but needed a healthy push to get it back up the muddy bank and out of the reservoir.” Not great, perhaps, but not a bad performance for a prototype put together in just a handful of weeks. Ludvigsen records how the Wehrmacht quickly got Porsche to build several prototypes and put them through their paces “on autobahns, across country, on minor roads and in water,” but the Type 128 wasn’t the only Schwimmwagen being evaluated. There was another, created by Hanns Trippel, but, somewhat ironically, the water-cooled Opel engine of this amphibious car kept overheating in water trials, whereas the air-cooled Beetle engine kept chugging along happily.
Things kicked up a gear for the Porsche-designed Schwimmwagen when the SS, through Himmler, took a keen interest in the project. The SS was essentially the Nazi Party’s own private army and separate to the main German army. The SS had been searching for a fast scout vehicle which could more easily traverse difficult terrain than the organisation’s existing motorcycle-and-sidecar units. This new vehicle also needed to carry the much-feared MG34 machine gun. The Porsche design was thought to be ideal.
THE CHOP SHOP
It wasn’t, though. Well, not quite, anyway. The Type 128’s weakness was that it was built on the same 2.4-metre wheelbase as the Beetle, which was simply too long for the tasks it was being asked to undertake. That slippery ascent from the Max Eyth reservoir had shown how the Type 128 struggled with traction on steep sections, and so the decision was taken to lop 400mm from the wheelbase, shortening it to two metres exactly.
This shortening of the vehicle meant it needed a new designation, and so it would become the Type 166. In Porsche’s records, the new car was also called the VW Krad-Wagen, meaning motorcycle car, a description more of its use than its design.
The Type 166 was lighter than its predecessor, and arguably more suited to life in an army full of people who didn’t have much experience of driving. Let’s not forget, before the war, Germany was really quite short on cars. It seems astonishing to think it now, but in the 1930s, Germany was well behind the curve when it came to putting its population on wheels. “Germany was not yet an automotive society” says Second World War historian and author, James Holland. “Hitler might have ordered the building of autobahns, yet the number of people with vehicles was surprisingly few, amounting to just 1.5 percent in 1935. Even following the Depression, the number of people owning vehicles in the United States in 1933 was twenty percent and was closer to a third of the population by 1939. In contrast, in Germany, by 1937, vehicle ownership was a little over two percent. Other than Italy, it was the worst percentage of vehicle ownership in Western Europe. In Britain, by 1939, the figure was around fifteen percent.”
Keeping the Type 166 simple was paramount, but it still needed expert handling to cope with the drop-down propellor and the selectable four-wheel-drive system. What Porsche definitely got right, though, was the Schwimmwagen’s go-anywhere capability. Four-wheel drive meant the vehicle could get places the rear-drive Kübelwagen simply couldn’t, and although it didn’t have low-range gears, first gear was given an ultra-low ratio not merely to allow it to better scramble up and down muddy slopes, but to allow it to creep along at low speeds, matching the marching pace of soldiers on foot. Again, it’s worth remembering that for all the huge technical developments being made by Germany in this period, its army was one that still moved largely on foot and by horse, and that would remain true right through to the end of the war.
Propaganda films showed fast-moving tanks and trucks, but these were usually simply spearhead units, better equipped than the slower-moving infantry divisions following behind.
Could the Schwimmwagen have helped to speed the infantry up, making the German army more mobile? Certainly, that was the plan, although in the event, the car’s amphibious capabilities were largely ignored. This is down to the fact it turns out getting small vehicles like this across rivers isn’t actually that useful — a Schwimmwagen can only hold four soldiers, after all. Five at a pinch, and with a maximum speed of 7mph in the water, it’s staggeringly vulnerable to enemy fire. The Wehrmacht loved the Type 166 for its simplicity and offroad prowess, though. Thanks to the aforementioned four-wheel drive, the independent suspension and its portal axles, which gave it exceptional ground clearance, the Schwimmwagen was as much mountain goat as it was fish.
OWN WORST ENEMY
The Schwimmwagen’s use of carry-over Beetle components also made it an outlier in German military terms — it was a simple vehicle, although not one that could be easily mass-produced. The tendency amongst German engineers and designers at the time was to try and re-invent the wheel (look at the difficult history of Willy Messerschmitt’s plans to replace his Bf109 and Bf110 fighter aircraft with ever-more torturously complicated designs) and essentially engineer themselves into corners.
This tendency was, in large part, responsible for an inherent weakness in the German army’s fighting doctrine. It used too many diverse types of vehicles and weapons systems, and few had interchangeable parts. By contrast, look at the Allies — the famed Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was used by the Spitfire, of course, but also by the Mosquito, the Lancaster, the Halifax and even the North American Mustang, and parts were transferable across those different types. Likewise, the tracks on a Sherman tank were interchangeable with those of the M3 Half-Track truck, which eased supply issues and speeded-up in-field repairs. And, of course, there’s the Jeep itself. By war’s end, more than 600,000 Jeeps had been produced. They were ubiquitous amongst the American, British, Canadian and Free French armies which liberated Western Europe. There was an amphibious Jeep too, inevitably called the ‘Seep’ (short for Swimming Jeep), but it was only produced in tiny numbers and saw little action. Rather than amphibious vehicles, the Allied armies saw more value in building up engineering units which could string a pontoon bridge across a river or other water obstacle within a few hours, all the better to get heavy vehicles such as tanks and half-tracks across in force.
The Schwimmwagen, then, of which a mere fourteen thousand units were produced, was a failure? Well, thankfully, yes it was — we’d be living in quite a different world if it had been a success, but defeat for Germany and the Nazis doesn’t mean the Type 166 was a poor design. Far from it. In fact, after the war, the US Army took a captured Schwimmwagen home and, at the General Motors proving ground in Michigan, put it through its paces against a Jeep.
The results were startling. “The vehicle covered the mud and hilly route with much greater ease and smoothness than the American Jeep” reads the official report. “The vehicle was impressive for the manner in which it was manoeuvred by its front wheels in the water, its steadiness in the water, and the ease with which it entered and left the lake. The general overall performance was highly satisfactory for the purpose of reconnaissance, for which it was designed.”
The US Army was also impressed with the Schwimmwagen’s efficiency, for compared to the unloved amphibious version of the Jeep (a classic military boondoggle of a design, if ever there was one) the Type 166 weighed half as much and had as good a power-to-weight ratio as the 2.2-litre Jeep, in spite of the Porsche design’s Beetle-based 25bhp 1,132cc flat-four engine. There were criticisms though, which will be familiar to owners of early Beetles: the brakes were considered inadequate, while the rear suspension design was reckoned to allow the car to steer too sharply. Today, there are thought to be as few as two hundred Schwimmwagens remaining worldwide. Rarity has driven values sky-high, as much as £100,000 for a well-restored survivor. Compare this to less than half the cost for an immaculate Jeep.
Such thoughts of future values were probably far from the minds of Ferdinand and Ferry Porsche when they languished in a French jail after VE-Day, imprisoned for war crimes. Still, the excellence of the Schwimmwagen’s basic design proves, whatever the political background, good engineering will always endure.
Above The presence of a wooden oar didn’t exactly instil confidence in the vehicle’s ability to push through water without assistance from its crew. Above US army was impressed with how well the Porsche design operated in water, faring much better than the amphibious Jeep. Above Surviving examples of the Porsche-penned Schwimmwagen are now collectors items changing hands for serious money.
Above and below Beetle underpinnings are clear to see in this amphibious personnel carrier, which used its front wheels for steering on land and in water and carried an engine-driven propellor.
Above Schwimmwagen was a simple design, somewhat unusual for the German military, which tended to overcomplicate engineering.