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Maj. Ivan Hirst, Who Saved Volkswagen, Is Dead at 84

 

By Phil Patton,, March 22, 2000

Major Ivan Hirst, the British Army officer responsible for getting the Volkswagen factory running again after World War II in what is now Wolfsburg, Germany, died March 10 at his home near Marsden, in Yorkshire, England. He was 84.

Without his efforts, Volkswagen probably could never have shifted from its failed dream of producing a people's car for the Third Reich into the economic powerhouse that built the Beetle, the symbol of German recovery.

"Anyone who drives a VW owes a lot to Major Hirst," said Ryan Lee Price, editor of VW Trends magazine, a publication for Beetle owners.

Ivan Hirst was born March 4, 1916, in Saddleworth, England. He studied at the University of Manchester and worked for a time in his family's optical instrument business.

He turned a youthful interest in motor vehicles into an assignment in the tank repair service for the British Army during the war.

Part of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, he was evacuated at Dunkirk after the fall of France in 1940.

Later transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he returned to Europe as head of a tank repair group in Brussels.

It was from there that he was ordered in August 1945 to the former "Strength Through Joy" City, a sprawling forced-labor factory between Berlin and Hanover. The city was soon renamed Wolfsburg.

Captured by the Americans, the mile-long, bombed-out plant Hitler had built was then turned over to the British.

The plant's last wartime products were parts for V-1 rocket bombs and stoves for soldiers on the Eastern front. The work was done by about 15,000 slave laborers, prisoners of war and others.

Sent to the plant without orders, Major Hirst found the workers still there and on his own initiative decided to use them. In his repair and motor pool service, he found fearful ex-Nazi administrators, refugees from the Soviet sector 15 miles to the east and former slave laborers mingled suspiciously in an economy where the prime currency was American cigarettes.

The slave laborers were soon sent home.

Major Hirst recalled in a 1962 magazine article that he and his commanding officer, Col. Michael McEvoy, who had driven an early version of the Volkswagen in 1938, spray-painted army green one of the few Beetles around and drove it to their local headquarters.

In September 1945 the two officers persuaded the British military to place an order for 20,000 vehicles to serve local troops and officials.

Without that order the machinery in the plant would probably have been disbursed among the occupying powers and the factory shut forever.

Major Hirst scrounged steel and other rare materials to keep the plant going.

By 1946, 8,000 workers were producing 1,000 vehicles a month.

In January 1949, Major Hirst helped recruit Heinrich Nordoff to take over management of the company, and he led VW until 1968.

Major Hirst left in August 1949 when the company was set up as a trust run by the new West German government.

Mr. Nordhoff later said that "by one of the ironic jokes history is sometimes tempted to produce, it was the occupation powers who brought Hitler's dream into reality."

In another twist of fate, after 1945 the British motor industry proceeded to decline while the German automobile industry that Major Hirst helped revive flourished, leading the so-called German economic miracle of the 1950's.

Sir William Rootes, a longtime leader of the British auto industry, told Major Hirst his factory would collapse within two years. A formal engineering evaluation of the Volkswagen undertaken by the British military also found little potential, declaring "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirements of a motorcar."

"It is quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer, is too ugly and too noisy," he continued, then added famously, "If you think you're going to build cars in this place, you're a bloody fool, young man."

"It was by no means a perfect car," acknowledged Major Hirst in a 1999 BBC interview, "But in its time it was a damn good little car."

In 1972, the original Beetle surpassed the Model T as the most- produced car ever; to date, about 22 million have been made and limited production continues in Puebla, Mexico.

William Bowman of St. Louis, a collector of old Volkswagens, was one of a group of Beetle fans who visited Major Hirst last summer.

"He was sharp as a tack and had wonderful stories," Mr. Bowman recalled of an evening spent with the major in a pub in Marsden.

"He couldn't understand why we thought what he had done was such a big deal," Mr. Bowman said.

A familiar figure at the pub, with his clipped white mustache, ascot and pipe, Major Hirst reminisced until nearly midnight.

After leaving the army, Major Hirst worked for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

He retired in 1975 and his wife, Marjorie, died some years ago. He had no children.


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov