This survivor is one of just 2000 proto-Beetles ever built

Photography by Marius Viken

How do you collect something of which more than 20 million units have been built? This question crosses my mind as I’m standing in front of Øystein Asphjell’s farm, looking at the never-ending shelves of Volkswagen Beetle parts: hoods and doors, engines and transmissions. Ever since he was 16, Øystein has been fixated on Professor Ferdinand Porsche’s work.

I’m an engineer,” he says, “and I grew up with cars. My father collected them at an early age, and after beginning with American and even French cars, I ended up buying my first VW.”

Øystein is particularly interested in the simplicity of Professor Porsche’s developments. “The solutions are simple, which makes them very robust, but also ingenious,” says the lanky man in his late 40s. You can hear the admiration in his voice. 

And we, too, are here because of a Beetle, but not just any Beetle. At this June’s classic VW meet at Hessisch Oldendorf in Germany, this well-known collector stood out with one of the rarest Volkswagens in the world: a Hirst Beetle.

Created in the spring of 1946 after the British occupation forces took over the former KdF plant, Øystein’s Beetle is one of only 2000 units built between October 1945 and April 1946. “Almost all of them were wrecked early on, though, and there are maybe four or five in the world today that have survived,” Øystein explains, showing us black-and-white period photos capturing fields full of wrecked and destroyed Beetles.

That was reason enough for us to travel to Øystein’s farm northeast of Oslo and take a closer look at this ur-Beetle. It’s important to understand that a number of models were built in Wolfsburg even before actual series production began in May 1946.

Originally developed by Professor Porsche as the KdF-Wagen, the Volkswagen was promised to the German people as a gateway to mobility before there was a factory or even a car. A savings system was devised in which participants paid a monthly contribution–before and during the war–to save up for a Volkswagen they would receive at a later date. 

In total, only about 630 of these KdF cars were produced, none of which ever ended up in private hands. During the war, the KdF factory produced the four-door, all-terrain Kübelwagen and far fewer Schwimmwagen amphibious cars, all of which were intended for wartime use.

When Germany capitulated to the victorious Allied powers after the war, the city containing the KdF car and its factory fell under British occupation.

Immediately after the end of the war, in the summer of 1945, the British sent in a young major and engineer named Ivan Hirst. As a member of the British Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, he had automotive experience and was already familiar with the VW. During the war, a Kübelwagen had fallen into British hands and impressed Hirst.

The Brits wanted to dismantle the plant on the Landwehr Canal in Wolfsburg and bring it back to Great Britain as reparations. Before that, however, Hirst was given the task of building a series of VW saloons for the British occupying forces. At that time, the VW factory, although damaged, was the only halfway functioning plant capable of producing urgently needed passenger vehicles for British soldiers.

Hirst gathered a team around him, and in October 1945 they began clearing up the damaged plant. Shortly thereafter, the team produced an initial batch of 1000 Type 11 vehicles.

It’s painted like a military vehicle because it was a military vehicle. In 1945, British Major Ivan Hirst rebooted the Volkswagen factory to supply transportation to his fellow occupying soldiers.

Unlike the Type 51 with its Kübelwagen chassis, the Type 11 was the first VW sedan to have a special passenger car chassis. Later, the total number of these first examples was increased to 2000. The vehicles produced at that time were not Beetles and not yet VW 1200s, either.

Equipped with an 1100cc flat-four engine, these four-seater sedans proved very durable due to their simple construction. They were taken for any kind of mission, and many were poorly maintained and serviced. 

You also have to remember,” Øystein explains to us in his barn, “these British soldiers were used to driving right-hand-drive cars on the left side of the road. Now they sat on the left and drove on the right. That’s another reason why so few remained.”

According to the VW archives, Øystein’s car, chassis No. 1-0 55460, a Type 11 Normal, was manufactured on March 27, 1946, and delivered to the 552 Coy Royal Army Service Corps about a month later. These British military versions were all produced with olive-green livery and displayed their chassis number and affiliation on the front hood. Øystein’s reads M6255460. 

After a few years of grueling service for the British Army, No. 55460 was sold in 1951 to a U.S. soldier who took it to Iceland for his next assignment. Later, the VW was left behind and subsequently used on a farm as a working vehicle. “Without doors, because the farmer transported sheep in it,” adds Øystein with a laugh.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the military VW was relieved of its duties and, eventually, housed in the farm’s basement. Thirty years later, after the complete collapse of the Icelandic banking economy, the owner of the farm and car found himself with an €8000 plumbing bill and not enough funds to pay it.

So, the story continues, he allowed the handyman to choose four vehicles from the farm’s basement as payment. It was agreed that each car was worth 2000 euros. Among his picks was No. 55460.

“The plumber then put this rarest of early VWs up for sale on a rather obscure American platform, and fortunately I was the first to get in touch,” Øystein explains. “It quickly became apparent what he had there, and so I ended up paying him more than his requested 2000 euros.” 

After transporting the VW–at the time painted red–to Norway in the summer of 2010, Øystein began sourcing many parts. “A lot of the car is still original. For example, it still had all four rims, inscribed and date-stamped 1946,” he explains.

Many other parts, like the engine, were missing. Over the years, however, Øystein was able to locate an engine in Austria with a build date of March 28, 1946–just one day off from the chassis date. 

The front seats, also absent, needed to be sourced as well. “It’s hard to believe, but I found two in an attic of an old boathouse in the far northwest of Norway,” Øystein recalls. “Someone had taken them out of another Hirst Beetle because he wanted to put them in his motorboat but never got around to doing it.” These seats are in very good condition, but the donor car had sunk in the sea.

Like other military vehicles, No. 55460 was originally painted matte olive drab over a red primer. “What you see inside today is mostly original,” Øystein says. “There was only one coat of orange and one coat of light blue household paint on top of it, which I could easily peel off myself.” 

Restoring the exterior proved a bit more difficult. “We didn’t want to destroy the patina that tells the whole life story of this car–in Wolfsburg with the British, with the soldier in Iceland and on the farm,” he continues. 

Every blemish helps tell the story–a painter/tattoo artist used Vaseline to preserve the patina while the body was refinished–but this Beetle still gets used as intended.

Through a friend, Øystein found the Swedish painter and tattoo artist known as The Great Leif, who carried out the delicate work. He filled every paint chip with Vaseline before carefully painting the entire body. The Vaseline was then washed away, revealing the original patina. The car’s chassis and service numbers were also reapplied. 

Unlike the familiar Beetle, however, this one came sporting smaller headlights for a simple reason: The Hella and Bosch factories had been bombed and couldn’t supply any of the standard headlights for this first batch of cars, so Hirst and his men used existing Kübelwagen units. “Since they were much smaller, a donut ring like this was installed so the small headlights would fit in the big hole,” the car’s owner explains. 

“I had the rings made in Sweden by Rolf Hammarstrøm, an experienced metalworker, from brass based on copies of original drawings given to me by Christian Grundmann. On the inside of the fenders, you could still see the welding points where the brackets were attached to fix the donuts and the headlights.”

When Øystein gets into the car, he rolls down the window just a bit to let the air escape as he closes it–as millions of drivers have done. Ignition on, and a push on the Bakelite starter button brings the little flat-four to life with its oh-so-familiar rattle. 

All cars in Øystein’s collection must be drivable, and this one is no different. The fact that he took it on the road to Hessisch Oldendorf after it was restored only underscores the claim.

Although this Type 11 sedan is instantly recognizable as a Beetle, it’s different from the later cars in almost every part. The dashboard features the later VW sign–with the V above the W–for the first time as well. The three-spoke steering wheel, taken from the Kübelwagen, is a study in simplicity. 

As in all Beetles, the pedals are floor-mounted. The gear lever of the four-speed gearbox is centrally located and easily to reach. 

However, I discover one big difference from the later series: These Type 11s have no synchromesh, so I have to double-clutch. The last time I did that was some 20 years ago, so I have to learn it again for the first few kilometers.

The Hirst Beetle experience offers a unique twist on a favorite flavor: loud, alive and, thanks to the non-synchro box, very involved.

Øystein, the owner of one of the rarest and probably most expensive Beetles in the world, sits relaxed next to me and leans against the open window. Instead of worrying about my driving skills, he takes pictures of me. 

Shifting gears actually works quite easily, and soon I’m skilled in shifting without crashing. At 60 kph it’s insanely loud inside, but that doesn’t bother us. 

More than 75 years on, this grandfather of all Beetles still demonstrates the geniality of Professor Porsche’s original concept.

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David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
11/9/23 3:59 p.m.

My college roommate had a Beetle–two of them, in fact, with a 1967 eventually replaced by a ’70.

We used to go to NOPI and look at all the parts that we couldn’t afford. 

3/12/24 11:45 a.m.

What a treasure! I've owned over a dozen different VW's and everyone has had a unique story.

brownfox New Reader
3/13/24 12:00 a.m.

My first VW, in 1958, was a '51 111 (standard sedan) that wasn't far removed from this one in many respects. Followed not long after by a '53 113, then a '53 151. Fun to see this.  Wish I still had one of them, but guess I should be happy with the '69 141 that graces our garage..

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