Beleaguered Beetle Refuses to be Beaten

The sole surviving VW39 prototype has been bombed and burnt out in its time, but now it lives once again to tell a fascinating tale

It may “only” be a Beetle, but this is one of the world’s most historically important cars, being the sole survivor of the fourteen Ferdinand Porsche-designed VW39 pre-production prototypes.

It’s now on its third life, having been buried during a World War Two bombing raid and then caught up in the 2011 fire of the large private historic car collection it was part of.

Its chassis number 1-00003 marks it as the “high-speed variant” of the planned run of 50 V39 prototypes, which followed the initial V1, the three V3s, 30 V30s and 44 V38s. The V39s were intended to be the final iteration before production started, using machine tools for the first time for the prototypes – but the outbreak of war curtailed the production run after just 14 had been made.

This car had been fitted with a version of the engine used in the famous Type 64 Berlin-Rome record car. Its 32bhp allowed the 695kg VW39 to achieve a heady 90mph. Ferdinand Porsche and son Ferry are said to have frequently driven the car between the production location in Zuffenhausen – the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, which was still under construction – and the capital Berlin.

Its final journey was to the headquarters of the German Labour Front in Berlin, possibly to go on show to potential customers. It was later retrieved from the bombed-out ruins of the building, badly damaged and without its engine.

Around this time, Volkswagen dealer Gerhard von Raffay made a public appeal to find the earliest existing VW, which resulted in him buying 1-00003 (in fact, earlier cars do exist, including a convertible built for the factory’s cornerstone-laying ceremony and later gifted to Hitler, and a VW38, both now VW owned).

Von Raffay rebuilt 1-00003 using later-model parts where necessary, painted it grey and used it to promote the Raffay dealership. It became part of an extensive family collection in Hamburg, which included the 1900/ 1901 hybrid Lohner-Porsche as well as Bugattis, Maseratis and Austro-Daimlers. In 2011, a fire broke out that destroyed much of the collection.

The remains of 1-00003 were bought five years ago by the founders of Hamburg’s Automuseum Prototyp, Thomas König and Oliver Schmidt. Many components had to be specially made, and a prototype engine already owned by the museum has been fitted to return it to its 1939 spec. It’s now on permanent display at the museum.