The American jeep got most of the vehicular headlines in World War II but other vehicles fulfilled the same light reconnaissance and personnel transport role. On the German side, that vehicle was the Pkw (Personenkraftwagen, personnel carrier) Type 82, known by German soldiers as the Kübelwagen (bucket car), or Kübel for short.
The Kübel had its roots in the Volkswagen, or people’s car, a government-initiated affordable car project given to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche in 1934 to fully develop. The first cars appeared in 1938 but militaristic priorities soon overshadowed the project and few were actually delivered to German citizens before WWII began in 1939.
While on the VW project, Porsche was approached to work on a light military vehicle. In 1938, he took the basic components of the Volkswagen and integrated them into a compact personnel carrier. The first iteration was unsuccessful due to excess weight but after engaging outside help, a simple, lightweight body was developed. After testing in late 1938, the project was greenlighted for production, which began in February, 1940.
The Type 82 was two-wheel drive, despite the military originally asking for a 4x4. A 4x4 was developed but did not go into production, likely due to cost and production issues. As it was, the Type 82’s light weight, low gearing, high clearance, and ZF locking differential gave it off-road performance “comparable” to many 4x4s of the period. The Kübel was no hot rod; its 985cc air-cooled flat-four only cranked out 23.5hp, but with a 6.2:1 final drive ratio, it put just enough grunt to the ground to adequately move it’s 2,557 GVW. Empty, it weighed just less than 1,600 pounds and was easily manhandled by four passengers. It used transverse torsion bars front and rear, with a swing-axle drive setup in back. If you’ve seen under an early VW bus, you’ve essentially seen the Type 82 undercarriage.
The Kübel had the same impact on the German army as did the jeep for the Americans and it became a ubiquitous military implement. They were used on every German front, from the blistering sands of North Africa to the frozen hell of the Eastern Front, during the battles for the Continent and the German homeland. They proved remarkably capable, adaptable, and durable, far outstripping the typical military “throw-away” philosophy from which they were created.
The Type 82 remained remarkably unchanged over its approximately 51,000-unit, five-year production run. A big upgrade came in March of 1943, when the engine was enlarged from 985 to 1,131cc, upping the power to 25 net hp and the torque to 55 lb-ft. Also in 1943, the German Army’s paint scheme changed from dunkelgrau (field grey) to a dunkelgelb (field yellow). Smaller changes included the elimination of hubcaps, a new dash, a more efficient air filter, a larger fuel filler, and other, almost unnoticeable, changes.
The inevitable question is, “How did the Type 82 stack up against the WWII American jeep?” Surprisingly well, it turns out. It was far more comfortable and roomy than the jeep. Rode better, too. The Kübel’s fuel economy was lots better, delivering typical high-teens mpg in the field versus the jeep’s 10-11 mpg. On-highway, the Jeep’s 20 mpg at the standard military 45 mph gave it a 300-mile range to a dry tank on 15 gallons. The Kübel could go 285 miles on its 7.9 gallons for 35 mpg.
In most types of terrain, unladen, the two are pretty evenly matched. If you’ve ever tried to keep up with a VW-based trail buggy with your 4x4, you will know how annoyingly capable they can be. Most experts gave the overall trail performance nod to the jeep, but it wasn’t by all that much. And mostly in a few very specific circumstances. When stuck, the extra-light Kübel was very easily muscled out.
Where the jeep was all over the Kübel was towing capacity. Most Kübels were not even set up with a hitch and, when they were, capacity was minimal. Though their payload capacities on paper were close, the jeep had far more overload capacity and the power reserves to handle it. Most also agree the jeep was more durable in harsh conditions with typically harsh military drivers.
A fair number of Kübels survived the war, many doled out to put European civilians back on their wheels. New ones were assembled postwar from remaining parts stockpiles and many credit this idea from a British administrator as the starting point for the current Volkswagen company. Time and hard use have taken a big toll on a vehicle designed for a life measured in months. In the U.S.A., experts guess at about 150 Kübels present, with perhaps a few thousand worldwide. Restored units bring upwards of $40,000.
What’s a Kübel like to drive? If you’ve driven an old VW, you know. They have the same feel. They are quite zippy when not loaded but run out of wind rather quickly due to the low gears, even with their overdrive Fourth gear. Less than 50 mph is preferred, though some texts claim a 60-mph top speed. The brakes are cable/mechanical but effective. The ride is good, though stiffer than the later Beetle, and the steering is tight. Getting in and out is easy, even with military accoutrements and weapons. The Kübel concept went on to serve the reconstituted postwar German Army in the form of the ’50s-’60s 4x4 Auto Union Munga, ’70s-’80s 4x2 VW 181 (Thing), and the ’70s-’80s 4x4 VW Iltis. When you think about it, that follows the jeep’s manufacturing history pretty well. Good ideas are always useful.
Vehicle: 1944 Pkw Type 82 Kübelwagen
Owner: Steve Roersma
Estimated value: $45,000
Engine: 1.13L air-cooled flat-four, FMCV-1
Power (hp): 25 @ 3000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 55 @ 2000 rpm
Bore & stroke (in): 2.75 x 2.53
Comp. ratio: 6.1:1
Transmission: 4-spd transaxle (integral diff w/locker)
Axle ratios: 4.43:1 + 1.4:1 reduction = 6.202:1 final drive
Tires: 5.25-16 cross-ply
Wheelbase (in): 94
Passenger capacity: 4
Fuel capacity (gal): 7.9
Min. grd. clearance (in): 11.4
Approach angle (deg): 60
Departure angle (deg): 36
Curb weight (lbs): 1,597
GVW (lbs): 2,557
Top speed (mph): 50
Fuel economy (mpg): 30 (typical road)