3 German military vehicles ready for action at the 2020 Amelia Island auctions

Amelia Island, which hosts a variety of car shows and high-profile auctions every March in Florida, has become the venue to showcase German cars. While this generally means that your Porsche, BMW or Mercedes-Benz is bound to draw a fanatical crowd with deep pockets, what does it have in store for German military vehicles

Military vehicles from Germany haven’t been featured on nearly such a scale at Amelia, but in a couple weeks, Bonhams will be offering a few interesting and rarely seen pieces of such World War II hardware. All three examples featured below are from the impressive collection of Gerhard Schnuerer and are offered without reserve—an exciting opportunity for military collectors everywhere.

1945 NSU SdKfz 2 “Kettenkrad”

1945 NSU Sd. Kfz. 2 Kettenkrad

Without a doubt, this Kettenkrad is one of the most bizarre-looking vehicles being offered at the Amelia Island auctions. Part motorcycle, part tank-like thing, the name “Kettenkrad” is simply a shortening of the name “Kleines Kettenkraftrad,” which roughly translates to “light motorcycle tractor.” Let’s quickly clear up one thing: the Kettenkrad is not a tank. While it has tracks like a tank, it lacks armor and is more akin to a half-track transport.

Born out of the desire for an all-terrain, multi-purpose vehicle, Kettenkrad development began in mid-1939 at the NSU motorcycle company. The result was a small half-track vehicle utilizing power from a 36-horsepower Opel four-cylinder automotive engine. The driving position was familiar to anyone experienced in motorcycles. The saddle seat positions the driver straddling the transmission and steering through a motorcycle handlebar system. The steering operation is quite unique; you use the front wheel to do some steering but it’s assisted with a braking system like a tank to slow one track.

By 1941, the Kettenkrad was operational and put to heavy service for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Uses ranged everywhere from towing light artillery pieces, laying communications wire, supply transport, scouting and troop transport. Due to its relatively light weight, the Kettenkrad excelled at traversing the poor terrain of the Russian front where many other vehicles would easily become stuck. Towards the end of the war, the Kettenkrad was even used as a runway tug for aircraft. Due to its effectiveness during the war, Kettenkrad production briefly spun up after Germany’s surrender to serve as agricultural tractors and general utility vehicles.

Despite successful and effective use during wartime, fewer than 9000 Kettenkrads are believed to have been built both during and after the war, making them rather unusual to see today. Many reside in either museums or private military collections, so opportunities to purchase one do not pop up frequently, especially in North America. 

This example from Bonhams appears to have been well-preserved and is reportedly in running condition. It presents an opportunity for not only military collectors, but also for motorcycle collectors seeking something especially unique for their collection.

1944 Volkswagen Type 82 “Kubelwagen”

1944 Volkswagen Type 82 'Kübelwagen'

Without a doubt, the most recognizable German vehicle of the entire war, the Kubelwagen (or “Bucket Car,” apparently due to the bucket seats) was the German counterpart to the Jeep. Nevertheless, the Type 82 took a totally different design and engineering approach. While the Jeep was produced as a light truck, the Kubelwagen’s roots are even simpler; a car was its starting point.

In 1938, the German military approved an initial design put forward by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. Using the KdF-Wagen (early Beetle) as a base, an early prototype known as the Type 62 was developed. This early prototype took the basic chassis design from the KdF, along with its 985-cc air-cooled engine, and upgraded the transaxle with a ZF self-locking differential. This diff was a predecessor of a limited-slip differential (sources are unclear whether or not this specific addition was made before or after field trials). The German military reinforced the chassis to handle wartime abuse, and different, simpler body panels were constructed for mass production. Finished Type 62s were ready for field tests in time for the Polish invasion in September of 1939, where it was found to be quite capable off-road despite lacking four-wheel drive. In fact, the independent front and rear suspensions turned out to provide quite the compliant and comfortable ride. A few items, however, needed to be addressed after trials, which resulted in the new designation of Type 82 for the 62’s successor model.

After field trials, the car still needed upgrades to further refine and improve its off-road capability. The ground clearance went up, and the addition of gear reduction hubs and a modified first gear slowed down speed to match the walking pace of infantry. With these changes, the Type 82 was put into mass production in early 1940 with enough time to ramp up production for the invasion of France. Variants of the Type 82 would see service in every front with the Wehrmacht and would serve roles as troop transports, radio and command cars, ambulance, and more.

In total, Germany produced around 50,000 Type 82s during the war. While this is a far cry from the 650,000+ Jeeps produced on the other side of the conflict, it was more than enough to cement the Type 82’s reputation as a reliable and capable vehicle to both the German soldiers as well as the Allied soldiers who captured them. 

The example being offered by Bonhams appears to be the beneficiary of a beautiful restoration, and it is equipped with the more powerful 1131-cc (1.1-liter) engine installed in later variants. Opportunities to own a Kubelwagen are uncommon and this one is bound to draw plenty of attention in Florida.

1944 Volkswagen Type 166 “Schwimmwagen”

1944 Volkswagen Type 166 'Schwimmwagen'

The Schwimmwagen’s story starts at the same place as the Kubelwagen. The name translates to “Swimming Car” which perfectly encapsulates the intent of the Type 166. The Wehrmacht needed a vehicle that could serve as a go-anywhere reconnaissance car and designer Erwin Komenda took that mission to heart. 

The early Schwimmwagen, Type 128, borrowed heavily from the Type 82 Kubelwagen for the chassis and power. A watertight hull was integrated into the design for amphibious use and the driveline was upgraded to four-wheel drive to increase off road capabilities.

Testing revealed that while the concept worked, the hull was far too weak to stand rough off-roading and was prone to rupture. The solution? Reinforce the hull and shorten the wheelbase by 40 cm. Power increased with a 1131-cc engine and the improved version was named the Type 166, which was then mass produced from 1941 to 1944. Total units exceeded 15,000 and was successfully used in all European theaters of the war and in similar roles as the Kubelwagen.

Perhaps only a few hundred Schwimmwagens survive today, which makes this auction an exceedingly rare opportunity for military collectors and VW historians alike. The example offered at Bonhams received a total restoration in 2006, and it has since held up remarkably well. This is a mechanical marvel which is arguably one of the simplest and best approaches to amphibious vehicle design and production during the war.

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