Friday, March 03, 2006

The British Major and the Factory

Text and photo from Volkswagen AG.
Volkswagen AG commemorates Ivan Hirst and its British roots

Lecture at Volkswagen AG Historical Communications on the occasion of Major Ivan Hirst’s ninetieth birthday.


Wolfsburg, 03 March 2006 - Had he been alive, Ivan Hirst would have celebrated his 90th birthday on 1 March 2006. 60 years ago as a young British major he laid the foundation for Volkswagen’s success. In honour of the occasion, historian Ralf Richter of Göttingen’s Georg-August University gave a talk on British officer Ivan Hirst and outlined the period during which the Volkswagen plant was under the British government’s management. Richter was the first recipient of the Ivan Hirst Prize awarded by Volkswagen. Following a stay at Oxford, Richter came out with a biography of the British major.

“We were just the trustees”, stressed Ivan Hirst every time he was asked in interviews about his activity at Volkswagen in the early postwar years. He saw himself as a trustee temporarily responsible for looking after someone else’s property. In actual fact, the officer of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corps (REME) – which was responsible for the maintenance and repair of technical equipment – paved the way for Volkswagen to progress from what was in 1945/46 an operation with an uncertain future to become an exceedingly successful commercial enterprise playing a key role in Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder or economical miracle of the 1950s.

Born in 1916 the son of a family that owned a watch factory near Manchester, Ivan Hirst got to know everyday factory life at an early age, and also developed a passion for cars. He studied Optical Engineering Science in Manchester, in the course of which he joined an officer’s training camp organized by the university. He knew about Germany by way of his family’s business connections as well as a semester he spent there.

Hirst subsequently went to Germany with the REME Corps, and in early August 1945 the 29 year-old major was assigned to head the Volkswagen Plant for the Allies. On 22 August an order came in for 20,000 Volkswagen saloons; this heralded the start of a new era for the factory situated on the eastern fringe of the British occupied zone.

Hirst soon became very popular with the Volkswagen employees, as reflected in the lavish birthday card he received from them in 1946. He was seen by the people there as representing the hopes of a perspective, both for themselves personally as well as for the factory. “Hirst was a pragmatist”, is historian Richter’s assessment. “He was a highly motivated man of extraordinary capabilities, and he virtually lived for Volkswagen.” And that was reassuring for all concerned.

In the interests of making Volkswagen capable of competing and establishing itself in the world market, the British developed and put in place a quality policy, ensured a tightly knit sales and service network, enabled free elections for workforce representatives in November 1945 and gave Volkswagen its first chances for export activity. In his function as trustee, Hirst made it his objective to put the revived factory back into German hands at the earliest possible moment. On 8 October 1949 the British military government handed the trusteeship to the federal government and commissioned the federal state of Lower Saxony with the administration. Volkswagen went into the fast lane.

Hirst initially continued his professional career after 1949 with the British army before leaving to work for the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) in 1955. In 1976 he retired from working life and, until his death in March 2000, lived in the vicinity of the town in which he was born, namely Oldham near Manchester.

Since then, Volkswagen AG Historical Communications has been awarding the Ivan Hirst Prize in commemoration of the trustee and company manager to young scientists involved with the topic of automobility. Ralf Richter, who gave the lecture, was the first winner of this award. His scholarly biography of the British officer who put Volkswagen on course for the future is entitled “Ivan Hirst – British Officer and Manager of Volkswagen’s Postwar Recovery” and published by the Historical Communications department as part of the Historical Notes series. It is available in German and English.

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