Coachbuilt automobiles in Germany prior to World War Two were primarily built for the elite. Huge custom one off creations showed the status of industrialists, actors, and aristocrats. Maybach, Horch, Bentley, Bugatti, and even Cadillac Chassis' were all offered with custom German bodies created by talented and creative German coachbuilding firms. These coachbuilders were at the top of their form in the late thirties and early 1940's. Their only true pre-war competition came from the French Talbot Lagos, Delahayes, and Voisons.
But WWII would change everything. Production of automobiles was controlled by the occupying forces and only certain companies were allowed to obtain the permits necessary to produce new cars. Labor was cheap but materials were hard to come by. Many companies that had, prior to the war, specialized in building large luxurious cars were now financially strapped and searching for commissions. Those that could not adapt to the needs of the post war era would find themselves obsolete. Instead of building expensive coachbuilt Mercedes, Daimlers, Maybachs or Horchs, what was needed were smaller, sportier, less expensive cars.
Friedrich Rometsch began his coachbuilding business in Berlin in 1924. He supplied elaborate taxi bodies for various German manufacturers including Opel and Ley. During WWII Rometsch built mobile field kitchens for the German army. After the war Rometsch resumed his automobile coachbuilding business.
Berlin native, Johannes Beeskow began working for the coachbuilder Josef Neuss in 1925 at the age of 14. Simultaneously Beeskow entered the Citizens of Berlin Institute of Coachbuilding school, taking classes at night. Beeskow went on to design many of the large coachbuilt cars built on Rolls Royce, Horch, Bentley or Maybach chassis for Neuss through the thirties and early 40's. Neuss eventually retired and his concerns were taken over by Erdman and Rossi. Beeskow continued to design for the new larger firm.
But after the war everything would change. Gasoline rationing and foreign occupation seriously hindered the sales of new cars in Germany . Only commercial vehicles could get gas. This produced some work for coachbuilders, but not enough. There are stories of beautiful coachbuilt Maybach cars being converted to trucks in the forties… having their back ends cut off and flat beds installed behind the front seat so that their owners could obtain the rationing allowance that would enable them to use their cars. New coachbuilts were unheard of. Erdmann and Rossi would eventually close and Beeskow would be forced to move on.
In 1949 Beeskow approached Friederich Rometsch and convinced him to build a production run of coachbuilt cars based on the Volkswagen chassis. Prior to this coachbuilders had primarily built one-off cars. But new times necessitated new thinking. Beeskow's decision to utilize Volkswagen as the main parts supply greatly simplified Rometsch's coachbuilding task and spawned the beginning of a new era for Rometsch.
So, in 1950, Rometsch Karrosserie became one of the first coachbuilding concerns to produce a production run of cars. But they were not alone. Along with Rometsch were Karmann, Dannenhauer und Stauss, Drews, Denzel, Beutler, Wendler, Hebmuller and Porsche… all producing small sporting cars based on VW components. Most of these are sadly unknown.
(For the sake of clarity Porsche was actually an engineering firm rather than a coachbuilder. Karl Ludvigson, author of “Excellence was Expected” (the largest reference book on Porsche)states that the 1947 designed car most often considered the first true Porsche, a roadster 356-01 was actually a design study proposed to VW. Even the later 1948 Porsches use VW engines, transmissions and suspension while the bodies were built by independent coachbuilders Beutler, Kastenhofer, Keibl, Tatra, and Reutter.)
Rometsch first displayed the “Sport Cabriolet” in 1950 at the Berlin Motor show. They had been so busy building the car they still did not have a price. So… when German film star Victor de Kowa asked to buy the show car Beeskow and Rometsch had to quickly decide the price… the men glanced over at the Porsche stand and looked at Porsche's new cabriolet…DM 8250,00… and right then and there the new Rometsch Beeskow “Sports Cabriolet” became DM 8250,00! That was a lot of money at that time (a Volkswagen beetle was DM 4740,00)
Rometsch proceeded with production of the cars immediately. The Beeskow model would go on to win the coveted “Golden Rose of Geneva” during the 1953 Geneva Auto Show. The coupe version would win this award again, two years later. Beeskow cars went on to win a great number of Concours events around Europe and later the US . Only minor changes in the dash, bumpers and windshield design would occur over the 7 years of production.
At first Rometsch was able to buy the chassis and running gear directly from the VW dealer network but after a time VW cut off supply. Heintz Nordhoff, the CEO of VW, was closely following the production of various coachbuilders and realized that there was sufficient enthusiasm for a small sportier VW and decided VW should build it's own model. From then on he prohibited the direct sale of chassis to Rometsch.
Rometsch, unable to get new chassis anymore, was forced to buy complete cars from dealers. At first they would just send a company employee to a friendly Berlin VW dealer and buy a brand new Beetle. But after a while Nordhoff even prohibited the dealers from selling cars to Rometsch. So Rometsch was forced to give cash to his employees so they could buy the cars in their names and bring them back to the Rometsch facility. Another tactic was to have the customer supply a new or used car to Rometsch as a base car. It is because of this that the VW chassis numbers are often out of order with the Rometsch body numbers. Rometsch's records even indicate the price obtained for the left over beetle body shells removed from the chassis at the start of the build process.
At one point a Swedish businessman wanted to start a dealer network in Sweden and planned to order 100 cars. When Nordhoff found this out he used VW's political connections to prohibit Rometsch from obtaining an export license for Sweden . Fortunately Rometsch was located in the US controlled portion of Berlin and Rometsch found a group of Americans that wanted to start a dealership in North Hollywood . There was nothing Nordhoff could do about this as the cars were sold to US citizens stationed in Berlin and then exported by those American citizens to the US dealership.
Eventually VW's answer to the Rometsch emerged as the Karmann Ghia. VW had contracted the Italian Studio “Ghia” to design this car and it was penned by Ghia's Luigi Segre. VW contracted Karmann, a coachbuilder competitor of Rometsch to build the sleek Italian designed Ghia. Karmann in 1956 hired Beeskow away from Rometsch to help them with their design efforts. Beeskow designed the elegant convertible topped version of Luigi Segre's Karmann built coupe.
Herr Beeskow would continue to work for Karmann for many years… most notably on the mid and late 1960's BMW Karmann built coupes. He still lives in Osnabruck with his wife. He is in his 90's now but often can be seen at old car meets.
In 1957 Rometsch replaced the Beeskow model with an entirely new body style penned by Berlin designer Burt Lawrence. The Lawrence car was much more “American” looking and not as successful a design as the Beeskow car. The car sold little to none in the US … but did better in Germany . It was redesigned slightly in 1960. Soon, however, none of that would matter. The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 cut off most of the Rometsch employees from their workplace… effectively ending production of the cars. Rometsch did continue as a body shop… but was never quite the same. The Rometsch Company doors were finally closed in the early 2000's and the remaining body tools, car body bucks, signage etc. were bought by a German car collector Traugott Grundmann and are now on display in his private museum in Hessich Oldendorf.
There are various disagreements as to the number of Beeskow models actually built… often a number of 500 is used… but by assembling data collected from the remaining cars as well as testimony from ex-Rometsch employees we can assume that approx. 175 to 200 cars were built. During the late 40's and through the fifties Rometsch also built short production runs of various designs for other companies such as Fiat, Borgward, and Hansa. Additionally Rometsch built a four door version of the Beetle to be used primarily as a taxi. All these cars together may be the where the 500 number comes from.
Of the 175 –200 Beeskow cars built only around 30 remain. Their demise was most likely due to their fragile construction. The aluminum body… wrapped around a steel wire frame over a wooden subframe… suffered from a variety of ailments. Worst of which was electrolysis of the aluminum. That, wood rot or rust slowly destroyed any Rometsch not cared for over the last 50 years. Of the 30 cars remaining most are in need of a lot of restoration. There are only twelve Beeskows in running, driving restored condition in the world.
The Rometsch Beeskow is a rare and pretty little sports car. It is virtually unknown but you can see bits of it's styling in the design of many later German cars most notably the fender of the 300SL (penned 2 years later than the Beeskow). Even in the 1990's Freeman Thomas (then director of Design for VW's Simi Valley Design studio, now VP of design at Daimler Chysler) admits to looking closely at the Beeskow while designing the Audi TT. The Rometsch Beeskow and it's other coachbuilt cousins helped bring back creativity to the auto industry in Germany after WWII and these cars today are a small but very handsome part of automot
Eric Meyer, California , 2004