This Incredibly Obscure Air-Cooled VW-Powered Truck Does Something Only One Other Air-Cooled VW Ever Did

Miag Top

I feel the same way about obscure vehicles that are powered by air-cooled Volkswagen engines that my dog does about anything found on the ground that once emerged from an animal’s anus: it demands immediate and intense focused attention. I’ve certainly written about many of these in the past, but somehow I’ve encountered yet another one I’d missed before, and this one features a technical detail I’ve only seen on one of these strange VW flat-four-powered things before. It’s a fascinating, strange, and simple workhorse of a vehicle called a MIAG Motor-Karren, so position yourself over the nearest fainting-couch and get ready to be wowed.

Miag Brochure1

As you can see the by the pictures, the MIAG was a luxurious, refined, high-speed, long-distance Autobahn burner, an early 1950s GT car, one that rivaled – okay, okay, I can’t keep that up. Of course it’s not that. It’s the exact opposite: a low-speed, heavy-hauling little work beast.

These are the sorts of machines MIAG has been making since about 1922: tractors, haulers, forklifts, basically things to move other things. The company is still big and huge and thriving today, and on their history section I learned fascinating things like, somehow, the first “explosion proof” diesel forklift didn’t come out until 1962? Miag Catalog


Were forklifts exploding all over the place in the 1950s?

Forklift fireworks aside, the vehicle I want to talk about today, this 1953 MIAG Motor-Karren, seen on an auction site for sale. It’s interesting to me for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it’s powered by a Beetle engine, a 25-horsepower 1131cc air-cooled flat-four, but it’s how it’s powered by it that I find incredible.

You see, with only one exception I can think of – a Kristi KT-series snow vehicle –the Motor-Karren is the only vehicle that used the air-cooled VW engine in a transverse layout. And, it’s even more of a “pure” transverse setup than the Kristi snow vehicle.


You see, the Kristi’s transverse VW engine was powering hydraulic pumps that did all the work to move the treads and everything, so it wasn’t exactly a direct drive kind of situation. On the MIAG, though, the engine is connected to a stock VW transaxle, but one that’s modified in some really, really strange ways.

First, there’s that Rube Goldberg-looking 90° shift linkage, and then on what would normally be a Beetle’s left-side swing-arm driveshaft to the wheel, here that output goes to a differential on the rear axle via a driveshaft. I’m can’t really tell here if there’s any power take-off from the output on the other side, but it doesn’t look like it; it would be easy to make this a 4WD vehicle with an output to a front axle, though, if desired, I’d think.


I just can’t get over how strange that engine looks just hanging out under the bed of the truck, between the wheels, sideways. This has to be the only transverse-mid-engine-rear-drive air-cooled VW-powered anything, ever.

So what was this thing for, exactly? Miag Brochure12

Well, this brochure, helpfully translated by auction site Get Your Classic, where these pictures also came from, gives some insight:

It is a new development in the field of local transport, both in factory and local traffic. Its high load capacity of 2000 kg and its economical speed of 25 kilometres per hour at full load, even on normal gradients, requires its use in all companies where the electric vehicle is uneconomical due to insufficient kilometric performance and too low driving speed, and where no sufficient tonnage performance of the vehicle can be achieved.

The MIAG motor trolley is also the ideal means of transport for local transport, from the factory to the railway station, for general cargo transport, etc. Its training with a driver’s seat allows it to be used in all companies where the electric vehicle is uneconomical due to insufficient kilometric performance and low driving speed. Its design with a driver’s seat allows a co-driver to be carried along; the low platform height facilitates loading and unloading by hand. The great manoeuvrability allows transport even in narrow factory roads. The clear view from the driver’s seat and the favourable access are particularly advantageous.

The drive is the proven 25 hp VW engine unit, consisting of an original “VW engine” with VW manual gearbox. The power is transmitted by means of a cardan shaft to a powerful rear axle with bevel gear and differential gear. The vehicle has four-wheel servo brakes, furthermore automotive steering, make Fulmina. It also has full electrical equipment with electric starter and road lighting. -The fuel consumption is very favourable for this load class, but it depends on the mode of operation. The so-called standard consumption with 2000 kg load on level ground on good roads is only about 9 litres/100 km. In practical factory operation with short-distance traffic, however, the consumption is about 13-16 litres/100 km at full load.

So, as you likely guessed, local transport, the sort of thing you might use on factory grounds or in a factory or some other similar kind of facility, like a warehouse or maybe a zoo with a lot of lazy hippos. This little brute could carry over 4,000 pounds at about 15 mph, and get about 26 mpg doing it. That’s pretty damn good from a 25 hp truck in the early 1950s!

Also interesting is how it’s being compared to similar electric work vehicles, where it’s compared favorably on the metrics of speed and hauling, but, interestingly, not range.

Miag Frontqtr

These remind me a bit of the dirt-simple Plattenwagen transport vehicles the VW factory built for its own internal use, only re-configured to provide a more conventional truck-style layout.

This is an incredibly rare and unusual air-cooled VW-powered machine, and shows how versatile that humble, noisy little air-sucker of an engine was, and how vast and varied the spectrum of what a truck is can be. It’s also interesting to see how these sorts of commercial applications of the VW formula continued after VW’s own Type 2 Transporter vans and trucks were introduced in 1950, because even a flexible platform like that couldn’t really fill extremely specialized niches like this one.

Someone should buy this amazing little mechanical work-frog of a truck, even if only to watch that hilarious shift linkage in action.

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40 Responses

  1. I’m surprised it isn’t a 4×4, when I saw the sideways transaxle I thought “Oh, of course, they flipped it sideways so they could send power in both directions,” but nope. That is weird. I always figured a FWD transaxle mounted longitudinally would be the easiest way to make a homemade AWD setup, and this is so close to that that it’s bothering me that it isn’t.

  2. I’m really curious about what they did with the other output, too. Wouldn’t fixing it to not move put the stress on gears not built to handle serious stress?

    It looks way sad in the last picture. Like it’s bored and needs something heavy to transport

    1. Locking up one output shaft makes the other spin faster right (or is it backwards)?
      In any case you’re right.The diff’s inner gears would be spinning constantly- something a normal diff rarely does

      1. Surely they must have replaced the diff with a pair of bevel gears or something? Short of some kind of institution dedicated to preserving and conveying automotive obscura getting in contact with the winner of the auction to document exactly how the oily bits are set up, which would surely be madness, it seems likely we will sadly never know.

      2. I’m thinking it still spins the same direction: my air-cooled vws could spin 1 tire on ice with the other not moving, and the spinning tire was in the correct direction.

        Yeah, that’s what I was thinking: the pinion set is fairly hefty, but the spider gears not as much

    1. Yes exactly. You can use it in e.g. factories where there may be combustible vapors floating around, without blowing the roof off the building. Pretty much any industrial thing you can imagine has a (very expensive and often comparatively crude) explosion-proof equivalent. See also beryllium-copper hand tools.

    2. Came here to say this. Specifically it means that it does not provide a source of ignition.

      For example an explosion proof flashlight is completely sealed so if anything in the electronics get damaged a flammable atmosphere can’t reach the spark.

      For a forklift I’d imagine it’d involve doing something similar on the electronics (if any), probably doing something creative with the exhaust like check valves to ensure that anything in the air can’t blackflow up the exhaust pipes, making sure none of the mechanical parts can create a spark from metal on metal contact and probably some other stuff I’m not thinking of.

  3. Egad, is the engine just…exposed to the elements & people up to no good? It’s one thing for, say, a rail buggy or a Meyers Manx to have the engine so exposed but that’s in the back & usually with some modicum of protection such as a rear bumper but quite another thing for this vehicle to have its engine to be just hanging out there virtually mid-air without much if any by way of protection (unless the bedside is hanging down which wouldn’t always be the case.)
    As for exploding forklifts being endemic in the 1950s one guess would be that there was a need for equipment that didn’t rely on electricity in facilities like flour mills or sawmills with a lot of fine dust or mines with explosive gases? Diesels would fit the bill given that they don’t always need to rely on electrical systems involving spark plugs, alernators/generators, & batteries.

  4. Speaking of things with a VW motor: some trolley busses in Switzerland had (still have?) a backup gas engine that allowed them to crawl at low speed around obstructions with their trolley poles lowered. Based on the noise they made, I’m 90% sure they were VW flat four. I don’t know if they were air-cooled though… I have yet to find any information on them or better still a video of them in action.

  5. On seeing my first thought was that something rare in an air cooled VW was front engine and front wheel drive. This raises the question of what is?the third vehicle to use a Beetle power pack in FF after the Tempo Matador and Volkswagen Gol?

  6. What really astounds me is that they passed up a perfectly good chance to make it awd! I’ve always wanted to grab a transaxle and mount it sideways to get awd like Dird Everyday did in their Rav4, but never once thought of doing it with an already longitudinal one. It’s a hell of an exercise in cost saving but the presence of TWO 90 degree power transfers sends me up the wall on this one.

  7. There was a small French military 4wd vehicle that used a Citroen 2CV flat twin, mounted transversely with the former left and right driveshafts powering front and rear differentials.
    I can’t remember what it was called.

    1. First thing I thought of too, although not so much the Austin Powers example. It seems like every James Bond-style movie villain with an underground lair and an army of henchmen in identical jumpsuits had this style of vehicle for moving said henchmen, or the occasional A-bomb.

    1. I’ve only ever worked with/used electric forklifts, myself. Propane does seem to be the standard for IC ones although I suppose gasoline or diesel’s available for a unit that’ll be used in a lumber yard or some other outdoor setting.

  8. Having owned a VW van in the 70’s, I can confirm those payload and speed specs.

    I want to know more about exploding forklifts. Where are they now? We need more of these. Live a little!

    Also, will this Karren come to the airport and deal with the agent trying to bump me off my flight again?

    1. My first thought was that it was something oddly mistranslated from German by a non-native speaker, but if that were the case surely DT would’ve dropped an explanatory editor’s note.

  9. When I saw the headline I was going to guess the answer to “what only one other air-cooled VW did” was properly defrost the windshield… but then I saw that this thing has no windshield. Darn.

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