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Karl Meier: Design engineer with Volkswagen
"We hereby confirm your appointment as interior design engineer on a gross monthly salary of 430 Reichsmark under the conditions negotiated and for a trial period of three months from March 1st, 1939." The recipient of this letter from the Volkswagen works on February 13th, 1939 was Karl Meier, the later founder of KAMEI. Born in the Saarland, Karl Meier had trained as a motor mechanic and afterwards specialized in car body construction. But it was not long before his attention switched to folding roofs and interior design. His journeyman years took him to Switzerland, where he worked with the car tuners Gigax, and to the famous car body manufacturers Spohn in Ravensburg. In 1936 he joined Opel as a member of the design team that banished wood from the interior of the first Kadett. Meier, meanwhile a fully fledged design engineer, belonged to the elite circle of the association created with Ferdinand Porsche's support to design Germany's first "people's car". In 1939 he then left Rüsselheim to take up his appointment with the Volkswagen project in today's Wolfsburg. Starting here as VW Employee No.12, he participated in the development of the legendary amphibious "Schwimmwagen 166". In Wolfsburg he was also the author of countless suggestions for improvement. These were rewarded in cash up to February 1945 and after that with a packet of cigarettes.
Upholsterers in a wooden shed
Dissatisfied with his career prospects in the Volkswagen works under the Allied military government and brimming as always with new ideas, Meier joined forces with Heinrich Schwen. Schwen was head of training at Volkswagen for a number of years and assembled utility vehicles and even a coupé on a VW chassis out of any parts he could lay his hands on, old or new. Karl worked with him, enthusiastically constructing and designing. The coupé, of which only two were built, was given what Meier called "bodyform seats", in principle the prototype for today's car seats. They also constructed a racing car on a VW chassis, called the "Tatzelwurm", a pre-predecessor of the later Formel V and 100% handmade. When Schwen came to grief in the currency reform and Volkswagen was no longer prepared to tolerate him on their doorstep, Karl Meier rescued what he could from the remains of the Schwen venture and set up his own business in a wooden shed. In this "workshop", equipped with a sewing machine, some VW seats, miscellaneous bits and pieces and a good supply of junk, Karl set to work with a starting capital of 50 Reichsmark. Combining every function from managing director to upholsterer in his own person, he soon added a burnt-out wharehouse to the enterprise. His sons Klaus and Uwe were integrated at an early age. Klaus was put to painting seat frames after school. These were then upholstered in a fabric known as 'Pepper & Salt'. Nothing was wasted: school clothes for the boys were made from the rest of the same material. The stylish seats were so popular that Meier decided to make removable covers. It was not long before 30 seamstresses were turning out covers for 15 Volkswagens per day. Meier's idea soon found industrial imitators who could produce in larger quantities and at a lower price. The family put away the sewing machines and Karl concentrated on other interior design products for Volkswagens. These were so successful that some – for example, the accelerator pedal that replaced the roller – were adopted in the Beetle series, while others have become an integral part of present-day car production.
KAMEI: From slumber rolls to headrests
1952 saw the official birth of KAMEI (KArl MEIer), manufacturers of practical - primarily only interior - car accessories. From his beginnings with seat covers Meier brought off one Beetle-interior sensation after another with his side pockets, shelves, trunk liners, hat holders, supports for every part of the human anatomy, adjustable seats (Meier took out the original patent for these) and even a vase complete with holder. His famous "Schlummerrolle" (slumber roll) provoked criticism that it would promote driver fatigue. Meier's answer was typically brief and to the point: "To concentrate properly on the traffic a driver must be comfortable and relaxed. The roll also supports the back of the neck in an accident." He lost no time following up this safety aspect and was the first manufacturer to supply safety headrests – today obligatory in cars all over the world. Kamei had long since grown out of the original wooden shed and moved to a former window-frame factory. Up until 1978 these premises, christened the "Car Idea Powerhouse" by Karl's younger son Uwe, saw the birth of a series of amazing products that have in many cases determined the course of tuning history.
KAMEI "Horizontal Stabilizer": 1953 Premiere of the original Spoiler
In the last days of the war, when the Volkswagen factory manufactured wings for Junkers, Karl Meier had also gained some experience in aircraft construction. Although he was only marginally concerned with aerodynamics at the time, this knowledge was later to play an important role in the KAMEI success story. Irritated in the early fifties by the tail weight of the VW Beetle and its unstable handling, particularly at speeds around 100 km/h – which was really pushing it in those days – Meier came up with a remedy. He constructed a "horizontal stabilizer". Today this aerodynamic aid is known as a spoiler. To test the market for his "stabilizer" and at the same time bring his Interior Extras into the limelight, Meier set out for the Geneva Salon in 1953. Barred from exhibiting inside the famous gates for want of the necessary funds for entry he simply declared a few square meters of roadside in front of the Salon as his outdoor exhibition site. He was nevertheless unable to convince his contemporaries of the advantages of his strange gadget and so the original spoiler was packed away until its time was ripe. 25 years later it was hard to imagine cars without spoilers and at high speeds they were imperative. Not surprisingly, KAMEI was one of the leading manufacturers right from the start.
From floormats to foot supports – KAMEI made them all
As early as the fifties the KAMEI programme included mats and liners for all parts of the vehicle and special supports for the clutch foot. In 1955 the first reclining seats for the Beetle came onto the market – made by KAMEI. For those without the benefit of a garage – and this was the vast majority - Meier recommended a protective hood for roof and windows against bad weather. A firm believer in practical solutions, he expelled bulky and excess luggage onto the roof, not forgetting to construct an appropriate, flutterfree protective cover complete with roof rack – the predecessor of today's roofbox. To test the response to his products amongst insider clientele, Karl Meier sent his sons around the VW employee parking lots to distribute KAMEI pamphlets. These windscreen dispatches did not miss their mark. Where demand existed, production could begin.