When Ferdinand Porsche sat down to doodle the first sketches of what would become the Volkswagen Beetle in 1931, his goals were pretty simple. Make a simple, economical little car that a family of four could drive forever without serious problems. Cheap, reliable and capable of cruising at a blistering 62 mph. That was the plan. His car became the most popular single platform in history, selling over 21.5 million units in a production run that started a month after V-E Day and ended the same year Justin Timberlake ripped the dress off of Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl halftime show.
In 2018, Volkswagen announced it was going to discontinue the Beetle sometime in the summer. The company has no plans to replace its offering in the Beetle’s segment of the market. This is partly because everybody in America is switching to crossovers and SUVs. And partly because the world just isn’t very fair sometimes. So, to give the world’s most successful car model a proper Viking funeral, this is the history of the Volkswagen Beetle.
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The bug began in 1931 when German car designer Ferdinand Porsche started work on the Auto fur Jedermann (“Car for Everyman”), also known as the Type 12. He was working with an air-cooled flat-4 engine that chugged out maybe 25 hp. It was a gas saver that needed to be put into something lightweight. Zundapp, a design partner on the project, also had a water-cooled 5 cylinder radial to try out. The design team fooled around with various ideas for a rear-engine chassis with a swing axle lifted straight from Czech automaker Tatra, which successfully sued Volkswagen after the war for 3 million Deutschmarks. As it was, a lot of Tatra’s ideas went into the developing Type 32, as the prototypes were now known, and as many as four models were on Germany’s then-rough roads for testing by 1933.
These cars had some curious design features. Unlike most cars, then and now, they had their engines in the rear. This enormously simplified the drivetrain, let the farty little engines turn the rear wheels with a much less complex linkage system. This had some weird effects, such as making the early models unable to reverse, or when that got fixed, actually being able to go faster backward than in first gear forward. Slowly but surely, the little quirks were getting ironed out. Another offbeat element of the cars’ design was the round, almost hemispherical body. Cars of that time were mostly held up by thick sheets of iron, bolted and welded together, that provided most of the structural support. This looked really cool on the Rolls Royce Silver Spirits, but it meant you practically had to weld armor plating to your car if you wanted it not to buckle on a turn. Today’s cars are made from light synthetics and thin sheet metal laid over an advanced skeletal system for strength. The developing Beetle was shaped to lend the strength of a hard shell without either structural bracing or slabs of leftover battleship for sides. In this way, the little car got enough strength to handle normal road conditions and kept the weight down at the same time.
We mentioned Germany in 1933 a little while back. You, like many others, might see that place and date and associate it with Hitler. Strangely enough, Hitler does appear in the history of the Beetle car! When the Nazis came to power in 1933, one of their big projects was the national German road project, or “Fahrvergnügen.” Also on the Nazis' to-do list, after liquidating political opposition, was developing a people’s car that every Johann Six Pack could drive home. Porsche's design fit this bill perfectly, and so the project, now called Volkswagen, got official party support.
The government project to build the People’s Car was not actually a government project at all – it was a Nazi Party project, run through the Reich Labor Front. The Labor Front was like one big union for every worker in the Third Reich if your labor union had the power to denounce you to the secret police. To make up for this, workers had access to free vacations and other fun things through the “Strength Through Joy” initiative. In German, this translates to “Kraft durch Freude,” or KdF. The Volkswagen KdF made its first appearance at the Berlin Auto Show in 1938, where Hitler gave a speech. We have to admit, there is something odd about a picture of Adolf Hitler in uniform, standing in front of swastika flags ten stories tall, while a car we associate with Herbie the Love Bug sits happily on a pedestal in front of him. During the speech, Hitler hinted that the KdF Wagens were about to start rolling off the line any day now, but in reality, only a few dozen had been built. Porsche was serious about testing, and they determined that the model wasn't ready yet. The expectation was that the first orders could be filled when the Fallersleben works hit full production, which was supposed to be sometime early in 1940 unless something happened to change everybody’s priorities.
Everybody’s priorities changed in 1939 when the war broke out in Europe. Almost every country involved in WWII had to re-tool its entire industrial base to make war materiel, and Germany was no exception. At the time, only a handful of KdF Wagens had been produced for the consumer market, which is too bad since the financing terms were a dream for any entry-level car buyer. Under the system adopted in 1938, Germans could place advance orders for Volkswagens and start making payments of 5 Reichsmarks ($2) a week. The average German at the time made 32 Reichsmarks a week, and the total price of the Volkswagen was only 990 Reichsmarks or about 30 weeks’ pay. Millions of German workers bought into this plan, only to have their orders indefinitely suspended when the Volkswagen plant switched over to war production. During the war, Volkswagen churned out military vehicles for the Wehrmacht. The first of these, the Type 82 Kubelwagen, was based on the Beetle design and weighed just 1,200 pounds. Built for off-road travel, it carried four battle-dressed soldiers in profound discomfort.
Interestingly, the Wehrmacht’s major complaint was that the Type 82 was too fast; they wanted the minimum speed of 5 mph slowed down to 2.5 mph to match the walking speed of infantry troops. The second VW vehicle was even more off-road than the Type 82. The Type 166 Schwimmwagen was an amphibious transport that came with a propeller and positive buoyancy, which became a feature of all future Beetles. The overcomplicated gearbox could only run the propeller in the first forward gear, so going backward required the passengers to dig out paddles and row. A third model, the Holzbrenner, actually burned wood for fuel instead of gasoline.
After the war, the Fallersleben factory complex was shattered. Allied inspectors estimated that over 30 percent of the site was destroyed, while the rest could take over a year of work to restore to production. The plant was in the American zone of occupation, and in the early days after the war, the Western Allies were toying with the idea of completely eliminating German industry and reverting the country to a purely farm-based economy. To that end, representatives of the Ford Motor Company were given a tour of the Volkswagen facility and asked if they wanted to take over the company for free. As in, $0. It will come as no surprise to experienced Ford watchers that the company declined, with one executive complaining that what was being offered was “worth less than nothing.” After Ford’s refusal, the plant was offered to the British, who briefly thought about transporting the guts of the factory to Britain. The only reason this didn’t happen was that British car makers felt, if anything, even more disdainful of the product.
One British car executive wrote in a memo: “he vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car... it is quite unattractive to the average buyer... To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” We would like to insert a reminder here that the bug eventually sold 21.5 million units. Same design and everything. Remember that when an expert tells you what you can and can’t do. Finally, British Army Officer Major Ivan Hirst got the job of doing something – anything – with the factory, which still had an unexploded bomb in its roof. Hirst raised a few eyebrows by hiring local German workers to get things squared away and start filling orders.
By the end of 1945, his starting team had produced 58 VW Beetles with pre-war 1131cc flat-four engines. Pulling on all the strings he had, Hirst managed to talk the British Army into placing orders for 20,000 Beetles, which now had cardboard padding stuffed in the engine compartment to keep the noise down. By the end of 1946, over 10,000 of the Beetles had been delivered. The next year, over half of Fallersleben’s 17,000 people were back at work in the Volkswagen factory. Things were starting to look up for the Beetle car.
Volkswagen limped through the rest of 1947 struggling to meet orders. Coal shortages forced the factory to close for three months that year, though production was getting streamlined and overseas buyers were taking an interest. In 1948, the Allies dropped their plan to kill German industry and replaced it with the Marshall Plan, which suddenly pumped hot cash into local industrial projects exactly like VW. Overnight, there was more coal than the factory needed and Heinz Nordhoff of Opel moved in to take over production. Nordhoff’s time at Volkswagen saw tons of minor changes to the design of the Beetle, from the introduction of plastic in the console to the removable panel that let you install a radio without cutting holes in the dash, to the brief flirtation with split windows. In 1951, the Beetle got rear-seat armrests, which were killed in the ’52 models because one executive thought it made passengers feel like they were “sitting in a bordello.” By 1953, production was touching 700 units a day, and over 500,000 Beetles had been sold, dominating 42 percent of the German car market. Even better, VW was taking seemingly unending orders for export models that used higher-quality materials and a slightly more powerful 30 hp engine that could deliver 68 mph on level ground.
All through the early 1950s, Volkswagen was focusing on high-end versions of the Beetle for export. With top-end models reaching 6,000 Deutschmarks, VWs remained affordable and attractive to entry-level shoppers all over the Western world. Sales in the United States reached 35,000 a year by 1955, the same year the 1 millionth bug rolled off the line. One thing that made Volkswagens so attractive was the knock-down kits the company made for the American market, which encouraged buyers to strip and customize their cars, which opened up new markets for off-roaders, street racers, and younger drivers. By the 1960s, Volkswagen operated a dozen factories around the world and was producing half a million cars a year. By the middle of the decade, the American counterculture had discovered the car and made it one of the hippies’ cultural icons. Hippies or not, Americans like to have something under the hood. Volkswagens were increasing in power throughout the ‘60s until the 1971 Type 1302 had a 1,600cc engine that delivered 50 hp, double Porsche’s original design on what was nearly the same frame.
Beetle production peaked in the 1960s, then started to plummet from the 70s onward. VW had gotten a head start in the subcompact economy market, but other makers were catching up at last. Japanese cars, in particular, were starting to compete in the American market and crowd out the bug. By the mid-70s, VW was shifting production at several plants to the new Rabbit, which did okay in the U.S. market, but wasn’t a world-beater like the Beetle. Production slowly dwindled as VW factories dropped the Beetle line, until only the Volkswagen facility in Puebla, Mexico, was left. The company was still reluctant to let its signature model go, however. In 1994, Volkswagen started playing coy with a concept car they refused to name for the automotive press. In 1998, it was announced that this new front-engine blasphemy was going to replace the Beetle line entirely. It was bigger and heavier than the classic Beetle, automatic was an option, and they came with a convenient holder in the dash for a flower pot.
The last classic Beetles rolled out of Puebla in 2003, as part of the 3,000-unit limited edition intended to say goodbye to the bug. Volkswagen was betting heavily on the New Beetle, which saw mediocre sales in a tough market until 2018 when VW just gave the hell up and announced it was closing the line entirely with no replacement. According to Volkswagen, the company whose factory one had an unexploded bomb in its roof, the Beetle just couldn’t compete with SUVs, which are now outselling other types of cars two to one. Nobody knows whether the Beetle will ever make a comeback. VW has no plans they’re willing to talk about, and all the talk lately has been sounding like a funeral. Officially, 2020 is going to see the new I.D. Neo hatchback blow everybody’s minds and take the place of the Beetle, but for people who like crossovers, but only time will tell. Hitler has reportedly had little to no input in the design phase, so there’s no telling how it will do.