The Volkswagen Beetle: You Gotta Love "The Bug"

The VW Beetle is the best-selling car of all time, and defined a generation, but is no longer being made.
Marcia Wendorf

In September 2018, something very sad happened: Volkswagen announced that they would end the production of their iconic Beetle.

The VW Beetle, or "Bug," was the car of the 1960s. They were everywhere, with their rear-mounted air-cooled engines sounding like a food processor set on high speed.

The VW Beetle is the longest-running and most-manufactured single platform car ever made, and its history is an interesting one.


The 1930s, Germany

In the 1930s, Germany had just completed its new road network — the Reichsautobahn, and Germany's then Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, wanted an inexpensive people's car that could be mass-produced and that had easily interchangeable parts. The word Volkswagen means "people's car" in German.

The need was plain because, in 1920, 33% of the population of the U.S. owned a vehicle, most commonly the Ford Model T, and by 1930, that number rose to 46%. In Germany, during the early 1930s, only one person out of 50 could afford to own a car.

In 1934, Hitler gave the order to create a Volkswagen, which followed on the heels of the Volksempfänger, or "people's radio." The vehicle was intended to have a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), and to use not more than seven liters of gas per 100 km (32 mph US/39 mpg UK).

The car's parts had to be easily and inexpensively exchangeable, and the engine had to be air-cooled because antifreeze wasn't widely used yet, and the water in car radiators would freeze overnight unless the car was kept in a heated garage.

The original price of the Volkswagen was 990 Reichsmark or about the same price as that of a small motorcycle. Members of the Nazi National Socialist Party were promised the first Volkswagens if they paid a surcharge on top of their party dues. However, they never received their cars because a little thing called World War II intervened.

The design of "The Bug"

The first design of the Bug is credited to Austro-Hungarian engineer Béla Barényi, who created the design in 1925 for Mercedes Benz. A copy of Barényi's original design still exists.

Barényi's original design
Barényi's original design. Source: Internet Archive

Five years later, Ferdinand Porsche claimed the design, and the Porsche motor company began working on the car, which they completed in 1938. In 1955, Barényi successfully sued Volkswagen for copyright infringement on his earlier design.

On May 26, 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone for the Volkswagen factory in Fellersleben (now named Wolfsburg), and a village was created for the new factory workers. In a speech, Hitler called the new car Kraft-durch-freude-Wagen, which translates to "strength through joy car."

With the start of World War II, the Volkswagen factory began producing the Type 82 Kübelwagen, a light military vehicle for use by the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS, and the amphibious Schwimmwagen.

Kübelwagen. Source: Darkone/Wikimedia Commons

The factory also produced several hundred Kommandeurswagen for military commanders, which had the Beetle body mounted onto a four-wheel-drive chassis.

In 1944, production ceased when most of the factory's equipment was moved to an underground bunker, and the factory was destroyed by Allied bombing raids.

Kommandeurswagen. Source: Neodarkshadow/Wikimedia Commons

After the war

In 1945, control of the Volkswagen factory was given to the British by the Americans who had liberated it. When British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst took over, he realized that Germany needed jobs, and the British Army needed vehicles.

Hirst persuaded the British military to order 20,000 vehicles from the factory, and by March 1946, 1,000 Type 1 cars were being produced each month, all with khaki exteriors. The Type 1 went on to become the iconic Beetle.

Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle
Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle. Source: Lothar Spurzem/Wikimedia Commons

By 1947, civilian Beetles began being produced that had chrome bumpers, hubcaps, and body trim. The car still only had an 1131 cc engine and only 25 horsepower.

In 1949, Heinrich Nordhoff was appointed the director of the Volkswagen factory, and production increased dramatically.

By 1955, the one-millionth car rolled off the assembly line. On February 17, 1972, the 15,007,034th Beetle was produced, surpassing the previous record-holder, the Ford Model T, as the best-selling car in the world.

By 1973, 16 million Beetles had been produced, and by June 23, 1992, that number exceeded 21 million.

The Beetle had its greatest success in North America between the years 1960 and 1965. Volkswagen's advertising campaign, "Think Small," was named by Ad Age as the best advertising campaign of the 20th century.

By 1966, small, rear-wheel-drive, water-cooled, front-engine cars from Japan began appearing in the North American market, and their sales ate into those of Volkswagen. These cars included the Datsun 510 and the Toyota Corona.

With the advent of the Honda Civic in 1972, the Japanese "big three" comprised of Toyota, Nissan, and Honda began to dominate compact auto sales in North America. On January 19, 1978, Volkswagen moved production of the Beetle to Brazil and Mexico.

In 1998, Volkswagen rolled out the New Beetle, which, while looking like a Beetle, was essentially a VW Golf. In 2012, they introduced a new version, but sales continued to decline, with only 15,000 being sold in 2017.

In July 2019, the last Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Mexico, but if you just can't bear to let go, Volkswagen is selling the last versions of the Beetle — the Final Edition SE, which starts at $25,995, and the Final Edition SEL, beginning at $29,995.

Rumors currently abound that Volkswagen will introduce an electric version of the Beetle based on its MEB platform.

Here's hoping that this isn't the end of "The Bug."

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