VW Beetle's History: A Final Goodbye For The Soon-Discontinued 'Lovebug'

The VW Beetle has become a legend in its own right. After its rebirth in the late 1990s its time has finally come (once again). Is it really over this time?
Christopher McFadden
VW Beetle history1,2

The iconic Beetle - Long beloved by owners and enthusiasts for over seventy years is to, sadly, be retired forever in 2019! Volkswagen made their earth-shattering announcement on Thursday.

The Beetle has become a symbol of "Peace and Love" for generations and can still be found around the world in the most unlikely places. It has also become iconic in TV and film from the classic 1980s Transformers series (Bumblebee) to classic films like Herbie: The Love Bug. 

2019 final VW beetle
The final 2019 convertible Beetle. Source: VW

Its [final] demise is sad for anyone who has loved this car for many years. But it's not the first time its disappeared only to rise like the Phoenix once again.

“The loss of the Beetle after three generations, over nearly seven decades, will evoke a host of emotions from the Beetle’s many devoted fans,” VW U.S. CEO Hinrich J. Woebcken said in a statement.

This news finally puts an end to the months of speculation leading up to the announcement this week. The VW Beetle is one of the most iconic car shapes of all time and will be greatly missed by its hardcore fans and enthusiasts everywhere.

Despite its history and legacy, it has fallen out of favor amongst consumers all over the world. They first hit the U.S. Market in 1949 with their latest models are the Final Edition SE and Final Edition SEL. 

In the United States, for example, 15,166 Beetles were sold in 2017. Recent market share for the Beetle has been below 5% for sometime in the U.S. VW is also pushing more to produce SUVs and develop their up and coming range of electric cars.

 A light at the end of the tunnel?


But there be some hope for the future. VW, also hinted that it might return at some point in the future. 

“As we move to being a full-line, family-focused automaker in the U.S. and ramp up our electrification strategy with the MEB platform, there are no immediate plans to replace it," Woebcken said. "But as we have seen with the I.D. Buzz – which is the modern and practical interpretation of the legendary Bus – I would also say, ‘Never say never.’"

However, this is a bridge to cross in the future - if it ever comes. 

2019 final beetle VW
The 2019 final edition Beetle. Source: VW

Until then the final models, the Final Edition SE and Final Edition SEL, for 2019 will include a convertible and coupe version both with 2-liter 174-hp four-cylinder gas engines. These models are also advertised as having six-speed automatic transmission and an average fuel efficiency of 29 MPG

final 2019 Beetle interior seats VW
The final 2019 Beetle's interior. Source: VW

They will also come with unique interior upholstery. The SE Model will be replete with cloth and leatherette seats with diamond pleats. The SEL comes with retro-style 18-inch (45.7 cm) wheels with white painted accents. 

Price tags will not be too dissimilar to existing models. Beetle Final Edition SE, which starts at $23,940 for the coupe, will be nearly $1,000 cheaper than a current SE. The convertible version at $28,190 is about $800 less than the regular SE convertible.

The Final Edition SEL has no real comparison on the market at the moment will be priced at $26,890 ($890 less than the Dune) with the convertible variant touted at $30,890

final beetle 2018 VW convertible
Beetle's final 2019 edition convertible exterior. Source: VW

The Birth and Rise of the "Bug"

The VW Beetle (officially Type 1) was first conceived in 1931 when Ferdinand Porsche and Zundapp developed the Porsche Type 12. This was also known as the “Auto fur Jedermann” or  “Car for Everyone”. 

VW Beetle early models T12
Porsche's Type T12 prototype at Nuremberg Museum of Industrial Culture. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Three prototypes had been developed by 1932 with a fourth, the Porsche Type 32, joining them in 1933. The very same year Adolf Hitler commissioned Porsche to develop a "Peoples Car" (literally Volks Wagen). 

The remit from Hitler was that the car must be able to seat 2 adults and 2 children, have room for their luggage and be able to cruise at 100 km/h or 62 MPH

Volkswagen as a name was never originally used, though intended to be the case further down the line, with the first "Beetle" being tagged the Porsche Type 60. It was later christened the KdF-Wagen (KdF being the initials of the leisure arm of the "Kraft durch Freude" ("Strength Through Joy") of the Third Reich.

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By 1935, the "V1" working Type 60 Prototype was ready with the three "V3" models undergoing testing in 1936 at Porsche's Stuttgart shop. Testing continued into 1937 with 30 models of the "V30" pre-production models (built by Daimler-Benz) had conducted 1,800,000 miles (2,900,000 km)

At this point the early Beetle now iconic shape was already an integral design feature and they also had air-cooled, rear mounted engines. 

VW Beetle first prototype
Replica of 1937 VW V30 prototype. Source: vwheritage

The "People's Car" was to be affordable for everyone

Hitler demanded that the Volks-Wagen must be affordable to anyone who wanted one. He introduced a part payment system whereby customers would purchase a "Sparkarte" (Savings Card) at a price tag of 1 Reichsmark (about 30 UK pence or 40 US Cents)

After this consumers would then be obligated to buy 5 Reichsmarks of stamps per week (roughly £1.35 of $2) per week. At this time the average German salary was 32 Reichmarks a week with the total repayable over the repayment period, for a basic model, being 990 Reichsmarks

That would mean it would take just about 46 months (3.8 years) to pay off.

By 1938 the Stadt des KdF-Wagens (Wolfsburg) was in production in the village of Hesslingen. This was a workers' town built for workers at the KdF-Wagen factory.

Beetle Nazi version
KdF propaganda photo. Source: German Federal Archives/Wikimedia Commons

Production was halted in 1939 with the outbreak of World War 2 with only a handful of the cars having been delivered. Production at the facility was commandeered for the war effort to build and supply military vehicles only.

During the war, the factory produced "Volks-Wagen" variants for military use. These were the flat 4 air cooled engine type that had very rugged suspension ideal for harsh desert environments with completed models being delivered to the African arena. 

These two models included the Type 82 Kubelwagen which was a utilitarian off-road transport that was to weigh no more than 9950 kg. It was also required to have a minimum speed of 2.5 mph (4 kph) to match the speed of marching troops. 

This was to be used primarily by German officers and officials.

The other was the Type 166 Schwimmwagen which was designed to be an offroad amphibious vehicle. This was an interesting variant that included an extended crankshaft to drive a rear-mounted propeller. 

The Type 166 Schwimmwagen was steered using a steering wheel on both land and water with the front wheels acting as a rudder.

VW Beetle WW2 models
Source: 1, 2

During the war, some interesting civilian models were developed

Some civilian "Volks-Wagen Beetles" were also produced during the war, mainly for senior officers, but production as very small indeed. Because of fuel supply issues, as the Luftwaffe and Panzer Divisions took priority, exotic fuel models were also developed. 

 One fascinating variant was the Holzbrenner. This was actually wood-powered Beetle that worked by heating the wood until it chemically decomposed. 

The decomposed waste products from the heated wood included gas components that could be used as a fuel source. The gas, which was captured before it could burn, was stored in a chamber and injected into the cylinders of a regular combustion engine. 

Some of the German-made wood-burning cars were the VW Kdf Wagen (postwar Beetle), and the German Army Kübelwagen.

VW Beetle wood powered
Civilian grade Holzbrenner. Source: strangevehicles

After the fall of the Third Reich at the end of the Second World War allied forces followed the so-called Morgenthau Plan. This was drawn up to "pastoralize" Germany and prevent them from building up armaments of any kind in the foreseeable future.

For this reason, car production was restricted to not exceed 10% that of 1936 levels and the VW plant was captured and controlled by the US Military. This lead to one of the biggest opportunities missed by Ford during the early post-war period. They were offered the chance to take over the plant for free. 

Henry Ford asked his right-hand man Ernest Breech his opinion on the opportunity, to which he responded, "What we're being offered here, Mr. Ford, isn't worth a damn!".

With that, the Ford Motor Company lost out on the chance to build the world's most popular car since the introduction of their Model T - whoops.


The Beetle rises from the ashes of World World 2

After Ford's flat-out rejection, in 1945, the Americans handed control of the plant to their British Allies. Despite initial rejections from British car manufacturers one British officer, Major Ivan Hirst, practically single-handily re-commissioned it after it had taken severe bomb damage during the war. 

He was responsible for its renovation and reinstatement with his most important success is the removal of an unexploded bomb that had lodged itself between some essential and irreplaceable parts of production equipment. 

Without Hirst's efforts, the Beetle would have never made its place in history. 

Damage to the factory as estimated to be around 38% of the plant and was considered by many to be only fit for demolition. Hirst disagreed and he soon permitted Germans to return to work at the plant. 

By May 1945,  2 Beetles had actually been produced from various surviving parts gathered from around the remains of the factory. Soon a further 56 had been produced, albeit differing slightly from pre-war designs. 

Beetle Major Ivan Hirst
Major Ivan Hirst. Source: Volkswagen

Hirst went further and convinced the British Army to put an order for some 20,000 Beetles with his goal to reach production levels of 1,000 cars per month by 1946. Working conditions were not ideal, unsurprisingly given the total ruin of Germany after the war with workers often only having one meal per day given the limited resources at the time. 

Despite this Hirst, but more importantly, the newly invigorated VW workers were able to produce 10,020 Beetles by the end of 1946. In 1947 the Beetle was debuted at the Hannover fair and met a very favorable reception.

By 1948 ex-Opel manager, Heinz Nordhoff took control of VE as its Director and began the redesign of the Beetle of the future. 

The Beetle's star rises then falls again

In 1948 production rose to 19,244 Beetles being delivered with two coachbuilders being employed to assist production. Some lawsuits were filed in Autumn of 1948 for deliveries yet to be honored (which wouldn't be resolved until 1961) but production continued to improve inexorably. 

In July 1949 a new model Beetle called the "Export" was developed for export. It featured chrome finishes and had a higher spec for foreign markets, new steering wheel and other features. 

Production peaked at 93,709 in 1951 with a third of those exported to 29 countries around the world. The biggest foreign consumers included neighboring European countries and as far away as Brazil. 

1953 saw major changes to the Beetle's design. The last split-window Beetle was produced in March of 1953 with the first oval rear window models going into production with an increased 23% area to previous editions.

By July of the same year, VW managed to roll out there 500,000th Beetle and employees were rewarded with a 2.5m Deutschmark bonus split between them all. VW domestic market share had reached 42.5% with daily production levels around 673 per day

Beetle 1 millionth Beetle
The 1,000,000th Beetle. Source: vwheritage

Further improvements to the Beetle were made in 1954 with a new engine that could reach a top speed of 68 mph (109 kph) and an increase in hp from 25 to 30.

1954 also saw the birth of one of the Beetle's later saving graces, VW Mexico - little did VW know at the time. 1955 saw the 1,000,000th Beetle being produced with 35,581 Beetles now being exported to the United States. 

Between the late 1950s and early 1960s, VW continued to tweak the design of the Beetle. Changes tended to include making windscreens progressively larger, including tubeless tires, the inclusion of indicators into rear lights and introducing separate indicators on the front wings. 

Engine power also progressively increased rising from 30 hp to 34 hp in 1960 models. Manufacturing levels and sales also increased steadily throughout the years. 

In 1962 heat exchangers were added for the first time which allowed passengers to heat fresh air and direct it into the cabin. Hydraulic braking systems were also introduced to replace the older cable systems.

Also, the now famous VW logo first started to be displayed on new Beetles replaced the original Wolfsburg insignia. Older vinyl "rag-top" sunroofs were replaced with steel sliding alternatives from 1963 export models and number plate lights were introduced. 

Beetle old logo
Wolfsburg insignia was replaced with VW logo. Source: Hasse A/Wikimedia Commons

The VW and Beetle become record-breakers

1963 was also a big year for the company as a whole. It, for the first time, was now Germany's largest single company comprising 42.4% of the domestic market and making over a million cars.

Daily production, thanks to automation, was now over 5,000 units and record-breaking 686K cars were being exported worldwide. 

1964 was a landmark year for the Beetle, at least in terms of aesthetics. The front windscreen grew by 28mm, the rear screen also grew and side windows were also beefed up. Heater controls became more simplified. 

VW invested a massive 154 million Deutschmarks in a new plant at Emden and expanded their Port Elizabeth factory. Also, the long-lasting lawsuit over non-delivered Beetle's was settled with each saver being offered the chance of a 600 Deutschmark discount on a new car or 100 Deutschmark cash payment. 

The same year VW bought a 50% stake in the Auto Union Motor Company and would later extend their ownership to 100%.

The new VW1300 model was introduced in 1965 with a new type 3 1500cc engine being added to the range in late 1966. Disc brakes were also introduced and new wheels. 

Beetle VW 1300
VW 1300 model. Source: Andrew Bone/Wikimedia Commons

VW also decided to get rid of their old key system (multiple keys were needed for ignition and doors) and introduced a single key solution. A new deck-lid (bonnet) was also introduced to accommodate the new larger engine.

1967 models saw another rehaul of the Beetle's iconic looks. The sloping headlights, that had changed little since the VW38 models were now replaced with upright headlamps on newly designed wings. The fuel filler was also relocated from the bonnet to the front wing. 

Reversing lights were also introduced and new bigger (and stronger) bumpers were added. A new dashboard was designed and installed and now included a fuel gauge and other warning lights.

The 1200 model was temporarily discontinued but returned six months later as the rebranded Sparkafer (Economy Beetle). This would stay in production for the rest of VW's production of the Beetle. 

An automatic Beetle was also introduced for the first time and was only available on 1500 models. Mexican and Puebla's Beetle production also begins.

The Beetle becomes a record breaker then VW stops making them in Germany

In February of 1969, Auto Union and NSU merged and VW decided to amalgamate with the same union. VW also began to promote Audi (formerly Auto Union) as a brand.

Little change to the VW Beetle's designed throughout these years. Throughout the early 1970's other minor changes occurred to the Beetle apart from minor aesthetics but luggage capacity was increased on the VW 1300 from 140 to 260 liters. 

"A major technical leap was the inclusion a diagnostics port, mounted in the engine bay, this allowed a VW dealership to plug a computer into the car, and test various systems, pretty advanced for the early 70’s." - vwheritage.com

In 1972 VW managed to beat the previous Ford record for Model T production when the 15,007,034th VW Beetle 1302S left the production line. An incredible achievement for the company.

Two limited editions were added in 1973, based on the 1200 and 1303 models. One series was the "Jeans" that came with "Jeans" graphics and denim trimmed interiors and the other the Yellow and Black Racer with leather upholstery, sports seats, and other accessories.

By 1973 Beetle production managed to hit 16 million

Beetle gross design continued to be tweaked between 1972 and 1973 with a new curved windscreen being added to the VW 1303 "Big Beetle"

"1974’s Beetle range was slimmed down, and all the front indicators were moved from the wing tops to the bumper. Rack and pinion steering were introduced, therefore negating the need for a steering damper, a new “bulged” rear valance was fitted to cover the catalytic converter, necessary on US export models." - vwheritage.com

Between 1975 and 1978 Beetle production began to be slowed down in Germany with Beetle production discontinued in 1979. Throughout this time little changed in design except for color options. 

After this time Beetle production was moved to Puebla and Mexico. 

The Beetle stands aside for the Golf only to "Rise Like the Pheonix" once again

In 1974 the VW Golf I replaced the Beetle as their main European car. This was in line with their belief that the brand needed a new modernized flagship car.

Consumers around the world, except Mexico and Brazil, seemed to agree with many shifting their loyalty from the good ol' Beetle to its new 'trendy' and sporty alternative. The Golf was also smaller, more efficient and had almost double the existing Beetle's power. 

Despite the shift in loyalty in Europe the Type 1 Beetle continued to be produced in Mexico until 2003. By this time it had sold an eye-watering 21 Million units around the world!

Beetle Mark 1 Gold
The VW Gold Mk 1 replaced the Beetle Type 1. Source: Rudolf Stricker/Wikimedia Commons

But in 1994 they introduced a new concept car that resembled the Beetle called the "Concept One". 

This was a retro-design car that called back to classic lines of the original Beetles. 1998 was a huge year for Beetle as VW introduced its "New Beetle". These were built around the existing VW Golf platform and were styled in the original Type 1 theme. 

2001 saw the introduction of the RSI (a limited edition sporty model), which ultimately inspired the full production run of the Turbo S. 

The Beetle would remain a common sight throughout the 2000s and 2010s but it seems, finally, that the Beetle has reached the 'end of the road'.