Words by Nick Bassett.
The end of an era last month, as the last Volkswagen Beetle was driven off of the production line in Puebla, Mexico. After roughly eight decades of production and three generations of designs, Volkswagen has retired its iconic Beetle for good.
It was originally designed by Ferdinand Porsche to answer Adolf Hitler’s call for a “people’s car,” or a “volks wagen” in German.
In May 1934, at a meeting at Berlin’s Kaiserhof Hotel, Chancellor Hitler insisted on a basic vehicle that could transport two adults and three children at 100 km/h (62 mph) while not using more than 7 litres of fuel per 100 km (32 mpg US/39 mpg UK). The engine was to be powerful enough for sustained cruising on Germany’s new Autobahnen. Everything had to be designed to ensure parts could be quickly and inexpensively exchanged. The engine – air-cooled – because not every country doctor had his own garage, so the car would be stored outside and anti-freeze at this time was not common in water-cooled engines.
On May 26, 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone for the Volkswagen factory in Fallersleben. He gave a speech, in which he named the car Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen (“Strength Through Joy Car”, usually abbreviated to KdF-Wagen).
A handful of KdF-Wagens were produced, primarily for the Nazi elite, from 1941 to 1944. The war put a halt to production. The Volkswagen factory was handed over by the Americans to British control in 1945; it was to be dismantled and shipped to Britain.
However, no British car manufacturer was interested in the factory; an official report included the phrases “the 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.”
The re-opening of the factory is largely accredited to British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst. Hirst was ordered to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. His first task was to remove an unexploded bomb that had fallen through the roof and lodged itself between some pieces of irreplaceable production equipment; if the bomb had exploded, the Beetle’s fate would have been sealed.
Knowing Germany needed jobs and the British Army needed vehicles, Hirst persuaded the British military to order 20,000 cars, and by March 1946 the factory was producing 1,000 cars a month (in Army khaki, under the name Volkswagen Type 1), which Hirst said “was the limit set by the availability of materials”.
During this period, the car reverted to its original name of Volkswagen and the town was renamed Wolfsburg. The first 1,785 Type 1s were made in 1945.
After initially building mostly Beetles for the British military, in 1947 production transitioned to purely civilian Beetles, for the first time featuring chromed bumpers, hubcaps, and body and running board trim.
Aside from some remaining military production, civilian output reached almost 9,000 units in 1947, and for 1948 total production increased to 19,244 cars. The late 1940s Beetles still had an 1131 cc engine with just 25 horsepower, but it could effortlessly maintain cruising at the car’s 60 mph top speed.
Former Opel Manager (and formerly a detractor of the Volkswagen) Heinz Nordhoff was appointed Director of the Volkswagen factory in 1949.
Under Nordhoff, production increased dramatically over the following decade, with the one-millionth car coming off the assembly line by 1955.
During this post-war period, the Beetle had superior performance in its category with a top speed of 115 km/h (71 mph) and 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph) in 27.5 seconds with fuel consumption of 6.7 l/100 km (36 mpg) for the standard 25 kW (34 hp) engine.
This was far superior to the Citroën 2CV, which was aimed at a low speed/poor road rural peasant market, and the Morris Minor, designed for a market with no motorways or freeways; it was even competitive with more advanced small city cars like the Austin Mini.
The Type 1, air-cooled Beetle was last sold in the United States in the 1970s. Until that time, it had been marketed as a not cool car with a low price tag. (A Beetle in 1969 cost $1,799.)
Some of the marketing slogans used were “Live below your means,” and “It’s ugly, but it gets you there.”
Volkswagen continued producing the Type 1 until 2003, where the last model of that generation was manufactured at the same plant that the last third generation Beetle was made.
The Beetle became a worldwide hit, selling over 21.5 million over its lifetime, and was shipped to markets globally.
They even could be considered a Hollywood star after the Herbie “The Love Bug” series of movies featured a Beetle in the title role.
The original Type 1 design called for an air-cooled engine – they ranged in capacity from 1200 to 1600cc’s in single and twin port variants. Those wanting to ramp up their original Beetle can bore these out to 1900cc. That was replaced in 1997 with a new version that had a more traditional engine – these ranged from 1400 through to 3200cc.
It took until 1998 for the New Beetle to arrive. In 1999, Volkswagen sold 80,000 Beetles in the US alone. It found a generation of car buyers who were nostalgic for the 70s, but not interested in a car that ran on a 40-hp, 1.2-litre engine which had trouble hitting 60 miles per hour going up hill.
The New Beetle was an improvement over the old model in almost every way. It was quieter, has a smoother ride, vibrated less, and was much more reliable. It even had air conditioning and automatic transmission (although Volkswagen did equip some of the original Beetle and Karmann Ghia’s with a clutchless manual from 1968-1976 – feel free to ask me about mine at club events!)
In 2012, Volkswagen stopped referring to the New Beetle, simply referring to it as the Beetle again. It also made an effort to make the car more masculine and began manufacturing all Beetles at the Puebla plant and shipped them to ninety-one markets around the globe. But the Beetle could not keep up with the popularity of SUVs in the US. It couldn’t even match the popularity of the Volkswagen Golf.
Just because Volkswagen has ended the Beetle does not mean the company has stopped looking to its past for new vehicles. Two years ago, Volkswagen announced that it would be producing the I.D. Buzz which is an electric take on the classic Microbus. The new model is expected to arrive in showrooms in 2022.
Meanwhile, the Puebla plant that has produced cars for over 60 years will begin producing a new compact SUV that fits just below the Tiguan in the Volkswagen line of cars.
Scott Keogh, President and CEO of Volkswagen Group America, said in a media release: “it is not possible to imagine Volkswagen without the Beetle”, and it would be “forever cherished”.
The last Beetle ever will be on display in a Volkswagen museum in Puebla.
I have always loved Beetles. They’re such cute quirky little cars. Driving mine down the road, it never fails to turn heads, get a wave, a smile, a thumbs up, or elicit a playful punch in the arm!
Being the rarer Automatic Stickshift model I’m always getting asked questions, even at VW specific car shows.
My 1972 model is around the middle of the run. It’s amazing to think that a single model that started production not long after my grandfather was born has only just ceased production!
Truly, the end of an era.