The Wolfsburg plant celebrates an early milestone: the production of the 1,000th Beetle.
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The bug’s life: a brief history of the Volkswagen Beetle

Did you know the original idea behind the vehicle belongs to German dictator Adolf Hitler?
Iñigo S. Roces | Dec 12 2018

Though the Volkswagen Beetle has now come to symbolize many great things—from practicality, simplicity, to a free spirit—the original idea behind the vehicle belongs to German dictator Adolf Hitler. In 1933, he gave the order to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to develop a Volkswagen (literally, "people's car" in German). Hitler required a basic vehicle capable of transporting two adults and three children at log km/h (62 mph). The "People's car" would be available to citizens of the Third Reich through a savings scheme. The vehicle was only produced in small numbers during the war and under different names.

The Beetle, as we know it, was mass produced after the war in 1946. Its relative low maintenance and high performance in its category led to its popularization. Beetle sales boomed in the 1960s, thanks to clever advertising campaigns and the Beetle's reputation for reliability and sturdiness.

Beetles line the factory’s stockyard.

The original Beetle is one of the longest running model lines in the automotive industry. It started in 1938 and continues to this day. The newer, more modern styled Beetles are frequently called "New Beetle" to distinguish it from the classic. Production of the classic may have started in 1938, but mass production and exportation of the car officially started in 1948. Only a handful of Beetles built earlier than the 1948 model year still exist.

Of all the models to collect and restore, the Split Window is easily the most desirable and valuable owing to its oval bisected rear glass. This was eventually replaced by the oval rear window and eventually the larger rectangular window seen in most Beetles today.

Aside from the unique rear window, other features such as the side vents (which brought cool air into the cabin) and semaphore turn signals (that pop out and blink when in use) are also unique to earlier models. A quarter window that can rotate nearly 18o degrees eventually replaced the side vents. As for the semaphore, it was replaced with turn signals integrated into the headlights and, eventually, the "clothes iron" fender-mounted turn signal more frequent today.

Shells prepare to meet the chassis in a “marriage” along a conveyor belt.

To keep costs down during its production life, Volkswagen only implemented subtle changes in both the body and mechanicals year to year. This accounts for the Beetle's recognizable appearance despite its long lifespan and the keen attention to detail required in restoring a Beetle. As such, transition models or "Zweiter's" (sporting the shell of the previous model with improvements from the upcoming model) can be either particularly valuable in the case of early models, or have low value in the case of newer models.

The classic Beetles with the least perceived value are those built in 1972 or later, when production ended in Germany and was moved to Mexico and Brazil. These cars were no longer deemed "true German" Beetles and their parts were a hodge-podge of various model years.

In 1994, Volkswagen tasked J Mays and Freeman Thomas to design an electric car that would warm people up to the idea of alternative means of propulsion. The two designers looked no further than a classic '66 Beetle for inspiration. When it was unveiled in the 1994 North American International Auto Show as the Concept 1, a retro-themed concept car with a resemblance to the original Volkswagen Beetle, public clamor convinced VW to seriously consider it as a new offering. By 1997, it was launched as the New Beetle, based on the Golf's platform.

The original New Beetle Concept 1, without the US regulation compliant bumpers.

In Mexico and Brazil, the classic Beetle was still being produced and offered alongside the New Beetle. By 2002, over 21 million classic Beetles had been produced. However, it was decided to end production by June 2003, owing to decreasing demand.

Nonetheless, its successor was already enjoying lofty sales figures, with special variants and editions being added to the range. The New Beetle received minor updates in styling and features all the way up to 2010. By 2011, the model received a full change, giving rise to the A5 "Iconic Beetle" we know today.


This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 18 2014.