HomeThe MarketVehicle Profile: Volkswagen Beetle

Vehicle Profile: Volkswagen Beetle


1961 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle

The Volkswagen “Type 1”, more affectionately (and certainly more descriptively), referred to as the “Beetle” or “Bug”, was first introduced to the American public in 1949. It was 1933 and the demand of Germany’s leader (yes, Der Furher, Hitler himself), that Germany build a state-sponsored “People’s Car” or Volkswagen. He put together his idea of what the vehicle should be capable of and how much it should cost, so the average German citizen could afford it. In fact, a “Stamp-Book” savings program called, “Five Marks a week you must save . . . if to drive your own car you crave”, which some 336,000 Europeans bought into. He wanted a vehicle that would easily carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100km/hr (approx. 62mph) and cost around 990 Reichsmark (roughly the price of a small motorcycle at the time). A tough task to achieve, many designers and manufacturers would try and fail.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was chosen (sometime in 1933 or 1934) as the Chief Engineer of the project and began working on the design immediately. He had in his mind the idea of a vehicle which he had been working on (for several years prior) in his own design studio. By 1938, a factory was set up near the new town of KdF-Stadt (the name was later changed to Wolfsburg), which was actually a purpose-built town, specifically for the workers and their families to live.

Prototypes of the vehicle surfaced as early as 1936 and were built at the time, in a plant in Stuttgart, Germany. Erwin Komenda, the former Chief Designer for Auto Union (now Audi), was in charge of the body design and actually used an innovative device, called a “Wind Tunnel”, to make the car aerodynamically efficient for optimum fuel economy. Unfortunately, by the time WWII started in 1939, they had only produced a handful of units, none of which were delivered to the Stamp-Book holders. Then, by orders of Hitler, all manufacturing was changed to military production to support the war efforts. However, a year earlier, they were able to present a completed “Cabriolet” to Hitler on April 20, 1938 (in celebration of his 49th birthday).

Several military versions of the distinctive round-shaped body, with the flat four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and rear wheel drive were produced at the new factory in Stuttgart during the war. Just before the war ended, sometime in April of 1945, the U.S. Forces had captured the area of KdF-Stadt (renamed Wolfsburg shortly after the war) and its heavily bombed factories.

After the war, the U.S. handed it over to the British who were in control of the “occupation zone” were it was located. British Army Officer, Ivan Hirst, is considered almost solely responsible for the survival of the vehicle in the post-war era. He took one of the vehicles and painted it green (instead of the German military tan) and presented it to the British Army officials and suggested they use them for “light transport” vehicles. They were persuaded it was a good idea and placed an immediate “vital-order” for 20,000 units to be built. The first several hundred units, produced in the still severely damaged factory, went to the German Post Office and personnel of the occupying forces.

By 1955, they had produced the first million Volkswagen Beetles (Type 1’s). Quite a feat, all things considered.  Shortly after the war had ended, several automotive manufacturers from the U.S.A., Britain and France had been offered the company and its facilities, but all declined, with most stating that the little car would never sell or be popular in their markets and some even stated it was not only too ugly, but too noisy.

In fact, Henry Ford II said what they are trying to give us “is not worth a damn!”!  Major Hirst, who had fiercely protected the little car and its factory since the end of the war, would hand over control of its operation to Heinrich “Heinz” Nordhoff, a former senior manager at Opel Ag. He would run the company, keeping the “one-model” policy in effect, until shortly before his death in 1968 (there being only two successful diversions from that policy . . . the introduction in 1950 of the Type 2 van, camper and pickup models also known as the “Transporter and Microbus” and the 1955 introduction of the Karmann Ghia sportscar). In 1949, the company had been reformed as a trust and was controlled by the new West German government and the government of the State of Lower Saxony.

It wouldn’t be until August of 1967, that the Volkswagen parent company would refer to the Type 1 as a “Beetle” in their own marketing materials for the U.S.A. Worldwide production of the original air-cooled, Type 1 was over 21.5 million units making it the longest-running and most continually produced vehicle of the same design-style platform in history; eventually, surpassing the long-held record by the Ford Model T. The beloved little Beetle was sold in the U.S. through 1980 and was manufactured and sold in other areas of the world through July of 2003. The last air-cooled Beetle to be made was rolled out of the plant in Puebla, Mexico on July 30, 2003. The Beetle went through several minor transformations and upgrades, yet basically remained the same until the end of its run.

In an international poll, conducted in 1999, for the most influential car of the 20th Century, the Volkswagen Beetle came in fourth after the Ford Model T, The British “Mini” and the Citroen “DS”. The Beetle was and still is, famous today for many types of racing and even has special classes and races held in its honor. It is especially suited for the grueling Baja desert events due to its famous air-cooled reliability and great traction. The Beetle has attained “cult” status on a worldwide basis and continues to draw crowds everywhere it goes. Certainly the most famous and beloved of all Beetles is Walt Disney’s, little white “Herbie the Love Bug”, old #53 complete with racing stripes.

Recent Posts