February 9 marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The ensuing British invasion certainly had an impact on American youth culture.
But it was the arrival of another type of Beetle that not only arrived first, but that had a larger impact, perhaps not on American youth culture but on American car culture and drivers of all ages.
It was in January 1949 that the first Volkswagen Type 1, the car that would be beloved by the nickname it gained from its beetle-like shape, arrived in the United States.
That first Beetle was shipped to New York City by Dutch businessman Ben Pon Sr., the first official Volkswagen importer. Believe it of not, only two such Beetles were purchased that year by American drivers,. Yet before the end of the year, Volkswagen of America had established its U.S. headquarters on the East Coast, and by the mid-1950s more than 35,000 Beetles were on American roads.
Inexpensive to buy and to operate, VW Beetles became popular with economy-minded drivers and by Americans who saw Detroit as part of the stifling Establishment. By the end of the ‘60s, more than 400,000 “bugs” were being sold each year in the U.S.
An anniversary news release from VW notes that, “from custom paint jobs to open-top Dune Buggy bodies, the Beetle fit perfectly into the counter-culture of the 1960s.”
“Since its arrival in the United States 65 years ago, the Volkswagen Beetle has preserved its reputation of being more than just a car, but a symbol of uniqueness and freedom,” Michael Horn, president of what now is known as Volkswagen Group of America, said in the anniversary announcement.
“The Beetle has become part of the cultural fabric in America and we are proud that its rich heritage continues to live with fans around the States,” he added.
The original Beetles with their air-cooled and rear-mounted engines continued to be offered in the U.S. marketplace through 1977. Other, more modern cars replaced the “Bug” as the mainstay of the VW lineup. But 21 years later, a New Beetle, a contemporary car with its engine in front and with five-star safety protection for those riding inside — but also with delightfully retro styling — relaunched the Beetle brand and presence in the U.S.
Beetlemania was back.