The first year that Volkswagen Beetles were sold in the United States was 1949, though sales were not exactly stellar, with only two going to new owners. That could be because there were only two available, imported to the U.S. by a Dutch businessman.
Sales took off after that, although the Beetle was a highly unlikely success, tiny by American standards of the time, and underpowered by its minuscule air-cooled engine, mounted in the rear, no less.
The styling was unabashedly pre-war, yet with an undeniable charm that appealed to U.S. drivers, especially the younger ones, many of whom saw in it as a protest against the big, chrome-laden barges being produced by the domestic manufacturers.
VW’s success was bolstered by one of the most magical advertising campaigns in history. The Think Small series, imaginatively produced by the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, not only fed into the car’s image of being cheap, small and unstylish but actually celebrated it. People who got the ads loved them, and many bought the cars.
The ads set the tone for VW through the 1960s, tapping into the offbeat, anti-snobbery attitudes of that decade, and spawned an astounding record of success for the homely little bug from Germany.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, VWs were everywhere. In our working-class neighborhood, Beetles and microbuses were found to be inexpensive to buy, simple enough to be easily maintained and repaired by any handy owner, and remarkably durable. Our high school parking lot was filled with them.
And they became emblematic of the generation, not just among the hippies and other iconoclasts but among “straight” society as well, those more interested in practical transportation that the VWs provided than in their protest value.
Although all along, there was some pushback from my parents’ generation, those who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and knew that the People’s Car started off as a product of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. As feckless youth, we were oblivious of such things.
Most people of a certain age have memories of Volkswagens, and I remember so many VWs from my past. And like most people, I have Volkswagen stories. Here are a few of them:
I went to Temple University in North Philly, and on many mornings, my friend Mark drove me in his car, which had the distinction of being the most beat-up, rusted-out and disreputable Beetle in town. Still, it always got us there and always made it home again.
Which brings me to two major flaws of early VWs, at least back East. They rusted with alacrity in that snowy climate, where the city fathers used salt on the roads – good for traction but a catalyst for rust. That, and the VW heaters were notoriously weak, relying on engine heat since there was no hot water circulating.
Mark’s VW was a victim of both problems, with rust holes in the floor that in the winter splashed icy gunk onto our legs and feet, and a heater that would sigh just the tiniest breath of warmth. And we won’t even speak of the pathetic windshield wipers and worthless defroster.
But we would bundle up and soldier on through any weather, Mark maniacally driving through the city streets; I swear he would pick me up just late enough that he’d have an excuse to careen crazily though traffic to get us to class on time.
The last straw for Mark’s VW beater, held together by bailing wire, duct tape and wishfulness, came one day while chugging along and the entire rear of the car crashed onto the pavement – the rear suspension was so rusted out that, at that particular moment, it just gave way. We’re lucky to have survived that supremely funky wreck.
I did have experiences with quite a few more-viable Vee Dubs, such as Debbie’s beautiful, bright-red convertible, Richie’s dark-green Karmann-Ghia, or Charlie’s 23-window microbus with curtains and a giant fabric sunroof which allowed us to stand up like celebrities in a parade. Those buses are worth a small fortune nowadays.
My good friend Doug inherited his dad’s 1968 VW, and I spent many hours in that excellent car. Those were formative years, and what tales that Beetle could have told.
Another guy had an old orange camper bus, powered by just 36 horsepower, and with a load of people, could barely go uphill at all. We were all accustomed to our VWs losing velocity while climbing hills, but it was disconcerting to be struggling up a long freeway grade in second gear with the rest of traffic hurtling past at 75 mph.
One of the most fun things about Volkswagens was how you could take them off the beaten path, off the pavement and onto dirt trails. Once, I went with a buddy and our two girlfriends down to an isolated area of the New Jersey shoreline in his Beetle. He let most of the air out of the tires, and we shushed through the sand to our very own private beach.
When it was time to go home, he refilled the tires with a cigarette-lighter air pump (his car was a later 12-volt model), and off we went down the highway.
I owned a couple of VWs, although my experiences were not that great. When I was a starving college student, I was given a ’60 Beetle that looked nice but had so many needs, I never really got it back on the road.
A few years later, I bought a good-looking Type 3 “Squareback,” a little wagon with the engine tucked beneath the rear deck. But it was a nightmare of breakdowns, apparently because the former owner did such a crummy job of upkeep. In comparison, my subsequent MGB was a paragon of reliability.
Nowadays, early Volkswagens are hugely popular as collector cars by hobbyists who love tinkering on them, as well as customizing them. Again, the same formula of style and simplicity makes them ideal for those who want to enjoy vintage motoring without going broke or being frustrated by difficult repairs.
They’re a ton of fun, too.
Once a month, I go to a Phoenix cruise-in called All Air-Cooled Arizona, mainly hosting collectors and customizers with VWs, but also Porsches, Corvairs and such occasional air-cooled oddities as a Citroen 2CV from France and a tiny Autobianchi Bianchina convertible from Italy.
While there, I enjoy hearing the stories from the VW owners, some of them old enough to remember these cars when they were a familiar sight on the road, but also a high percentage of younger people, male and female, who fully engage in the VW hobby. Any VW meet in the US, and there are scads of them, is populated by many younger enthusiasts.
Meanwhile, there are organized efforts to electrify older VWs, such as the newly revealed bus created in consort with Volkswagen of America. A privately built electric bus recently showed up at an Air-Cooled gathering, and was the object of much attention.
I show up at Air-Cooled in my 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe (I love calling it the “super coupe”), which is really just a step up from the Volkswagens and fits in well with the group. Fortunately, this car is not the bucket of woes that my VWs were.
Air-cooled cars with engines in the rear are a thing of the distant past, seventy years since the first arrival of the simple Beetles to these shores. This year, Volkswagen announced that it was discontinuing the retro-styled Beetles of today, which are really not much like the originals other than how they look.
So it goes. But air-cooled Beetles, buses, Karmann-Ghias, Type 3s and all the rest of the original VW family, including such things as dune buggies and custom-bodied specials, live and thrive as collector cars, and seemingly will go on forever.