Story and photo by Bill Vance

1966 Volkswagen Beetle
1966 Volkswagen Beetle. Click image to enlarge

If one car could be called truly ubiquitous, it would be the original Volkswagen Beetle. In its almost 70 year lifespan (the last one was built in Mexico in July, 2003) it has been assembled in four countries and sold in more than 140. It fostered so much goodwill that Volkswagen brought back a modernized version in 1998.

Its history traces back to the early 1930s. Shortly after he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler, an admirer of Henry Ford, commissioned Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s consulting firm to design an affordable car for the average German citizen. It was to be simple and economical – 40 miles per gallon – yet durable enough to cruise continuously at 100 km/h (62 mph) on Germany’s depression-project autobahn highway system.

Although Hitler wanted to call it the KdF-wagen (for Kraft durch Freude, or Strength-Through-Joy), and early cars were called KdFs, it became known as the People’s Car, or Volkswagen.

Porsche based the Volkswagen design on a car his company had engineered in 1932 for N.S.U., who abandoned the project at the prototype stage. Power came from an air-cooled, horizontally opposed (flat), four-cylinder engine located behind the rear axle. It drove the rear wheels through a four-speed manual overdrive transmission. Suspension was independent on all four wheels via torsion bars, and it was clothed in a simple, aerodynamic, beetle-shaped, two-door sedan body.

By the fall of 1936 three prototypes had been produced for evaluation. Lacking a machine shop, the Porsche staff built the original cars in Dr. Porsche’s private garage at his home near Stuttgart. The cars passed their 50,000-kilometre test, and although there were problems, they were judged basically sound.

In 1937 30 more Volkswagens were completed and covered a total of 2.4 million test kilometres. Another 30 were built later for propaganda purposes.

When Germany’s established motor manufacturers showed little enthusiasm for producing Hitler people’s car, he proceeded with the construction of a huge state-funded factory near Schloss (castle) Wolfsburg in the Lower Saxony region of northern Germany. The Volkswagenwerk cornerstone was laid in May 1938, and the plant was completed in the spring of 1939, by which time it was apparent that Hitler had more sinister objectives than building a people’s car.

Few cars were produced before and during the Second World War because plant production was converted to military needs, including the VW-based Jeep-like Kubelwagen (“bucket car”). There was also an amphibious version called the Schwimmwagen.

Although car production was very limited, this didn’t stop Hitler’s government from establishing a “lay-away” plan in which Germans paid for new Volkswagens in advance by buying stamps for their savings book. They never did get their cars, and this became the subject of an 11-year post-war lawsuit brought by many of the savers. It was finally settled in 1961.

After the war the allies took over the dismal VW plant, which had been about two-thirds destroyed by bombing. Several automakers, among them Ford and Rootes, were offered the operation. They saw only an ugly little, air-cooled, noisy bug-shaped vehicle and a shabby war-damaged plant, but failed to see the Beetle’s sound basic engineering. They sniffed, and said no thank you, thereby committing what must rank as one of the major business blunders of all time.

The British controlled the factory and were using it as a truck repair facility. Soon German workers and displaced persons trickled back and began repairing the plant and setting up production machinery that had been hidden away. They were encouraged in this by the British, led by Major Ivan Hirst of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. It was soon producing a small number of Volkswagen cars: 1,785 in 1945; 10,020 in ’46; and 8,987 in ’47. They were used by the Occupation Forces and the Post Office.

Rebuilding and carmaking accelerated in 1948 when an experienced German ex-Opel automotive engineer was placed in charge. His name was Heinrich (Heinz) Nordhoff, and he was a good production man and hard driving human dynamo. Nordhoff rallied the workforce, raised morale, and pushed production from the less than 20,000 VWs that had been built by the time he arrived, to 500,000 by July, 1953, one million by August, 1955, and five million by December, 1961. North American sales began in 1949 when two were sold in the U.S. Volkswagens began arriving in Canada in late 1952 as ’53 models.

Although the shape of the Beetle remained unchanged, there were constant mechanical improvements. Its inherent sturdiness and excellent parts and service network, backed up by a cleverly self deprecating advertising campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach (“Think small”; “After we paint the car we paint the paint”; “Did you ever wonder how the snowplough driver gets to work?”), brought the Volkswagen to the pinnacle of small car sales during the 1950s and ’60s.

The Volkswagen Beetle went on to become the most popular single model in the history of the automobile. On February 15, 1972, the 15,007,034th Beetle rolled off the assembly line, surpassing the record of the legendary Ford Model T. When production ceased in Mexico the total number built was over 22 million.

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