By Mike Aquino, for Yahoo! Southeast Asia
Despite its humble origins, the Volkswagen Beetle seemed built for greatness. Its creator was Ferdinand Porsche, designer and namesake of the Porsche sports car line. Porsche transcended a brief from the Nazi government to create an automobile that sold over 21 million units in 60 years, and still gets admiring looks from pedestrians and auto engineers alike.
As Volkswagen prepares to launch the 21st Century Beetle in Asia, let’s take a look at everything that came before: the war that almost ended Volkswagen before it began, the postwar sales boom that took the world by surprise, the amazing ad campaign that convinced a skeptical American market, and a reputation for sturdiness and quirky beauty that persists to this day.
The “People’s Car”
It all started with the autobahn. After World War I, the German government constructed a network of highways across the Reich, but since only the rich could afford to use cars, the autobahn looked desolate.
In 1934, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered Ferdinand Porsche to create an inexpensive Volkswagen (“people’s car”) that would cost only 1,000 Reichsmarks. The new car would be produced at a city in lower Saxony that would later be renamed Wolfsburg.
Civilian production didn’t last long; in 1939, Hitler started World War II, and the Reich converted the Volkswagen factory for military vehicle production. By the end of the war, only 600 civilian Volkswagen had been produced. Most of these were given to Nazi functionaries.
The War Survivor
At the end of World War II, Adolf Hitler lay dead in his Berlin bunker and the Allies began to pick up the pieces. Wolfsburg was occupied by the British military, who badly needed transportation; they assigned Major Ivan Hirst to restart production.
In 1945, with an order of 20,000 vehicles from the British Army, the Wolfsburg factory began producing Volkswagen (then known as the “Type 1”) in a factory still so damaged from the war that production stopped whenever it rained.
British car manufacturers who inspected the plant and its product were left unimpressed. One report predicted that the Type 1 “will remain popular only for two or three years.... It is quite unattractive to the average buyer.”
The Design Classic
The first Type 1s already possessed the Beetle shape we recognize today. Its designer, Erwin Komenda, used a wind tunnel to refine the Beetle’s lines. Later designers would find it difficult to improve on Komenda’s design.
Battista Pininfarina was once given the brief to revamp the Beetle, but the famous car designer declined. He could only suggest that the car’s rear window be enlarged.
Rear window aside, the exterior changed very little over the Beetle’s half-century in production. Major Hirst’s successor as Volkswagen chief, Heinz Nordhoff, preferred to refine the same model over time, defying his competitors’ approach of bringing out new makes annually. The Beetle’s inner workings went through about 78,000 incremental changes throughout its long production lifespan.
The Worldwide Bestseller
The Beetle soon gained a worldwide reputation for reliability and sturdiness. Under Nordhoff, Beetle sales boomed from 19,000 in 1948 to 46,000 in 1949. The plant began to export to neighboring European countries like Sweden and Britain.
International factories were soon built to meet raging demand. A Brazil factory set up shop in 1953, followed in 1954 by a plant in Puebla, Mexico. On February 17, 1972, the 15,007,034th Beetle rolled off the Wolfsburg assembly line (pictured above), ousting the Ford Model T as the world’s most-produced car.
The un-catchy Type 1 gave way to bug-inspired nicknames. While the English-speaking world stuck with “Beetle”, the car was called “Käfer” in Germany and Austria; “Maggiolino” in Italy; and “Fusca” in Brazil.
The Advertising Icon
The Beetle initially found the American market a hard nut to crack. The car’s Nazi origins scared some buyers; Henry Ford II called it a “little s--t box”. It took a game-changer of an advertising campaign to change their minds.
The 1959 campaign created by ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) looked like no other ad at the time. But that was the point: the Volkswagen was in a class of its own. Instead of selling the car with sex appeal, DDB made a virtue of the Beetle’s small size and Teutonic engineering.
“Think Small” took America by storm: by 1970, Volkswagen was the top car import in the U.S., controlling 7 percent of the market. In 1999, Ad Age magazine named “Think Small” as the best ad campaign of the century.
The All Terrain Vehicle
The “Think Small” ad campaign made much of Volkswagen Beetle’s robust design, and soon Beetle drivers were busy testing the little car’s limits.
Thanks to its airtight construction, Volkswagen Beetles float when lowered into water. Malcolm Buchanan (pictured above) rode a roadworthy Beetle 59 km across the Irish Sea. Another Beetle spent a year on Antarctica, serving as a transport for an Australian research station. After returning to Australia, the “Red Terror” went on to win the 1964 BP Rally through hot, dusty Down Under roads.
To this day, heavily-modified Beetles compete in drag races and off-road competitions. “Baja Bugs”, or Beetles modified for off-road use, still compete every year in the Baja 1000 rally in Mexico.
The Pop Idol
As the 1960s kicked in, the Beetle had become a mainstay of hippie culture. Artist Andy Warhol painted the Beetle in his own quirky style. The Beatle John Lennon owned a Beetle himself, and put it on the cover of his band’s Abbey Road album.
College students made a sport of cramming as many people in a Beetle as humanly possible (pictured above). Kate McLeod, in her book Beetlemania, claims that 103 students managed to fit into one Beetle and drive the car 15 feet forward.
The quirky little car even got its very own movie when Disney released The Love Bug in 1968. Herbie the Beetle starred in five more Disney movies, the last one premiering in 2005.
The Last of its Kind
From the 1970s onward, increasing worldwide competition from cheap Japanese compacts brought the Beetle party to an end. In the U.S., stricter emissions regulations ended the Beetle’s reign over the imports. By 1979, Volkswagen had stopped selling Beetles in America.
Beetle production kept chugging on next door in Puebla, Mexico, catering to continuing demand in Europe. By 1981, the 20 millionth Beetle emerged from the Puebla assembly line. The Wolfsburg plant had ceased production of Beetles in 1974, after the 11,916,519th Beetle rolled off its production line (pictured above).
The very last Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle rolled off of the Puebla factory on July 30, 2003, ending the Beetle’s 60-year production history with over 21.5 million units manufactured.
Singapore’s Early Bugs
Dieter Gumpart paid a princely $5300 for a 1961 Volkswagen Beetle. “At that time, there were maybe 50 or 60 German families in Singapore,” he recalls in the Beetle tribute book, Loving the Beetle – Stories of Singapore’s Beetle Owners. “Basically all Germans in Singapore in the 1960 drove Beetles.”
He also recalls how there would be hillclimb competitions up South Buona Vista Road, aka “The Gap.” “Our boss was living on top of Balmeg Hill nearby, and when we were invited there for lunch on Sunday mornings, we heard these fellows zipping up and down the hill. I never did it though.”
“Loving the Beetle – Stories of Singapore’s Beetle Owners” ($25) is available now at selected bookstores.
The Comeback Kid
Even as production on the Type 1 Beetle wound down, Volkswagen was preparing its successor. The New Beetle made its debut at the Detroit Auto Show in 1994, with sales kicking off in 1998.
In 2011, Volkswagen announced the successor to the New Beetle: a muscular compact described by designer Klaus Bischoff as “more power than flower”. The “21st Century Beetle” addressed criticisms that the previous model was too cutesy.
“We started from scratch,” Bischoff explained. “We wanted to make a dynamic, sportier, more masculine car.” It’s not the incremental change that used to be standard on the classic Type 1 Beetle, but there’s a sense that the 21st Century Beetle marks a genuine improvement on a once-in-a-century original.
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