Looking Back at the Volkswagen Beetle: A Brief History

Wilbert Tan

Volkswagen is scheduled to finally stop producing its beloved Volkswagen Beetle in July this year. As the dreaded day approaches, we take a look back at the famed Lovebug‘s history and remember what made it so special.

The Nazi connection

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The Beetle was conceived from the 1931 Porsche Type 12 developed by Austrian Ferdinand Porsche and German motorcycle manufacturer Zündapp. The curvy car called ‘Auto fur Jedermann‘–translated as ‘Car for Everyone’–became the Beetle’s inspiration after Adolf Hitler commissioned Porsche to develop a ‘People’s Car‘–translated as Volks Wagen–in 1933. Five years later, the Type 1 emerged, equipped with a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine with many design elements lifted from the Type 12.

In May of 1938, Hitler launched the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. Then World War II came, and production at the factory was halted. Despite the stoppage, some cars continued to be built for Hitler’s officials, while the Führer was given the brand’s first convertible.

1946

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With Germany losing the war, the VW plant went under the control of the US armed forces. Seeing the car that was built there, Henry Ford believed that there was no market for it. The US gave the factory to the UK, but no British company was interested in it as well. William Rootes, a British motor manufacturer, called the Volkswagen “too ugly and noisy,” deeming it a poor investment overall.

Despite the stigma, VW eventually came to the US in 1949, where it surprisingly scored widespread popularity in a very short time. So popular in fact, that it sold one million units by 1956.

1959

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Volkswagen and other companies started getting creative with the Beetle in the ’60s and ’70s, beginning with the legendary ‘Think Small‘ ad campaign that went on to be the greatest advertising campaign of the 20th century. The ad, designed by copywriters Julian Koenig and Helmut Krone, featured a very small Beetle surrounded by white space. “Maybe we got so big because we thought small,” was the ad’s tagline.

Car modifiers discovered that they can take the body off and replace it with something else. One company fitted the empty chassis with a fiberglass tub, and that’s when the Dune Buggy was born as designed by Bruce Meyers.

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In 1968, Disney used the Beetle for its film “Herbie The Love Bug,” which featured a pearl white 1963 fabric sunroof Beetle with red, white and blue racing stripes and the number 53 on its hood.  The success of that film led to five more sequels, culminating with 2005’s “Herbie: Fully Loaded” which starred Lindsay Lohan. One of the cars used in the series sold for USD128,700 (around PHP6.72 million) at an auction.

By 1972, production of the Beetle shifted to Mexico and Brazil. This was the beginning of the end for the classic Beetle, as buyers lost interest in them for no longer being ‘true German Beetles,’ not to mention the units were basically a mashup of parts taken from different model years.

1998

Volkswagen finally decided to give the Beetle its first major design overhaul in 1998. Using the Golf platform, the new Beetle reflected classic design cues updated for modern times. It came with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that produced a modest 115 hp. A groovy version of the vehicle was featured in the movie “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.”

The classic Beetle continued to be produced in Mexico and Brazil, and was sold along with the new Beetle. By 2002, the classic Beetle reached over 21 million units sold. Unfortunately, declining sales convinced VW to end its production in 2003.

2011

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The new Beetle enjoyed robust sales, with special editions, variants, and updates being added to the range until 2010. In 2011, the car received another major redesign, leading to the A5 Beetle as it is known today.

Despite the recent update, sales of the new Beetle began dwindling in 2013. Finally realizing that the car has reached the end of its lifespan, Volkswagen announced in 2018 that it will stop producing the car this year. Nevertheless, even with the announcement, Hinrich J. Woebcken, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said “Never say never,” when pressed about whether this is truly the end for one of the world’s bestselling cars.

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