A Brief History
On July 30, 2003, in Puebla, Mexico of all places, the last of the “old style” (what we like to call “real”) Volkswagen Beetles came off the assembly line, ending the longest and most prolific manufacturing streak of any car platform ever made.
(Note: The Toyota Corolla has sold 40 million units under that name, but the car has definitely not been the same basic car for its lifespan, from 1966 to Present. It is the same in name only.)
The Volkswagen Beetle was the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche (yes, as in that Porsche) who designed the car in response to a 1934 request from German Dictator Adolf Hitler to produce a “people’s car” for the masses, something like the German equivalent of the Ford Model T. It took the Porsche team until 1938 to perfect the design, and the cars started rolling off the assembly line, continuing until 2003 for a 65 year run and 21,529,464 cars made, the longest run and the most cars of a single platform ever made. (Previous record was the Model T, with a 19 year run and over 15 million built). Five German factories and 14 foreign factories produced Beetles over the years.
Porsche and his team designed a rear engine, rear wheel drive car with air cooling for reliability, simplicity, and economy of manufacture. A smallish 2 door car with a front and back seat, with a 4 cylinder “Boxer” (horizontally opposed cylinders) engine of 1100 cc initially to a maximum size of 1600 cc. Original horsepower was a modest 25 ponies, which of course grew over time with the size of the engine, until the 40 horsepower engine of the 1960’s became the classic Bug motor, with a 50 horsepower and then a 53 horsepower unit following in 1967. Of course, you could get the Beetle in a rag top model for open air motoring, and in 1961 you could finally get an automatic transmission of sorts, called the “Saxomat” and then in 1968 an auto trans badged “VW Automatic” and then “Automatic Stick Shift,” where you had to change gears yourself, but without a foot clutch. The 1970’s saw the Beetle energized with a 1600 cc engine producing 57 horsepower. Yippee!
The “New Beetle” was produced in 1998 as a modern upgrade, with an entirely different platform with a front engine and front-wheel-drive. Made to look similar to the Beetle, the New Beetle was really a different car. The decline in Beetle sales in the 1970’s to 1998 due to the explosion in small car choices, especially from Japan, gave drivers an alternative with better gas mileage and greater comfort (the Beetle heater never worked all that well) and greatly improved performance. The “classic” Beetle was no longer made in Germany, and would only be produced overseas, lastly in Mexico until the final Beetle rolled out in 2003.
A bit of incredibly intriguing trivia is the saga of the windshield washer, which started out as a hand pumped unit, then was pressurized by filling the unit with compressed air at a gas station, and then (Think I’m kidding? Look it up!) the windshield washer fluid reservoir was powered by the compressed air from the spare tire, so you had to keep topping off the air in the spare if you used your windshield washer! During World War II, few Beetles were made, and then only for government officials, but military variants such as the “Kubelwagen” were built for the Wermacht, the German answer to the American Jeep, though without 4-wheel drive. The “Schwimmwagen” variant built for the war was an amphibious 4-wheel drive military car, the most produced amphibious car ever (15,584). A post war variant, the VW 181, was similar to the WWII Kubelwagen and was built from 1968 to 1983 for the German Army and sold to the public as the VW “Thing” in the US and “Trekker” in the UK.
Despite agonizingly slow acceleration, a lack of amenities, decades of drum brakes, and general dorkiness, the Beetle had a cult following like few other cars before or since. The Beetle (and the Volkswagen “Bus”) became the darling of the Flower Power generation, and often found favor as a sort of ugly/cute quirky symbol of individuality. For you engineering types, the Beetle was 160.6 inches long, had a wheelbase of 94.5 inches, and a width of 60.6 inches, weighing in at 1760 to 1850 pounds. The final version produced 50 horsepower and got 32 mpg, capable of 81 mph.
In 1969, my family doctor took me to a Cleveland Indians baseball game, and though I was eager to ride in a Cadillac, Lincoln, Imperial or some other luxury car for the first time in my life, I was shocked to be chauffeured to the game in a Beetle!
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you have a funny or interesting VW Beetle story? If so, please share it with us in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Rieger, Bernhard. The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle. Harvard University Press, 2013.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Hasse Aldhammer of the last car of the last model of Volkswagen Type 1, “Última edición”, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.