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The success of the original Volkswagen Beetle is unprecedented, despite the fact that at multiple times during its development, production, and post-war life the car faced failure. In the U.S., the Beetle would become an established option for an inexpensive well-made car, as well as a symbol of the era of its adoption and a counter-culture icon. Abroad, in places like Mexico, the car succeeded in its mission of filling the need of modern transportation for modern roads.
The Beetle was the product of a long line of vehicles, the earliest of which was Ferdinand Porsche’s own Type 7. Porsche was hired by Zundapp and later NSU, German motorcycle manufacturers, to develop inexpensive cars based on his design. Evolving through the Types 12 and 32, both companies would pull out of automobile development before much progress was made. Though the project was seemingly dead in the water, when a model was presented to Adolf Hitler he was impressed. He tasked Porsche with the creation of a car based on the Type 32, with a top speed of 100 KPH (62 MPH), fuel consumption of 7 liters per 100 KM (~42 MPG), room for 2 adults and 3 children, and a price of just 1,000 Reichsmarks. It had to be fast enough for the anticipated autobahn super-highways, economical, and roomy. Porsche assembled a development team which continued to evolve the design with the VW3 and VW30 prototypes, as well as VW38 and VW39 pre-production cars. Their torsion bar suspension, backbone chassis, body, and horizontally opposed 4cyl engines were gradually improved upon or refined. The project became entirely state-funded, and on May 26, 1938 the cornerstone of the Volkswagen factory was laid by Adolf Hitler. The car was named the KdF-Wagen, a German acronym for Strength Through Joy-Car. Only 210 were produced before WWII, and during only a few Beetles were produced under the name Type 60, mostly for Nazi officials. War materials, including Beetle variants, like the Kubelwagen, amphibious Schwimmwagen, and 4WD Kommadeurwagen were produced in the VW factory.
During April of 1944 the factory was bombed by the American Eighth Air Force, three quarters of it were destroyed. After the war it fell under the jurisdiction of the British. Major Ivan Hirst of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) was bought in to oversee the factory as a repair-workshop for British Army vehicles. The production lines were originally going to be relocated for British production of the car, but British automakers refused it. Ivan Hirst and his superior Col. Charles Radclyffe saw potential in the VW. The British army evaluated the wartime VW Type 60 and, impressed, placed an order for 20,000 cars, renamed the Type 1. Under the control of REME, an unexploded bomb which threatened irreplaceable equipment was removed, the factory re-commissioned, and 1,000 Type 1s made by March of 1946. By 1947 exports and dealer and service networks were established in the Netherlands. The Volkswagen was saved from extinction by the British, and in 1949 control went back to German hands with VW factory General Director Heinz Nordhoff taking charge.
The Beetle had a rocky start in America, with only 159 sold in its first two years, but by 1955 Volkswagen of America was established and sold 32,662 Beetles. In 1959 Volkswagen America approached the New York based advertising firm DDB where William Berbach, the B of DDB, had established his style of advertisements that subverted expectations, or even poked fun at the products themselves. A perfect fit for the quirky VW, the “Think small” series of ads were successes. They added a playful twist to the car, and showcased its eccentricities as features, reasons to buy a Beetle over a lumbering domestic. The unusual appeal of this car is evidenced by its adoption by the hippies of the 60s, its use as Disney’s Herbie, and its continued production in and widespread impact upon Mexico, South America, and parts of Africa and Asia. As other imports, particularly those from Japan, became popular, Volkswagen was forced to update their design. The Super Beetle debuted in 1970 with improved McPherson strut front-suspension, and interior and body updates. While the Super Beetle was much improved, it was still a pre-war design, and relying so heavily on a single platform had left Volkswagen in a precarious situation by the mid 70s.
- Commonly called Beetle, the car’s official designation was the Type 1
- The most produced car of any type, with 21,529,464 made between 1938 and 2003
- 1974 Beetles in the U.S. featured 5-MPH impact bumpers. The Beetle’s successor, the Golf, was also introduced