Looking to speed down the Autobahn? Well that’s what this classic Volkswagen was designed for!
The VW Beetle was first introduced to Germany in 1938 as an economy car that would put the cars of the day to shame for comfort and power. The Beetle is the longest-running and most-produced vehicle of a single design ever built. It used an air cooled rear engine and utilized rear wheel drive.
Believe it or not the Beetle was the start of Volkswagan as a manufacturing company who had been founded to produce the ‘People’s Car’ (which translated into German is ‘Folkswagan’). It was commissioned for citizens of the Third Reich by Adolf Hitler himself in April 1934 with the original idea of providing an affordable vehicle that could house 2 adults and 3 children with an average speed of 62mph, which was the speed limit on the Autobahn.
Erwin Komenda, Porsche’s chief designer, was responsible for the design and style of the car. The production of a non-military VW didn’t start until after the end of World War Two.
Following the war whilst the Germans were initially limited to producing 10% of car production numbers though it was then in 1945 that the Americans handed over control of the factory to the British. It was intended for the factory to be shipped over to the UK but no manufacturers were interested in taking on a vehicle they considered to be undesirable. Because of this, it was decided the vehicle would be produced for the Briish Army.
The fate of the Beetle was nearly doomed by an unexploded bomb that crashed through the roof of the VW factory during bombings of Germany. The bomb was lodged inside some irreplaceable equipment and if detonated the Beetle might never have been made again. Its savior came in the form of British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst who was in charge of reopening the factory post-war. The bomb was disposed of and he persuaded the British military to order 20,000 beetles so by 1946 they were producing 1000 a month.
In 1947 production became solely for civilian use and the numbers produced over the following years boomed. This also saw the introduction of the iconic chrome bumper, hubcaps and body and running board trims.
Originally called ‘Käfer’ which is the German translation of ‘Beetle’, the car was simply billed as a Volkswagen Type 1 until August 1967 when Volkswagen themselves began marketing the car as The Beetle throughout the US. It seems strange but up until then within the UK it had only been known as either the ‘Type 1’ or as the 1100, 1200, 1300, 1500, or 1600 which had been the names under which the vehicle was marketed in Europe. The numbers were meant to indicate the engine size in cubic centimeters.
The 1950’s brought the redesign of the car with visual changes being made. It was progressively modified and In March 1953, the small oval two-piece rear window was replaced by a slightly larger single-piece window. More dramatically, in August 1957 a much larger full width rear window replaced the oval one. 1964 saw the introduction of a widened cover for the light over the rear license plate. Towards the end of 1964, the height of the side windows and windscreen grew slightly, giving the cabin a less pinched look: this coincided with the introduction of a very slightly curved (“panoramic”) windscreen, though the curve was barely noticeable.
It’s also worth mentioning that 1951 saw a diesel prototype of a 1.3 litre engine. Volkswagen made only 2 air-cooled boxer diesel engines that were not turbocharged, and installed one engine in a Type 1 and another in a Type 2. Just for fun, the diesel Beetle was time tested on the Nürburgring and achieved 0-100 km/h (0-60 mph) in one minute.
The Beetle saw great success during the 60’s and along with its design offspring the VW Campervan it became part of popular culture as a style icon. The car went from the streets of the world onto the big screen when Disney produced the 1969 film ‘The Love Bug’ in which an anthropomorphic VW Beetle has a mind of its own with the ability to drive itself. The film and its sequels saw the Beetle reach new cult status and boosted sales all around the world.
In 2003 VW announced they would be stopping production of the Beetle due to declining sales and the very last Beetle rolled off the production line in July 2003.
The Beetle is one of those rare vehicles being kept alive by people who admire it and consider it an important part of automotive history regardless of country origins and it’s seemingly dark past. It continues to be loved and even reintroduced with models being redesigned in the late 90’s, which spurred a resurgence of interest in the long-running brand. The VW Beetle continues to be a popular vehicle especially for young people and as fuel prices continue to rise while the economy slows down, we are sure to see a new interest in our beloved Beetle.