There are few vehicles that cut a more iconic figure than the Volkswagen Beetle. A brilliant example of a piece of automotive engineering that has truly stood the test of time, ask almost anyone around the world what a VW Beetle looks like and you’re likely to get a pretty accurate response. What they might not be able to tell you, however, is the fascinating history of the vehicle and its development.
“The Peoples’ Car”
Given its current iconic and popular status, the early beginnings of the Volkswagen Beetle are surprising to say the least. The original idea for the car’s production, after all, came from Adolf Hitler back in 1934.
The then chancellor of Germany decreed that Ferdinand Porsche should develop a car capable of transporting two adults and three children at 62mph and allowing at least 39 miles to the gallon. Having also to be air cooled and to feature parts which could be easily and inexpensively changed, the new model would be known as “the peoples’ car” or Volkswagen.
Early Development and War
Under instruction from the Fuhrer, Porsche worked through a number of early prototypes before a model resembling what we recognise as a Beetle today began to take shape in around 1938. In that year, Hitler laid the cornerstone for a brand new VW factory in Fallersleben and named the car which was to be produced the Kraft Durch Freude (strength through joy) Wagen or KDF-Wagen.
The plan was that Germans would be able to join a savings scheme run by the Nazi’s KDF leisure organisation in order to purchase their brand new kind of family car. War, however, derailed these plans and led to the VW factory almost solely producing military adapted models of the vehicle rather than commercially available cars.
Major Ivan Hirst
At the end of WWII, strict controls were placed upon German industry and this led to the VW factory falling under the control of the British military. Largely under the supervision of one Major Ivan Hirst, the factory was re-opened and initially provided new vehicles for the British army.
The reliability and quality of those vehicles led to a growth in VW’s business, and after former Opel manager Heinz Nordhoff took over the factory in 1949, both production and export of VW Beetles accelerated apace. By 1955, in fact, the millionth Beetle had already left the VW production line and the popularity of the car had still yet to reach its zenith.
The Swinging Sixties
It was in the sixties that the VW Beetle really began to come into its own, the world over. Hugely popular with drivers and still one of only very few affordable and compact vehicles on the market, production of the Beetle reached an annual high of 1,076,897 cars in 1969.
That astonishing level of production at the end of the sixties was boosted, too, by the influence of the Hollywood film industry. In 1968, after all, a VW Beetle called ‘Herbie’ was the star of the popular Love Bug movie which – together with its sequels and remakes – helped to enhance and solidify the Beetle’s iconic status and global popularity.
The Bittersweet Seventies and Beyond
In the early 1970s, the Beetle became officially the most popular car of all time when its total production numbers exceeded those of Ford’s Model-T. In 1974, however, VW recorded an annual loss for the very first time and this spelled the beginning of the end for the Beetle. By 1980 production of the car had ceased in Germany and despite production enduring for a while elsewhere in the world, the very last VW Beetle rolled off the production line in 2003.
New or remastered versions of the car have since been manufactured but it was really in that year in Mexico that the sensational story of a vehicle born in Nazi Germany, popularised in Hollywood and loved the world over, came to an end.