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CATEGORIES (articles) > Donor vehicle information > Volkswagon > VW Beetle history

VW Beetle history

The Volkswagen Beetle or Bug is a small family car, the best known car of Volkswagen, of Germany, and almost certainly the world. Thanks to its distinctive shape and sound, and its reliability, it now enjoys a "cult" status.

The Beetle was in production from 1938 until 2003, interrupted only by the Second World War. Over 21 million Beetles were produced.

The "Beetle" name was not originally given to the car. Inside Volkswagen, it was simply the "Type 1" until the 1968 model year (August 1967), when, for the first time, the German brochures used the name "DER KÄFER" on the front cover and inside. The Beetle name was later reused when the New Beetle was introduced in 1998.


The origins of the car date back to 1930s Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler's desire that almost anybody should be able to afford a car fitted with a proposal by car designer Ferdinand Porsche, although Hitler himself played some role in the car's shape and, possibly, nickname. Dissatisfied with the initial design of the car's front end (and perhaps caught up in the 1930s' mania for all things streamlined) Hitler penned a more rounded shape on a napkin and handed it to Porsche with the instructions, "it should look like a beetle, you only have to look to nature to find out what true streamlining is." The intention was that ordinary working Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme.

Prototypes of the car called the KdF-Wagen (German: Kraft durch Freude = strength through joy), appeared from 1935 onwards—the first prototypes were produced by Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart. The car already had its distinctive round shape (designed by Erwin Komenda) and air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine. However, the factory (in the new town of Kdf-Stadt, purpose-built for the factory workers) had only produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. Consequently the first volume-produced versions of the car's chassis (if not body) were military vehicles, the jeep-like Kübelwagen (approx. 52,000 built) and the amphibious Schwimmwagen (approx. 14,000 built).

A VW Beetle 1200 before 1967
1968 VW Beetle

Deliberately designed to be as simple as possible mechanically, there was simply less that could go wrong; the radiator-less air-cooled 985 cm³ 25 hp (19 kW) motors proved especially effective in action in North Africa's desert heat. A handful of civilian-spec Beetles were produced, primarily for the Nazi elite, in the years 1940-1945, but production figures were small. In response to gasoline shortages, a few wartime "Holzbrenner" Beetles were steam-powered with wood burning boilers under the hood. In addition to the Kubelwagen, Schwimmwagen, and a handful of others, the factory managed another wartime vehicle: the Kommandeurwagen; a Beetle body mounted on the 4WD Kubelwagen chassis. A total of 669 Kommandeurwagens were produced until 1945, when all production was halted due to heavy damage sustained in Allied air raids on the factory. Much of the essential equipment had already been moved to underground bunkers for protection, allowing production to resume quickly once hostilities had ended.

Much of the Beetle's design was inspired by the advanced Tatra cars of Hans Ledwinka. Tatra sued, but the lawsuit was stopped when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. The matter was re-opened after WW2 and in 1961 Volkswagen paid Tatra 3,000,000 Deutsche Marks.

The Volkswagen Company owes its post war existence largely to one man, British army officer Major Ivan Hirst (1916–2000). Post-war, he was ordered to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. He persuaded the British military to order 20,000 of the cars, and by 1946 the factory was producing 1,000 cars a month. The car and its town changed their Nazi-era names, to Volkswagen (people's car) and Wolfsburg. The first 1,785 Beetles were made in a factory near Wolfsburg in 1945.

Production of the "Type 1" VW Beetle (German: "Käfer"; US: "Bug"; French: "Coccinelle"; Italian: "Maggiolino"; Mexico: "Vocho"; Brazil: "Fusca"; Spanish: "Escarabajo"; Dutch: "Kever"; Portuguese: "Carocha") increased dramatically over the years, the 1 millionth car coming off the assembly line in 1954. During the 1960s and early 1970s innovative advertising campaigns and a glowing reputation for reliability and sturdiness helped production figures to surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T, when Beetle No. 15,007,034 was produced on February 17, 1972; by 1973 total production was over 16 million, and by 2002 there had been over 21 million produced.

Faced with stiff competition from more modern designs—in particular economical Japanese autos in the US—sales began dropping off in the mid-1970s. There had been several unsuccessful attempts to replace the Beetle throughout the 1960s; but the Type 3, Type 4 (411) and the NSU-based K70 were all failures. Finally, production lines at Wolfsburg switched to the new water-cooled, front engined, front wheel drive Golf in 1974, a car unlike its predecessor in most significant ways.

Beetle production continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico; the last Beetle was produced in Mexico in mid-2003. The final batch of 3,000 Beetles (officially named the Sedan in Mexico) were sold as 2004 models and badged as Ultima Edicions, with whitewall tires, a host of previously-discontinued chrome trim, and choice of two special paint colours taken from the New Beetle. Production in Brazil ended in 1988, then re-started in 1993 and continued until 1996. Volkswagen sold Beetles in the United States until 1978 and in Europe until the mid-1980s.

Independent importers continued to supply several major countries, including Germany, France, and the UK until the end of production in 2003. Devoted fans of the car even discovered a way to circumvent US safety regulations by placing new Mexican Beetles on the floor pans of earlier, US-registered cars. The end of production in Mexico can be blamed primarily on the Mexican government's decision to gradually outlaw the use of 2-door cars as taxi cabs (the Beetle's core market in latter years.) In addition, Volkswagen, now Germany's largest automaker, has been attempting to cultivate a more upscale, premium brand image, and the simple Beetle, with its $7000 base price, clashed with VW's new identity, seen in the Touareg and Phaeton luxury vehicles.

Like its competitors the Mini and the Citroën 2CV, the Beetle has been regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement; and the obvious attributes of its unique and quirky design.

From 1968 to 1997 a white Beetle with racing numbers and stripes named "Herbie" played a starring role in The Love Bug series of Disney comedy films. A yellow Wunderkäfer, called DuDu, appeared in a series of German films for children.

New Beetle

At the 1994 North American International Auto Show, Volkswagen unveiled the J Mays-penned "Concept 1", a concept car with futuristic styling deliberately reminiscent of the original Beetle's rounded shape. Strong public reaction convinced the company to move the car into production and in 1998 Volkswagen launched the New Beetle. The New Beetle is related to the original only in name and appearance: under the hood, it is a modern car in every way, based on the Volkswagen A platform. In stark contrast to the original, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety gave the New Beetle among the best safety ratings in its class at the time of its launch.

2000 VW New Beetle

Marketing campaigns have enhanced the continued goodwill towards the original, and helped the new model to inherit it. The Volkswagen New Beetle was Motor Trend's Import Car of the Year for 1999.

Phase Out of the Original Beetle

In 2002 total production of the VW Golf, at 22 million units, overtook that of the Beetle. However this measure includes all four distinct generations of Golf since 1974.

By 2003 Beetle annual production had fallen to 30,000 from a peak of 1.3 million in 1971. On July 30, 2003, the final original VW Beetle (No. 21,529,464) was produced at Puebla, Puebla, Mexico, some 65 years since its public launch in Nazi Germany, and an unprecedented 58-year production run since 1945. VW announced this step in June, citing decreasing demand. The last car was immediately shipped off to the company's museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. In true Mexican fashion, a mariachi band serenaded the last car.

The final edition had the following specifications:

Length: 13.32 ft (4 m)
Width: 5.08 ft (1.6 m)
Height: 4.92 ft (1.5 m)
Length between axles: 7.87 ft (2.4 m)
Weight: 1,786 pounds (810 kg)
Engine: 4 cylinders, 1.6 L
Transmission: Manual
Brakes: front disc, back drum
Passengers: Five
Tank: 10.57 gallons (40 L)
Colours: Aquarius blue, Harvestmoon beige.

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