The Volkswagen Beetle

The Volkswagen Beetle : A parting gift from Hitler

The Volkswagen Beetle started its life Volkswagen Type 1 moniker in 1938. One of most recognizable car in the whole WORLD, was called many things like Kafer (German, “beetle”), People’s car, the Bug and many more. Two most distinguishable achievements were that it was in active production for the longest period for any single model of a car, from 1938 to 2003 and most over 21 million sold, that is 5 million more than Model T. But I think most interesting fact about it was that it was Hitler’s Dream that resulted in its birth.

The People’s Car

After loss in first world war, Germany went into financial melt down. Although Germany was home to many car manufacture but Germans were in no position to afford anything that has more than two wheels. With Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, he challenged the automakers to come with a German alternative of Model T. A Volkswagen (In German Peoples car).


In 1934 Porsche accepted the challenge for the car that has to be confined to the clearest of guidelines given by Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler insisted on a basic vehicle that could transport two adults and three children at 100 km/h (62 mph) while not using more than 7 litres of fuel per 100 km. Everything had to be designed to ensure parts could be quickly and inexpensively exchanged.

Name is KDF-Wagen

Lead engineer Ferdinand Porsche and his team took until 1938 to finalise the design. The influence on Porsche’s design of other contemporary cars, such as the Tatra V570, and the work of Josef Ganz remains a subject of dispute. The result was the first Volkswagen.

It was to have cost 990 Reich Marks, which represented 31 weeks’ pay for the average German worker in 1936. To buy one, however, members of the Volks had to join a special savings scheme run by the organisation KdF (Kraft durch Freude, or Strength through Joy). hence on 26 May 1938, Hitler while laying the cornerstone for the Volkswagen factory in Fallersleben named it KdF-Wagen.

Volkswagen had only just started small scale production, building about 210 Beetles, before civilian production was halted at the start of the war. Except for two military prototype units, these KdF sedans were allocated to military officers as personal cars. Hitler was given the very first convertible Beetle built in 1938. Both 704cc and 984cc air-cooled engines were fitted in these early units.

The re-birth of Volkswagen

War is over! While Times Square goes nuts, sailors kiss random women, and the world lets out a collective sigh of relief as Germany falls to the Allied forces. The Volkswagens factory  was  in ruins.  The Americans gave the control of the factory (or what left of it)  in British hands in 1945. It was to be dismantled and shipped to Britain. Thankfully for Volkswagen, no British car manufacturer was interested in the factory.


The credit for re-opening of the factory largely went to British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst. Hirst had orderes to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. His first task was to remove an un-exploded bomb that had fallen through the roof and lodged itself between some pieces of irreplaceable production equipment; if the bomb had exploded, the Beetle’s fate would have been sealed.

He knew that Germany needed jobs and the British Army needed vehicles. He persuaded the British military to order 20,000 cars. And by March 1946 the factory was again producing cars (in Army khaki, under the name Volkswagen Type 1). During this period, the car reverted to its original name of Volkswagen and the town got a new name Wolfsburg. 

The Beetle-Mania

Heinz Nordhoff

In 1947 an ex-Opel executive, Heinz Nordhoff, got to run the place when the British began attempting to transition ownership of the “Wolfsburg Motor Works,” (the new name for the factory), to almost anyone who would take it. Henry Ford II even refused to take the operation as a gift.

Heinz Nordhoff made two major decisions when he took over the ownership of the factory. The first was the one model policy to ensure improvements. And the other was about keeping the Volkswagen’s unique shape. As a result in the year 1948 production had staggeringly increased to 19,244.
Heinz Nordhoff also realised the importance of exportation for the survival of the Volkswagen.

Under Nordhoff, production increased dramatically over the following decade, with the one-millionth car coming off the assembly line by 1955. On 17 February 1972, when Beetle No. 15,007,034 made out from the factory, Beetle production surpassed that of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T. By 1973, total production was over 16 million, and by 23 June 1992, it had reached over 21 million.

Think Small

The 50s and 60s were a time when cars weren’t just a way to get the kids to school. Cars were fashion statements, testosterone boosters, muscles on wheels. They were fast, big, stylish and the ultimate way to earn bragging points.

As the 1950s came to a close, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) and Volkswagen decided to completely destroy the status quo for automobile ads with the “Think Small” campaign.

‘Think Small’ advertising campaign came in 1959 and was the brainchild of the New York agency Doyle Dane Bern Bach. The Volkswagen Beetle became the biggest selling foreign-made car in America throughout the ’60s. It went on to sell in various guises, as a soft-top, a sportscar – the svelte, an unhurried VW Karmann Ghia  and as an interminably fashionable Camper van.

Start of an End

Though extremely successful in the 1960s, experiencing its greatest sales growth in North America between 1960 and 1965, the Beetle was increasingly faceing stiff competition from more modern designs globally. The Japanese Datsun 510,Toyota Corona in the late 1960s, Honda N600, in late 1969, upgraded Honda Civic in 1972 grew rapidly at the expense of Volkswagen Beetle. The Japanese “big three” would soon dominate compact auto sales in North America. Volkswagen Beetle faced increasingly stiff competition from European cars as well the Fiat 127, Renault 5, Superminis. 

Volkswagen’s attempts to boost the power of their air-cooled motor to meet the demands of higher highway speeds in the late 1960s, then comply with new pollution control regulations, caused problems for reliability and fuel efficiency that impaired the reputation of the aging design. Safety issues with the Beetle came under increasing scrutiny. During the early 1970s, sales of the Beetle in Europe and North America plummeted.

The Last Volkswagen Beetle

Production of the Volkswagen Beetle continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 19 January 1978. While mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico. By 2002, over 21 million Type 1s had been produced. But by 2003, annual production had dropped to 30,000 from a peak of 1.3 million in 1971. VW announced the end of production in June 2003, citing decreasing demand. And the final original Type 1 Volkswagen Beetle (No. 21,529,464) rolled off the production line at Puebla, Mexico, on 30 July 2003, 65 years after its original launch.

Although the new beetle has been carrying the name but it is no Type one. Where as Original beetle was indeed people car, the new beetle is more on the lines of a luxury car. But still name beetle is still alive and soon took a EV Avatar. Till then keep reading The Autolane



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