The Volkswagen Beetle—officially the Volkswagen Type 1, informally in German the Käfer (literally "beetle"), in parts of the English-speaking world the Bug, and known by many other nicknames in other languages—is a two-door, rear-engine economy car, intended for five passengers, that was manufactured and marketed by German automaker Volkswagen (VW) from 1938 until 2003.
The need for a people's car (Volkswagen in German), its concept and its functional objectives were formulated by the leader of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler, who wanted a cheap, simple car to be mass-produced for his country's new road network. 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, and one of the first rear-engined cars since the Brass Era. With 21,529,464 produced, the Beetle is the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single platform ever made.
Although designed in the 1930s, the Beetle was only produced in significant numbers starting from 1945 (non-military mass production had been put on hold during the Second World War), when the model was internally designated the Volkswagen Type 1, and marketed simply as the Volkswagen (or "People's Car"). Later models were designated Volkswagen 1200, 1300, 1500, 1302, or 1303, the former three indicating engine displacement, the latter two derived from the type number. The model became widely known in its home country as the Käfer (German for "beetle", cognate with English chafer) and was later marketed under that name in Germany, and as the Volkswagen in other countries. For example, in France it was known as the Coccinelle (French for ladybug).
The original 25 hp Beetle was designed for a top speed around 100 km/h (62 mph), which would be a viable speed on the Reichsautobahn system. As Autobahn speeds increased in the postwar years, its output was boosted to 36, then 40 hp, the configuration that lasted through 1966 and became the "classic" Volkswagen motor. The Beetle ultimately gave rise to variants, including the Karmann Ghia, Type 2, and external coach builders. The Beetle marked a significant trend, led by Volkswagen, Fiat, and Renault, whereby the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout increased from 2.6 percent of continental Western Europe's car production in 1946 to 26.6 percent in 1956. Over time a trend towards front-wheel drive would come to dominate the European small-car market. In 1974, Volkswagen's own front-wheel drive Golf model succeeded the Beetle. In 1994, Volkswagen unveiled the Concept One, a "retro"-themed concept car with a resemblance to the original Beetle, and in 1998 introduced the "New Beetle", built on the contemporary Golf platform with styling recalling the original Type 1. It remained in production through 2010, and was succeeded in 2011 by the more aggressively styled Beetle (A5), which was also more reminiscent of the original Beetle.
The originating concept behind the first Volkswagen, the company, and its name, is the notion of a people’s car – a car affordable and practical enough for common people to own. Hence the name, which is literally "people's car" in German, pronounced [ˈfɔlksvaːɡən]). Although the Volkswagen was mainly the brainchild of Ferdinand Porsche and Adolf Hitler, the idea is much older than Nazism, and existed since mass-production of cars was introduced. Contrary to the United States, where the Ford Model T had become the first car to motorize the masses, contributing to household car ownership of about 33% in 1920 and some 46% in 1930, in the early 1930s, the German auto industry was still mostly limited to luxury models, and few Germans could afford anything more than a motorcycle: one German out of 50 owned a car.
In April 1934, Hitler gave the order to Porsche to develop a Volkswagen.[note 2] The epithet Volks- literally, "people's-" had been applied to other Nazi-sponsored consumer goods as well, such as the Volksempfänger ("people's radio").
In May 1934, at a meeting at Berlin's Kaiserhof Hotel, Chancellor 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 (32 mpg US/39 mpg UK). The engine had to be powerful enough for sustained cruising on Germany's new Autobahnen. Everything had to be designed to ensure parts could be quickly and inexpensively exchanged. The engine had to be air-cooled because, as Hitler explained, not every country doctor had his own garage. (Ethylene glycolantifreeze was only just beginning to be used in high-performance liquid-cooled aircraft engines. In general, water in radiators would freeze unless the vehicle was kept in a heated building overnight or drained and refilled each morning.)
The "People's Car" would be available to citizens of Germany through a savings scheme, or Sparkarte (savings booklet), at 990 Reichsmark, about the price of a small motorcycle. (The average weekly income was then around 32RM.)
KdF Propaganda: "A family playing by a river with a KdF-Wagen and radio receiver"
The Zündapp prototypes were followed by the Porsche Type 32, designed in 1933 for NSU Motorenwerke AG, another motorcycle company. The Type 32 was similar in design to the Type 12, but it had a flat-four engine. NSU discontinued car manufacturing, and the Type 32 was abandoned at the prototype stage.
Initially designated Type 60 by Porsche, the design team included Erwin Komenda and Karl Rabe. In October 1935, the first two Type-60 prototypes, known as cars V1, a sedan, and V2 , a convertible (V for Versuchswagen, or "test car"), were ready. In 1936 testing began of three further V3 prototypes, built in Porsche's Stuttgart shop. A batch of thirty W30 development models, produced for Porsche by Daimler-Benz, underwent 1,800,000 mi (2,900,000 km) of further testing in 1937. All cars had the distinctive round shape and the air-cooled, rear-mounted engine. Included in this batch was a rollback soft top called the Cabrio Limousine. A further batch of 44 VW38 pre-production cars produced in 1938 introduced split rear windows; both the split window and the dash were retained on production Type 1s until 1953. The VW38 cars were followed by another batch of 50 VW39 cars, completed in July 1939.
The car was designed to be as simple as possible mechanically. The air-cooled 25 hp (19 kW) 995 cc (60.7 cu in) motor's built-in oil cooler, and the flat-four engine configuration's superior performance was also effective for the German Afrika Korps in Africa's desert heat. The suspension design used compact torsion bars instead of coil or leaf springs. The Beetle is nearly airtight and will briefly float.
On 26 May 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone for the Volkswagen factory in Fallersleben. He gave a speech, in which he named the car Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen ("Strength Through Joy Car", usually abbreviated to KdF-Wagen).
The name refers to Kraft durch Freude ('Strength Through Joy'), the official leisure organization of Nazi Germany. The model village of Stadt des KdF-Wagens was created near Fallersleben in Lower Saxony in 1938 for the benefit of the workers at the newly built factory.
Volkswagen had only just started small scale production, building about 210 Beetles, when 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 first volume-produced versions of the car's running-gear and chassis were military vehicles, the Type 82 Kübelwagen (approximately 52,000 built) and the amphibious Type 128 and 166 Schwimmwagen (about 14,000 built).
Front view of a Wehrmacht Typ 82E in dunkelgelb.
A handful of KdF-Wagens were produced, primarily for the Nazi elite from 1941 to 1944, as the Typ 60. The factory also built the Kübelwagen (Typ 82), Schwimmwagen (Typ 166), and a handful of other variants, as Wehrmacht combat vehicles. It produced small numbers of Kommandeurswagen (Typ 87), with a Typ 1 body mounted on a four-wheel driveSchwimmwagen chassis; the fenders were widened to accommodate Kronprinz all-terrain tires (reminiscent of the later Baja Bugs).Kommandeurswagen were produced up to 1944, when all production was halted because of heavy damage to the factory from Allied air raids. Much of the essential equipment had already been moved to underground bunkers for protection, which let production resume quickly after hostilities ended. Due to gasoline shortages late in the war, a few "Holzbrenner" Beetles were built, powered by pyrolysisgas producers located under the front hood.
Post-war production and boom
1949 split-window (known as a "pretzel", "split", or "splitty" among enthusiasts) was commonly used to describe transporters of the era.
In occupied Germany, the Allies followed the Morgenthau plan to remove all German war potential by complete or partial pastoralization. As part of this, in the Industrial plans for Germany, the rules for which industry Germany was to be allowed to retain were set out. German car production was set at a maximum of 10% of the 1936 car production numbers.
Mass production of civilian VW cars did not start until post-war occupation. The Volkswagen factory was handed over by the Americans to British control in 1945; it was to be dismantled and shipped to Britain. However, no British car manufacturer was interested in the factory; an official report included the phrases "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car… it is quite unattractive to the average buyer… To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." The factory survived by producing cars for the British Army instead. Allied dismantling policy changed in late 1946 to mid-1947, although heavy industry continued to be dismantled until 1951. In March 1947, Herbert Hoover helped change policy by stating
There is the illusion that the New Germany left after the annexations can be reduced to a "pastoral state". It cannot be done unless we exterminate or move 25,000,000 people out of it.
The re-opening of the factory is largely accredited to British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst. Hirst was ordered to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. His first task was to remove an unexploded 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. Knowing Germany needed jobs and the British Army needed vehicles, Hirst persuaded the British military to order 20,000 cars, and by March 1946 the factory was producing 1,000 cars a month (in Army khaki, under the name Volkswagen Type 1), which Hirst said "was the limit set by the availability of materials". During this period, the car reverted to its original name of Volkswagen and the town was renamed Wolfsburg. The first 1,785 Type 1s were made in 1945.
The jeweled one-millionth Type 1
Following the British Army-led restart of production and Hirst's establishment of sales network and exports to Netherlands, former Opel manager (and formerly a detractor of the Volkswagen) Heinz Nordhoff was appointed director of the Volkswagen factory in 1949. Under Nordhoff, production increased dramatically over the following decade, with the one-millionth car coming off the assembly line by 1955. During this post-war period, the Beetle had superior performance in its category with a top speed of 115 km/h (71 mph) and 0–100 km/h (0–62 mph) in 27.5 seconds with fuel consumption of 6.7 l/100 km (36 mpg) for the standard 25 kW (34 hp) engine. This was far superior to the Citroën 2CV, which was aimed at a low speed/poor road rural peasant market, and Morris Minor, designed for a market with no motorways or freeways; it was even competitive with more advanced small city cars like the Austin Mini.
In Small Wonder, Walter Henry Nelson wrote:
The engine fires up immediately without a choke. It has tolerable road-handling and is economical to maintain. Although a small car, the engine has great elasticity and gave the feeling of better output than its small nominal size.
There were other, less-numerous models, as well. The Hebmüller cabriolet (officially Type 14A), a sporty two-seater, was built between 1949 and 1953; it numbered 696. The Type 18A, a fixed-top cabriolet, was produced by Austro-Tatra as a police and fire unit; 203 were assembled between January 1950 and March 1953.
On 17 February 1972 Beetle No. 15,007,034 was produced, surpassing total production of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T. By 1973, total production was over 16 million, and by 23 June 1992, over 21 million had been produced.
Though extremely successful in the 1960s, experiencing its greatest sales growth in North America between 1960 and 1965, the Beetle was increasingly faced with stiff competition from more modern designs globally. The Japanese had refined rear-wheel-drive, water-cooled, front-engine, small cars including the Datsun 510 and Toyota Corona, whose sales in the North American market grew rapidly at the expense of Volkswagen in the late 1960s. Honda introduced the N600, based on the space-efficient transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive layout of the original Austin Mini, to the North American market in late 1969, and upgraded the model to the Honda Civic in 1972. The Japanese "big three" would soon dominate compact auto sales in North America. In 1971 Ford introduced its Pinto, which had some market impact as a low cost alternative in the wake of the drop of the US Dollar against the Deutschmark that same year. As the 1960s came to a close, Volkswagen faced increasingly stiff competition from European cars as well. The Beetle was faced with competition from new designs like the Fiat 127 and Renault 5, and more robust designs based on the Austin Mini layout such as the Superminis. German competitors, Ford and Opel also enjoyed strong sales of modern smaller cars like the Ford Escort and Opel Kadett. 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, culminating in the 1972 release of a rather scathing report. During the early 1970s, sales of the Beetle in Europe and North America plummeted.
VW introduced other models to supplement the Beetle throughout the 1960s; the Type 3, Type 4, and the NSU-based and larger K70. None of these models, aimed at more upscale markets, achieved the level of success of the Beetle. The over-reliance on a single model, now in decline, meant that Volkswagen was in financial crisis by 1974. It needed German government funding to produce the Beetle's replacement.
Production lines at Wolfsburg switched to the new water-cooled, front-engined, front-wheel-driveGolf designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro in 1974, sold in North America at the time as the "Rabbit". The Golf eventually became Volkswagen's most successful model since the Beetle. It was periodically redesigned over its lifetime, with only a few components carried over between generations, entering its seventh generation in 2012; the Beetle had only minor refinements of its original design.
The Golf did not kill Beetle production, nor did the smaller Polo which was launched a year later. Production of the Beetle continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 19 January 1978, when mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico: markets where low operating cost was an important factor. After this shift in production, sales in Europe did not stop, but became very low. Beetle sedans were produced for U.S. markets until July 1977 and for European markets until 1985, with other companies continuing to import cars produced in Mexico after 1985. The Beetle convertible/Cabriolet ended production (as 1979 models) on January 31, 1980.
The last Beetle was produced in Puebla, Mexico, in July 2003. The final batch of 3,000 Beetles were sold as 2004 models and badged as the Última Edición, with whitewall tires, a host of previously discontinued chrome trim, and the choice of two special paint colors taken from the New Beetle. Production in Brazil ended in 1986, then started again in 1993 and continued until 1996.
The Beetle outlasted most other cars which had adopted the rear-engine, air-cooled layout such as those by Subaru, Fiat, and General Motors. Porsche's 356 series which originally used some Volkswagen-sourced parts, continued to use the classic rear-engine layout (which later became water cooled) in the Porsche 911 996 series, which remains competitive in the second decade of the 21st century.
Worldwide end of production
"Última Edición" (Final Edition) in Aquarius Blue (2003)
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 VW Beetle (No. 21,529,464) rolled off the production line at Puebla, Mexico, on 30 July 2003, 65 years after its original launch. This last Beetle, nicknamed El Rey (Spanish for "The King" after a legendary Mexican song by José Alfredo Jiménez) was delivered to the company's museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
To celebrate the occasion, Volkswagen marketed a final, special series of 3,000 Beetles marketed as "Última Edición" (Final Edition) in light blue (Aquarius Blue) or beige (Harvest Moon Beige). Each car included the 1.6 engine, whitewall tires, a CD player with four speakers, chrome bumpers, trim, hub caps and exterior mirrors, a Wolfsburg emblem above the front trunk's handle, chrome glove box badge, body coloured wheels, tinted glass, a rear parcel shelf, and VW Última Edición plaque.
A mariachi band serenaded production of the last car. In Mexico, there was an advertising campaign as a goodbye for the Beetle. In one of the ads was a very small parking space on the street, and many big cars tried to use it, but could not. After a while, a sign appears in that parking space saying: "Es increíble que un auto tan pequeño deje un vacío tan grande" (It is incredible that a car so small can leave such a large void). Another depicted the rear end of a 1954 Beetle (the year Volkswagen was established in Mexico) in the left side of the ad, reading "Erase una vez..." (Once upon a time...) and the last 2003 Beetle in the right side, reading "Fin" (The end). There were other ads with the same nostalgic tone.