Written by Cody Sapp
The Peoples Car. One of the most influential and significant vehicles to be built within the last century. Though its past may have been gloomy, it prevailed and rose from the ashes of WWII to become one of the most recognizable vehicles ever built.
It started with an idea devised by Ferdinand Porsche and the then-leader of Germany, Adolf Hitler, who wanted a mass-produced, affordable vehicle that could carry a family of five and use less than 7-liters of fuel while maintaining a speed of 62-mph on the newly-developed Autobahn. It was a time when only one out of every fifty Germans owned a vehicle. Unlike Henry Ford and the Model T, who strived to make it feasible for every American to own one, Germany primarily built luxury cars, and the everyday person could barely afford more than a motorcycle.
The first prototype, the Type 12, was completed in 1931 under a company called Zündapp. Against Ferdinand’s judgment, it featured a five-cylinder liquid-cooled radial engine, just like those used in aircraft at the time. But after the Type 12 went nowhere, in 1933, the Type 32 project began. Ferdinand finally got his way and was able to drop in an engine that was dear to him, the flat-four. Shortly after, though, the project was discarded and the car was never fully developed. Yet another prototype with a random number attached to it was the Type 60. This time 30 were built and tested to the extreme by enduring almost two million miles of travel combined in 1937. After further changes and testing, multiple small batches were produced.
In 1938, Volkswagen erected a new factory in the small town of Fallersleben with the assistance of Hilter, and the manufacturing of the Beetle began. Roughly 210 were built before the war halted further civilian vehicles from rolling off the line. The first large scale production of Volkswagens was actually about 50,000 military vehicles. VW built few Type 1 Beetles at that time, and those they did produce went to high ranking Nazi elites. Civilian cars weren’t made until the mid-’40s after the war subsided and the Germans regained control of the badly damaged factory. A sizeable undetonated bomb dropped through the factory’s roof and landed between two irreplaceable pieces of original production machinery.
Thanks to Major Hirst of the British Army, the bomb was diffused in 1947, and he then influenced the British to strike a deal in purchasing 20,000 Khaki Type 1’s, which were built at a rate of around a thousand per month. Within the same year, the manufacturing of the civilian Type 1 Beetle was underway. VW assembled about 9,000 units, and the next year brought over 19,000. Over time, production increased and minor changes were made to the vehicle. In 1955 the one-millionth Beetle rolled off the assembly line.
In the 1960s, Beetle sales in North America were through the roof, but soon the market was flooded with Japanese imports. At the end of the decade, other European manufacturers were also competitors. Despite the rivalry with companies such as Austin with their Mini, Honda and the N600, and even Ford’s Pinto, they continued to sell, but it was apparent that sales were slowly declining. The Beetle was produced for the U.S. market up until ‘77 and European markets until ‘85. After 1985 they were still being built in Mexico. Many were shipped from overseas importers. This continued for many years as Puebla was that last up and running plant.
Ultimately, after 65 long years, the Puebla, Mexico plant ended production of the Type 1 on July 30th, 2003 as sales were yet again declining. To commemorate the long life of the Beetle, VW released a limited production of only 3,000 Última Edición (Final Edition) cars offered in two distinctive colors. Though the “original” Beetle would be no more, it had made its mark on the automotive world. From making the marvelous comeback after WWII to dethroning the Ford Model T as the most produced vehicle with 21,529,464 units built, the Beetle may be dead, but it will always have a place in our hearts.