We couldn’t have done a series of blogs looking at classics in detail without putting a car that became a legend for so many different reasons under the microscope
From its beginnings under a totalitarian regime to becoming a symbol of free love, the Volkswagen Beetle has been there and done it. As we continue to shine the spotlight on some of the most iconic classic cars of all time, tracing their history and exploring what makes them so legendary, it’s time for the Beetle to take centre stage.
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The birth of the Beetle was not only the birth of an iconic car, but also a brand that was to become one of the biggest in the world. It was April 1934 when Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler gave the order to Ferdinand Porsche – who would go on to form his own car company – to develop a volks-wagen: people’s car.
Hitler wanted a basic vehicle to mobilise a nation – stipulating that it should accommodate two adults and three children at a speed of 62mph (100km/h) and use not more than seven litres of fuel every 100km (39mpg).
It had to be easy and cheap to maintain. It also had to have an air-cooled engine to eliminate the possibility of water freezing in liquid-cooled engines in the winter. Citizens of Nazi Germany would be able to buy the car through a savings scheme, although few ever saw their Volkswagen, with much of the cash diverted towards the war effort.
In fact, because of the outbreak of World War Two, few were produced before the Nazi regime fell – with those that were heading for the elite members of society.
A boom in peacetime
The end of the war was far from the end of the Volkswagen – quite the opposite, in fact. And few may realise that it was a British Army officer who is responsible. Mass production of civilian VWs never got under way during Hitler’s lifetime.
The VW factory was supposed to be dismantled and shipped to Britain, but no UK manufacturer was interested – a report at the time said that the car was unattractive to the average buyer. The factory, however, kept going by producing vehicles for the British Army, something credited to Major Ivan Hirst.
He persuaded the UK military to order 20,000 cars and, by March 1946, less than a year after the war ended, the facility was putting out more than 1,000 cars a month. It was known officially as the Volkswagen Type 1, but quickly got the nickname of the Beetle due to its looks.
The symbol of a movement
Seldom has one car undergone such a transformation in image. From a vehicle associated with a brutal dictator, the Beetle was to become the icon of a movement that stood for everything that couldn’t have been further from the ideals of the rule of Hitler. It became a cult car in the 1960s, embraced by those involved with the hippie movement, free love and surf culture.
Its quirky design and low price made it the ideal car for those living the free life and it was a huge success in the 1960s.
So much so that, in February 1972, the Beetle surpassed the Ford Model T as the most-produced car when number 15,007,034 rolled off the production line. Even the introduction of the Beetle’s ‘replacement’ – the Golf – in 1974 (the first new car that VW had launched since the Beetle) did not stop it – it had many years ahead of it.
A seriously long innings – and a name that lives on
Put simply, the Beetle is both the longest-running and most-produced single-platform car of all time. The launch of the Golf – and later the Polo – saw production shift to Brazil and Mexico in 1978, with European sales declining. And it continued to be produced in South America until July 2003, when the last of a very long line – that began in 1938 – was completed.
It was Beetle number 21,529,464 and, after 65 years, the last to be built and was delivered to VW’s museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. But VW couldn’t let the DNA go and had already launched the ‘new’ Beetle in 1997. The ‘new new’ Beetle, launched in 2011, continues to be produced today.