Why the Beetle is a motoring legend | Axon’s Automotive Anorak

17th February 2022
Gary Axon

Precisely 50 years ago today to the day and date, Thursday 17th February 1972, a significant moment in automotive history was made when Volkswagen churned out the 15,007,034th example of its Type 1 ‘Beetle’ from its colossal Wolfsburg factory. In doing so the Beetle overtook the previous record for the world’s most-produced car by one unit, a record that had been set and gone unchallenged for 45-years by the Ford Model T, production of which came to the end after 19 years in 1927.


By the early 1940s the Model T had become so popular and prevalent that more than 40 per cent of all of the motor cars on Americans roads where examples of this simple and rustic Ford. It also accounted for 52 per cent of America’s total passenger car production by 1923 (when more than 2 million examples were built in the USA!). This helped to make Henry Ford not only the seventh wealthiest man ever to live at the time, but the USA’s first ever self-made billionaire, with examples of Ford’s famous ‘Tin Lizzy’ produced far and wide across the planet, spread from the UK (Manchester), France, Germany, Spain, Ireland and Denmark in Europe, to Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Canada. Not forgetting the USA, of course, where the Model T had been rapidly assembled at Highland Park, near Detroit, since its 1908 introduction (taking just 93 minutes to build from start to finish by 1914, enabling the original $900 retail price to reduce down to $440 through improved efficiencies by 1927), growing to many other factories spread across the Country.

With similarities shared with the Model T, Volkswagen’s equally simple, crude but dependable Beetle went on to achieve a record 21.5 million-plus examples, the very last built in Mexico in 2003 after an incredible production run spanning more than 60 years. German Beetle (Kafer in its native tongue) production came to an end in its traditional two-door saloon/sedan form in 1977, with the last Convertible variants made by Osnabruck-based coach builder Karmann in 1979. Over time, production of the rear-engined ‘Bug’ also spread around the globe during its unfeasibly long 65-year career, with the air-cooled saloon produced in countries as diverse as Belgium, Nigeria, Australia, Brazil and Ireland, as well as Germany.


The phenomenal manufacturing feat achieved by the Volkswagen ‘Type 1’ (to give the air-cooled VW its ‘formal’ model designation, with the Beetle name originally being one of various enduring nick-names given due to its bug-like appearance) production of the car has long since been usurped by numerous other vehicles popping out of factories in even greater numbers! These include in excess of 41m-plus examples of the best-selling Toyota Corolla (now into its 12th generation since its 1966 launch), the Ford F-Series pick-up truck (at 36m-plus over 14 different generations since 1948) plus VW’s own Golf hatchback, which ironically was first introduced in 1974 to replace the Beetle, which it did with gusto, now running to more than 28.5m-plus units and counting, spread over eight distinct generations. None of the production of this trio of worldwide best-sellers however, has been achieved by one basic body style that essentially didn’t change significantly during its lifetime, unlike the Beetle Ford Model T.

Like the iconic VW and Ford, a handful of other cars have achieved phenomenal sales using one basic model and body type. This select high-volume group includes the Peugeot 206, with production extending to 10m-plus units, the hatchback still being produced in Iran, plus the Fiat Uno (8.8m), Renault R4 (8.1m), the Issigonis Mini, Peugeot 205 and Renault R5 (all at around 5.3m examples), the Citroen 2CV (5.1m), Fiat 126 (4.7m) plus numerous other individual models running into many millions of examples built, with most of these being Fiats (500, 600, 127, 128, Punto, Panda, etc.).


The basic chassis and format for a ‘people’s car’ that ultimately was adopted for the Beetle was originally conceived by Bela Barenyi in 1925, a young (18-years old) Hungarian engineering student who frustratingly didn’t patent the design! When the infamous Nazi leader Adolf Hitler later made public his dream of creating a true economic German ‘people’s car,’ largely inspired by the wondrously advanced rear-engine Tatra V8s of Hans Ledwinka that the Fuhrer greatly admired with Barenyi-esque thinking, he eventually tasked his associate Ferdinand Porsche with creating such a vehicle, having earlier dismissed (and arrested) ex-Adler engineer Joseph Ganz from this project due to him being Jewish. Much at the expense and annoyance of the other existing German vehicle manufacturers, with full Nazi party funding, Porsche used some of his contemporaries previous concepts to help create an economical and affordable rear-engined family saloon.

Working initially with German motorcycle manufacturer Zundapp, in 1931/32 Porsche presented the Type 12 prototype, which meet the brief with a modern aerodynamic profile concealing a three-cylinder radical engine located at the rear. After three Type 12 test cars had been built, Zundapp bravely withdrew from Hitler’s people’s car project, Porsche turning to NSU for the economical 1933 Type 32 prototypes, closer in execution to the final Beetle solution with a rear-mounted air-cooled flat-four engine. NSU and Porsche fell out though, as the former favoured using a fabric body mounted onto a wooden frame, whilst Porsche insisted on steel coachwork.  When NSU withdrew, Mercedes-Benz built 30 examples of the near-final Beetle Type 30 concept in 1937, with Mercedes also making a further 60 pre-production ‘pilot’ Type 60 prototypes in 1938, ahead of the introduction by Hitler at a Nazi rally of the KdF (Kraft durch Freude, or ‘strength through joy’) later that year, with full-scale KdF people’s car production set to commence at the dedicated new Wolfsburg production facility in North West Germany in 1939.


To help fund the KdF (and more the Third Reich’s pending war effort), the Nazis launched an ingenious scheme of saving stamps for German families to spend at least RM 5 per week to buy, collect and ultimately redeem against a shiny, brand new KdF car. When World War II began, the new Wolfsburg plant soon halted all KdF ‘Beetle’ saloon production though to make way for the Type 82 Kublewagen and Type 166 amphibious Schwimmwagen for military use, with Wolfsburg being extensively bombed by the Allies during the War. Somewhat predictably therefore, not a single expectant KdF stamp saver (of more than 337,000 savers) ever received their car. After a lengthy legal battle some decades later, a handful of these more persistent KdF savers eventually received some financial compensation from Volkswagen, or were given a new VW Beetle!

Post-war Ferdinand Porsche was ultimately imprisoned in France for his Nazi leanings and collaborations. Porsche inevitably used the Beetle’s simple chassis and rear air-cooled mechanicals for its first self-branded production model; the similarly Teutonic ‘bar of soap’ Porsche 356 in its original form, with the sportscar maker remaining inexplicably loyal to the ‘wrong’ rear-engine layout to this day with its 911 (even if it has finally come to its senses after all these years by moving the motor to the centre for some of its recent competition 911 models!).


With the decimated remains of the post-Reich Germany divided into occupied territories of the Allied WWII victors, the heavily bombed remains of the former-KdF Wolfsburg factory (at least 60 per cent of which was badly damaged and flooded) fell under British occupation control. Faced with the difficult decision to either demolish the remainder of the factory and close it down, or make it operational again, the British military officers choose the latter to help address the immediate social need to create jobs locally, plus restore transportation and order. The ruins of the substantial Wolfsburg plant were even offered to Henry Ford for free, which he declined, as did a number of British vehicle manufacturers, with the then mighty Rootes Group dismissing the Beetle model as outdated, ugly and unsaleable. Today, Volkswagen is now Europe’s largest vehicle producer, with the Rootes Group expiring in 1967, when it was acquired by Chrysler, this going under itself in 1978 when Peugeot’s PSA Groupe bought the remains for a token $1.

Under the British command of Major Ivan Hirst, the REME (Royal Engineers, Mechanical and Electrical) managed to assemble 1,785 vehicles at Wolfsburg for British military and local German officials use in 1945, with the British military helpfully placing an order for a further 20,000 ‘Beetles’ for their use in September 1945. By this time, the KdF name had died along with the Nazi regime, with the Volkswagen (people’s car) name being adopted for future use.   


Fast forwarding to 1953, when the first VW’s were ‘officially’ imported into the UK as the 1100 saloon – with austere and archaic specification to match the unusual rear-mounted air-cooled flat-four engine, such as no transmission synchromesh, ineffective cable-operated mechanical brakes and minimal trim – a number of these early Beetles were vandalised here due to the close proximity to the recent War with Nazi Germany and car’s inseparable associations with it, Hitler and the Third Reich. 

Despite the Beetle being slow, noisy and cramped with odd looks and questionable handling characteristics, the bug-like little VW soon gained an enviable reputation for being well-built and reliable. After post-war Beetle production commenced at ‘full strength’ in 1949 (when control of Volkswagen was placed back in the hand of the Germans by the British military, with it coming under full control of the West German Government in the September of that year), by August 1955 the first millionth Type 1 had been built, with the tenth millionth example coming ten years later, by which time rear-engined cars were very much regarded as ‘old hat’ and outdated. The 20 millionth Beetle popped out in late 1981 in Mexico. 

Throughout it long lifetime, the Beetle evolved with VW making gradual changes and improvements to the model. For 1954, for example, the previous dual split oval rear window was enlarged and made one-piece to enhance visibility, with much-needed hydraulic brakes finally becoming available by 1962, by which time sales in the USA had eventually taken off thanks largely to a witty and effective self-deprecated advertising campaign, prompted by a very slow acceptance of this strange little imported sedan initially. Increases in engine size, power, safety and space followed over the years, to create later Beetle models such as the 1302 and 1303, featuring a curved windscreen!


As the Beetle became increasingly out-dated and irrelevant though, such changes helped to kept it marketable to a diminishing loyal band of followers. Just like lousy records and songs though, such as Joe Dolce’s cringe-worthy Shuddap Your Face keeping the considerably preferable Vienna by Ultravox off the top of the UK’s best-selling single charts for three weeks in 1981, the VW Beetle is perfect proof that the general public don’t always know what’s best for them and chose a dud like the Volkswagen over significantly superior products also available at the same time.

As you might have gathered from my slightly disparaging tone, speaking personally, I am not a huge fan of rear engined cars, with the appeal of the VW Beetle in particular being somewhat lost on me. Of the many cars I’ve owned over the years, I’ve only ever had two rear-engine cars, a tatty early-‘60s Fiat 500 that my parents gave me for my 12th birthday (being born on Christmas Day, so I have always lost out on birthday presents, which my folks tried to make up for with the tiny Fiat), plus an Alpine-Renault A110 Berlinette, which I bought when these now cult sporting coupes were still affordable and virtually unknown here in the UK, purchased through frustration pre-internet whilst desperately trying to find the French sportscar I really wanted with the engine in the ‘right’ place; the pioneering mid-engined Matra-Bonnet Djet, which I eventually found (and still have) after a six year search.


In my best Lou of Little Britain fame voice, when it comes to the VW Beetle; “I don’t like it.’ Noisy, slow, cramped, ugly, uncomfortable, unstable and downright dangerous in a crosswind, at speed or in the wrong hands on wet or icy roads, it is the car with the most questionable genesis and creation ever made. So, to me, the Beetle has very little going for it. Okay, I will concede that it was well-built, simple and reliable, but there again, so are most wheel barrows. As much as I dislike the Beetle though, I do respect its place and importance in motoring history, even if I would sooner walk or use a pogo stick to get somewhere in preference to having to drive one!

Bizarrely though, Volkswagen’s best-selling product of all to-date isn’t either its Beetle, nor the Golf. Rather it’s the self-branded VW ‘currywurst’ sausages that it makes; selling more than 7 million each year, thus creating the ultimate Volkswagen banger!

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