There are few automobiles as iconic as the Volkswagen Beetle. What began as an idea (under dubious circumstances) for an affordable family car ultimately transformed into a vehicle that changed the motoring world.
Under the rule of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, several projects were started to revitalize a country that was impacted by the Great Depression and still suffering from its World War I loss. Among these many projects was the Reichsautobahn, a system of road networks meant to connect the major German cities (and the forerunner of today’s Autobahn). The first of which was a 14-miles expressway connecting Frankfurt to Darmstadt.
However, there weren’t many vehicles to drive on these new roads. Most Germans couldn’t afford a car, and the country’s automotive industry was decimated by the era’s economic troubles. Germany needed a new car that was affordable, reliable, and cheap to operate and repair. A 1934 mandate set forth the creation of a car that was affordable for the average German family. The vehicle became “the people’s car,” inspiring the German name, “Volkswagen.”
The project soon launched under the guidance of Ferdinand Porsche, a race car engineer. The job was simple: design a car that is easy to drive, has smaller dimensions but can fit a family, offers reliability, and can easily and inexpensively be repaired. The car also needed to have a minimum top speed of 62 mph and travel 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) on 1.8 gallons of fuel.
Development began, and Porsche used several of his early cars for inspiration, notably the Porsche Type 12 and Type 32. Ultimately, the first Volkswagen would resemble the Porsche Type 60. Its disc-shaped headlights, round hood, and curvy roof easily transitioned to a circular rear end. It was a distinctive and trendy design that separated the Volkwagen from other cars on the road. Also different was a rear-mounted boxer engine. The flat-four air-cooled power plant produced 25 horsepower and sat on compact torsion-bar suspension.
As the car’s development neared completion, the foundation for the factory was laid in May 1938. During a speech at the event, Hitler dubbed the vehicle “Kraft-Durch-Freude-Wagen” (strength through joy car)” and it became the abbreviated KdF-Wagen. A village was set up in Fallersleben (present-day Wolfsburg) to support the factory and became known as the City of Strength through Joy.
Production began soon after the factory was completed, but production of the KdF-Wagen was short-lived. The onset of World War II meant operations had to shift to tanks and armored vehicles. Only 241 examples were built.
The war left Germany in shambles; its citizens needed jobs, and the British Army needed personal vehicles. A UK officer Major Ivan Hirst got the British Army to order 20,000 cars from the Fallersleben factory. The first 1,000 units, now called the Type 1, left the plant by 1946.
In 1949, the UK Government handed over the Volkswagen factory to Heinz Nordhoff, leaving it to prosper independently. With Germany (then West Germany) recovering, Nordhoff started selling the Type 1 one to the public and exporting it to other European countries. The iconic Beetle moniker came shortly after.
Europe was still in recovery mode at the end of the 1940s. A war-torn infrastructure with broken bridges and crater-filled highways limited where cars, including the new Type 1, could be driven. Seeking an alternative market, Volkswagen sets its sights on America.
In 1950, Volkwagen released Type 1 in the U.S. market. While dealerships questioned the Beetle’s unconventional (for America) design, small engine, and compact body, the public had a different opinion. The Beetle was cheap, rugged, and well-suited for driving on good and bad roads. Plus, the car was fuel-efficient, reliable, and very easy to repair. It could also fit a small family.
These features, plus a $1,280 sticker price, quickly helped the Beetle gain traction with the car-buying public. This was when the average American car sold for about $2,200. By mid-decade, the Beetle had developed a loyal following, and Volkwagen sold one million examples across the globe.
Compared to earlier versions, the 1950 Beetle launched with notable upgrades, including a Solex carburetor which boosted horsepower. Hydraulic braking also helped. A folding fabric sunroof, chrome bumpers, and an abundance of chrome trim gave the Beetle a sporty and upscale appearance. But, pricing still remained below the average cost for a new vehicle.
By 1953, the Beetle was upgraded with a synchromesh transmission. More noticeable changes included a revised gauge cluster, revised taillights, and a single-panel oval-shaped rear window (instead of the split-window arrangement). The following year saw a 20 percent increase in engine output (to 36 horsepower). Twin chrome tailpipes appeared in 1956. The Beetle took its complete iconic form in 1958 with the soft rectangular-shaped rear window.
The 1960s was a transformative year for the Beetle as Volkswagen introduced sophisticated improvements. Output reached 40 horsepower by 1961, and the transmission was now fully synchronized. Start-up was more reliable thanks to the addition of an automatic electric choke.
A slightly reworked body enabled the use of larger glass and a pump-style windshield washer was also added. 1966 saw a new Beetle variant with a bigger 50 horsepower engine accompanied by a “1300” badge. The following year, a 1500cc engine bumped output to 53 horsepower. American models also received a dual-circuit brake system, a more powerful 12-volt electrical system, and improved generator output to 360 watts.
The adventure-seeking attitude of the 60s was in full swing as several aftermarket companies enabled the Beetle to be transformed into a sand-loving dune buggy. 1968 highlighted several Beetle upgrades, including a semi-automatic transmission with a vacuum-operated clutch and torque converter, an independent rear suspension, and a new ventilation system.
The decade ended with another power increase, with the 1500cc-engine enlarged to 1585cc and horsepower rising to 57. These Beetles wore a 1600 badge.
Between 1971-75, Volkswagen went all-in on the Beetle. Aside from the standard variant, a new, bigger version called the Super Beetle was brought in with a longer wheelbase. The new layout also received a MacPherson strut suspension (which helped increase front luggage space by 43%). Engine output was now up to 60 horsepower.
1972 was a benchmark year for Volkswagen. The 15,007,034th Beetle was sold, surpassing the Ford Model T’s previous record for the world’s best-selling car. At the same time, the Beetle saw competition in the Baja 1000 race, which gave rise to the Baja Beetles. By 1974, the VW Beetle was the best-selling car globally, with several limited editions rolling out in the American market.
Unfortunately, strict U.S. emission regulations led to the reversal of the Beetle’s previous horsepower upgrades. Output dropped to 46 horsepower as a result, and VW dropped the Super Beetle. Rising competition from Japanese imports and Volkswagen’s own Golf (Rabbit in the U.S.) spelled doom for the landmark Beetle. Production for the standard model halted by 1977, while the convertible Beetle lasted until January 1978.
After a decade of absence, the Beetle made a comeback as a concept car at the 1994 North American International Auto Show; Volkswagen introduced their retro-themed car called the Concept One. Based on VW Polo mechanicals, Concept One embraced and commemorated the unique shape of the original Beetle.
Public and media reactions were overwhelmingly positive. People loved the reborn Beetle so much that it convinced Volkswagen to bring back the “Bug.” A final design was approved in 1995, and production began two years later. The New Beetle entered the market in 1998
Although still retaining much of the original car’s shape, the resurrected Beetle featured a refreshed styling with retro-cool vibes. But, nothing was shared with its predecessor. With components borrowed from the VW Golf, the New Beetle was moved via a 115 horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder water-cooled engine.
The engine was now placed in the front along with a front-drive transaxle. An optional 100-horsepower 1.9-liter turbo-Diesel was also offered. Soon after, VW introduced a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder gas engine cranking out 150 horsepower. Available for the Turbo and Sport models, this new powerplant moved the Beetle from 0-60 mph in 7.3 secs. The quirky and lumbering Beetle of old suddenly became a sleek and sporty Beetle.
Not only was the New Beetle larger and more powerful, but it was modern thanks to a host of features, including manual and automatic transmissions, anti-lock brakes, heated seats, a sunroof, and a Monsoon sound system. With prices starting under $20,000, the New Beetle was a hit. Its first-year U.S. sales of 55,842 units were a hit.
The success of the all-new Beetle motivated VW to create the limited-run RSi variant for 2001. A 221-horsepower V-6 was paired with a six-speed transmission, four-wheel drive, and a Porsche-tuned suspension. Carbon fiber accents and Recaro seats covered in orange leather graced the cabin. Only 250 examples were built.
Inspired by the RSi but seeking a more mainstream offering, Volkswagen introduced the 2002 Turbo S variant. Relying on a 180-horsepower turbo-four engine, this Beetle could hit 0-60 mph in 6.7 seconds. A sport-tuned suspension and performance tires helped keep the car steady. 2003 saw the iconic comeback of the Beetle convertible.
Minor upgrades happened in 2004-2005, and the New Beetle underwent a refresh for the 2006 model year. Notably, the Diesel and 1.8-liter turbo engines were dropped, and a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine was introduced. By 2008, the Beetle was only available in the S and SE trims with the single 2.5-liter powerplant. Sales continued to slide, and the Final Edition marked the New Beetle’s send-off in 2010.
The Beetle again made a comeback in 2012 with the all-new model (dubbed in the A5 in VW-speak). Now sharing some parts with the Jetta (but still using the New Beetle platform), the A5 featured a cleaner exterior. A lower body profile and crisp front fascia gave this Beetle a bolder appearance.
Still retaining a front-engine, front-drive setup, the Beetle was moved by a 2.5-liter five-cylinder making 170 horsepower or a 2.0-liter turbo-four with 200 horsepower. 2013 saw the introduction of a 2.0-liter TDI (Diesel) option. Standard Beetles came with either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. Turbos and Diesel got either a six-speed manual or a dual-clutch automatic. A convertible also became available in the same year.
VW then released a 600-unit Black Turbo Edition sold through a pre-order program. In 2014, the R-line was released with a new front end and prominent R badging. The limited-edition Beetle featured a turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI four-cylinder engine making 210 horsepower and paired with a six-speed manual. The R-line could do 0-60 in 7.2 seconds.
Along the way, the five-cylinder was dropped in favor of a 1.8-liter turbo inline-four with 170 horsepower. But Beetle sales were suffering. Seeking to attract male buyers, VW refreshed the 2016 car with a more muscular appearance. The Beetle was now available with more neutral colors, and the Beetle Dune was available in coupe or convertible form. Other available engines included two versions of the 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 150 or 210 horsepower (via a turbocharger). By 2018 the turbo version of this engine became the sole powerplant.
As a result of continuously dropping sales, VW pulled the plug on the Beetle one last time. The Final Edition of the Beetle was available for the 2019 model year.
At Trust Auto, we love sharing the stories of iconic cars like the Volkswagen Beetle. Its unique shape helps set this car apart from everything else on the road. Be sure to look at our inventory of premium pre-owned VW Beetle coupes and convertibles. And even if you’re not shopping for a car, read our blog for more interesting stories about treasured classics. Articles include How The 1957 BMW 507 Became A $5 Million Car and 10 Things To Know About The 1987 Buick GNX.
Posted Saturday, February 12, 2022