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Saying Goodbye to the Volkswagen Beetle

Posted on August 1, 2018 – Car History


Throughout automobile history, only a few models have managed to capture everybody’s heart and have endured through decades of changing fashions. The Mini is one of them and has kept its appeal over several generations thanks to clever, subtle redesigns that have kept it relevant while remaining faithful to the spirit of its original design.

The Beetle is another one, and who could indeed resist the adorable Herbie, the Love Bug?! A symbol of the 60es hippy lifestyle, it is the most successful car in the world with 21 millions of it sold over 65 years of existence. Despite this success, Volkswagen is no longer taking new orders and has announced that it would stop its production and that, at the moment, there are no plans to replace it.

The carefree image the Beetle acquired through its cinematographic career is one of the reasons why it is so beloved, but what is less well known are the darker circumstances under which it was born.

The concept for the car germinated in Germany in 1931, and a few prototypes were created in the following years. The car production didn’t start in earnest until a few years later though, after Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to create a ‘Car for Everyone’ to support its populist policies. It was to be able to seat two adults and two children with room for luggage, and be able to reach 100km/h.

Back then, Volkswagen itself didn’t exist as such and the Beetle didn’t get this name until much later. It was first named the Porsche ‘Type 60’, then ‘KdF-Wagen’ - KdF standing for ‘Kraft durch Freude’ meaning ‘Strength through Joy’ and ‘Wagen’ meaning ‘car’- Not a very catchy name from a marketing point of view, but probably very effective as propaganda! As for ‘Volkswagen ‘, the term ‘Volks’ - ‘people’ in German - was at the time applied to various Nazi-sponsored products to signify that the Nazi regime empowered the people - and thus was born the company’s name, the ‘People’s Car’.

Various prototypes were tested over the following years, and the car made its official debut in February 1939 at the Berlin motor show. Its promotion started straight after that, every journalist in the Reich, flanked by an SS officer, getting to take the Beetle on a road trip between Berlin and Wolfsburg, VW’s hometown today. No doubt negative reviews of the car for the people would have been ‘slightly’ frowned upon and that the journalists in question were ‘encouraged’ to write positive reviews...

Hitler's plan was that the car would be affordable for everyone and therefore it could be paid gradually through a system of savings stamps. The basic model costing 990 Reichsmark and the weekly average earning being 32 Reichsmark, it was, however, not inexpensive for the time.

When World War II broke out, the staff of the factory producing the car was requisitioned to build the Atlantic wall. The story only got darker as years progressed. Poland invaded, Polish women were sent to the factory to produce aircraft and a militarised version of the KdF. By 1944, Jews from Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camp were transferred and used as free labour before being sent to Tiercelet concentration camp.

The workers were freed by the Americans in early 1945 and the factory was transformed into a maintenance workshop for allied military vehicles.

By that date, 336,000 Germans had ordered KdF through the savings system… and not one of them had been built. It would have been the end of the line for VW, were it not for British Major Hirst of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who revived the factory, so we are all forever indebted to him for paving the way for Herbie.

The British government ordered 20,000 VW saloons to meet the transport needs created by the occupation but planned to disassemble the line afterwards and offered Volkswagen’s tools and designs to British car makers. Absolutely none of them were interested as they didn’t believe that the KdF had any commercial potential! Even Ford’s right-hand man commented that what was on offer was ‘not worth a damn’. One of those misjudgements that must have got car makers’ CEOs kick themselves until the day they died!

In 1949, the ownership of the factory returned to the German government. Within twelve months, 100,000 Beetles had been built; five years later, the millionth example rolled off the factory floor. Not bad for a car without potential! The car’s international appeal became evident early on: in 1951, out of the 93,709 Beetles produced, 35,742 were exported to 29 countries including Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland, Finland and Brazil.

Our love story with the Beetle has never abated since then. Easy to fix, frugal as far as fuel consumption is concerned and cute, it was helped by inventive ad campaigns through the years. By 1971, a million of them were produced each year and the model was so universally adored that it made The Love Bug a huge success at the box office.

The car has only had three main designs throughout its life although small changes were integrated almost every year that gradually improved the car, including increasingly larger windows and windscreens, redesign of the fuel tank and engine to optimise the usable space inside the cabin, more horsepower and subtle changes to the frame and the exterior overall shape.

The second generation was released in 1998 and the third one in 2011. Sadly, VW has now stopped taking orders and it doesn’t seem to have planned any replacement for the well-liked car, to the distress of its fans. It seems hard to believe that VW would totally turn its back on such a successful model so perhaps it will soon be reincarnated as one of the company’s electric car range? Or as a fully autonomous car? One can only hope.

If you are looking for an experienced shipping company to import or export you car, contact McCullough on +64 9 309 1163 or email us to discuss your needs and find out how we can help you.

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