When you look at the evolution of the automotive industry in the United States, it is clear that the price and availability of gasoline, coupled with the onset of emissions regulations, had a huge impact. These factors led to the increasing demand for smaller and more fuel efficient cars. The post World War II American offerings, at first, were designed with zero regard for fuel economy. The big gas guzzling boats were the order of the day from the entry level models on up to the top of the heap. But by the time the 1950s were coming to a close, whispers of a new era started to be heard over the horizon.
As the need for compact, economical cars became more clear to the American Big Three, small cars were already popular in Europe and other parts of the world. One of these was the car that we now know as the Volkswagen Beetle. The origins of this car are interesting, if perhaps somewhat disturbing to some considering the major player involved.
In 1933 Adolph Hitler, who was the Chancellor of Germany, put none other than Ferdinand Porsche to the task of designing what he described as the “people’s car.” The term “volks” taken literally translates to “people’s.” He wanted everyone in Germany to be able to afford the car, which would be able to transport a couple and up to three children. He even concocted a plan to deduct funds from workers’ paychecks to be used for the eventual purchase of the government subsidized vehicle. Work went forward on the design, and by the early 1940s a limited number were owned by the upper crust, but due to international pressures fuel was in short supply. The Second World War halted civilian Volkswagen production.
After the war, the British automobile manufacturers could have had the factory taken apart and shipped to them, but they didn’t want it. They felt that the car was “unattractive” and not suitable for the British public. It was offered to Henry Ford II for free, but his people told him that the car “isn’t worth a damn.”
Ultimately, the factory was reopened under the guidance of a Major Hirst of the British army, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The car was originally marketed as the “Type 1” in the United States, and the name “Beetle” wasn’t used in marketing material until 1967. By that time, the car was ubiquitous on the American roadways, and it had earned its reputation as one the most durable cars available that provided great value considering the price and the fuel economy it delivered.
By 1972, total Volkswagen sales had reached 15,007,034, surpassing the Ford Model T to make it the most prolific selling car of all time. But this was right around the time when Japanese imports started to pour in, and competition increased. The look of the Volkswagen Beetle was no longer striking a chord. They introduced the Golf, which looked more like the Japanese cars, and de-emphasized the Beetle in the United States.
By the late 1970s, the Beetle was no longer made in Germany, shifting focus to Mexico and Brazil. The “New Beetle” made a push in the United States when it was introduced to the public in 1998, and it lasted through the 2003 model year.
The Volkswagen Beetle is now returning for yet another run, and time will tell whether the public is ready for another incarnation of this truly unique, historic, and iconic motor vehicle.