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CATEGORIES (articles) > Donor Car Information > VW > VW Beetle History 1930s to 1990s

VW Beetle History 1930s to 1990s

The VW Type 1, which was called the Beetle or Bug or Käfer (in German), is a small family car, the best known car of Volkswagen, one of the best known cars from Germany, and one of the most recognisable and distinctive cars in the world. Thanks to its distinctive shape and sound, and its reliability, it now enjoys a "cult" status.

The Beetle was in production from 1938 until 2003, interrupted only by the Second World War. Over 21 million Beetles were produced.

The "Beetle" name was not originally given to the car. Inside Volkswagen, it was simply known as the "Type 1" until the 1968 model year (August 1967), when, for the first time, German brochures used the name "Der Käfer" (meaning "The Beetle" in German) on the front cover and inside. The Beetle name was later reused when the New Beetle was introduced in 1998.


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The origins of the car date back to 1930s Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler wanted private motorized transport to be widely available and commissioned engineer Ferdinand Porsche to produce such a vehicle. Some claim that this was based on a sketch that Hitler drew in 1932, a year before he came to power. Hitler decreed that this car should be capable of transporting two adults and three children at a speed of 100 km/h (62 mph), and that it should cost no more than a motorcycle and sidecar to buy. A savings scheme was also launched that would enable people to buy the car. However, the advent and aftermath of World War II meant that those who paid into the scheme never received their cars. Rumors said that the Beetle was originally designed for conversion into a makeshift armored car in times of war. Its style resembles a tankette without a turret or armor.

Who designed the car is a matter of controversy. The official story is that it was designed by Ferdinand Porsche. But in the 1920s Joseph Ganz had already made a similar design for a car that was smaller and more affordable than existing models. Car manufacturers were not interested, but two motorcycle manufacturers were. Adler produced the Maikäfer and Standard the Superior, which it advertised as 'Der Deutsche Volkswagen' and was the cheapest four wheel car at the time. When the Nazis came to power, they tested the Superior and favourable reviews appeared in magazines. However, shortly after, the Nazis suddenly imprisoned Ganz for a while, fired him as chief editor of the magazine Motor-Kritik and confiscated his documents, after which he fled to Switzerland, never to return. The reason for this is probably that they found out he was a Jew. The Nazis then turned to Porsche, who produced a prototype of the Käfer that looked a lot like the Superior. Volkswagen say that Ganz wasn't the only one to have such a design and that the Käfer was not based on his. See also

Prototypes of the car called the KdF-Wagen (German: Kraft durch Freude = strength through joy; the car was so called because it was intended to be sold to members of the KdF, a Nazi leisure organization), appeared from 1935 onwards—the first prototypes were produced by Daimler-Benz in Stuttgart, Germany. The car already had its distinctive round shape (designed by Erwin Komenda) and its air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine. However, the factory (in the new town of Kdf-Stadt, purpose-built for the factory workers) had only produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. Consequently the first volume-produced versions of the car's chassis (if not body) were military vehicles, the Jeep-like Kübelwagen Typ 82 (approx. 52,000 built) and the amphibious Schwimmwagen Typ 166 (approx. 14,000 built).

Deliberately designed to be as simple as possible mechanically, there was simply less that could go wrong; the aircooled 985 cm³ 25 hp (19 kW) motors proved especially effective in action in North Africa's desert heat. The innovative suspension design used compact torsion beams instead of coil or leaf springs.

A handful of civilian-specific Beetles were produced, primarily for the Nazi elite, in the years 1940–1945, but production figures were small. In response to gasoline shortages, a few wartime "Holzbrenner" Beetles were fueled by wood pyrolysis gas producers under the hood. In addition to the Kübelwagen, Schwimmwagen, and a handful of others, the factory managed another wartime vehicle: the Kommandeurwagen; a Beetle body mounted on the 4WD Kübelwagen chassis. A total of 669 Kommandeurwagens were produced until 1945, when all production was halted due to heavy damage sustained in Allied air raids on the factory. Much of the essential equipment had already been moved to underground bunkers for protection, allowing production to resume quickly once hostilities had ended.


Much of the Beetle's design was inspired by the advanced Tatra cars of Hans Ledwinka, particularly the T97. This also had a streamlined body and a rear-mounted 4 cylinder horizontally-opposed air-cooled engine. Tatra sued, but the lawsuit was stopped when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. The matter was re-opened after WW2 and in 1961 Volkswagen paid Tatra 3,000,000 Deutsche Marks. These damages meant that Volkswagen had little money for the development of new models and the Beetle's production life was necessarily extended.

1967 VW Beetle with missing bumpers, left-side horn grill.
1967 VW Beetle with missing bumpers, left-side horn grill.

The Volkswagen company owes its postwar existence largely to one man, Oldham-born British army officer Major Ivan Hirst (1916–2000). After the war, Hirst was ordered to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. His first task was to remove the unexploded bomb which had fallen through the roof and lodged itself between some pieces of irreplaceable production equipment; if the bomb had exploded, the Beetle's fate would have been sealed. He persuaded the British military to order 20,000 of the cars, and by 1946 the factory was producing 1,000 cars a month. The car and its town changed their Nazi-era names to Volkswagen (people's car) and Wolfsburg, respectively. The first 1,785 Beetles were made in a factory near Wolfsburg, Germany in 1945.

Production of the "Type 1" Volkswagen Beetle increased dramatically over the years, with the 1 millionth car coming off the assembly line in 1954. During the 1960s and early 1970s, innovative advertising campaigns and a glowing reputation for reliability and sturdiness helped production figures to surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T, when Beetle No. 15,007,034 was produced on February 17, 1972. By 1973 total production was over 16 million, and by 2002 there had been over 21 million produced. The car was known under various names in different countries, usually local renderings of the word "beetle": Käfer in Germany; Sedan, then Fusca in Brazil; Coccinelle in France; Maggiolino in Italy; Sedán or Vocho in Mexico; Kever in the Netherlands; kotseng kuba (literally, 'hunchback car') in the Philippines; Garbus (literally, 'Hunchback') in Poland; Brouk in Czech Republic; Carocha in Portugal; Escarabajo in Spain; Hipushit in Israel; Bug in the United States.

While production of the standard Beetle continued, a Type 1 variant called the Super Beetle, produced from model year 1971 to 1979, offered MacPherson strut front suspension, better turning radius, and more space in the front luggage compartment. The Super Beetle was improved in 1973 to include a padded dashboard and a curved windshield.

Faced with stiff competition from more modern designs—in particular economical Japanese autos in the US—sales began dropping off in the mid-1970s. There had been several unsuccessful attempts to replace the Beetle throughout the 1960s; but the Type 3, Type 4, and the NSU-based K70 were all failures. Finally, production lines at Wolfsburg switched to the new watercooled, front-engined, front wheel drive Golf in 1974, a car unlike its predecessor in most significant ways.

Photograph by Dirk van der Made (user:DirkvdM).

Beetle production continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico. The last Beetle was produced in Puebla, Mexico, in mid-2003. The final batch of 3,000 Beetles were sold as 2004 models and badged as the Última Edición, with whitewall tires, a host of previously-discontinued chrome trim, and the choice of two special paint colors taken from the New Beetle. Production in Brazil ended in 1988, then restarted in 1993 and continued until 1996. Volkswagen sold Beetles in the United States until 1978 and in Europe until 1985.

Beetles produced in Mexico and Brazil had several differences:

  • The Brazilian version retained the 1958-1964 bodystyle (Europe and US version) with the thick door pillars and small quarter glass; this bodystyle was also produced in Mexico until 1970.
  • Beetles produced in Mexico has the larger door and quarter glass between 1971 - 2003 with the 1958 vintage back glass until the mid-1970s. This version, after the mid-1970s, saw little change with the incorporation of electronic fuel injection after 1993, along with a driver-side air bag.
1990s-era VW Beetle (seen in the Houston, TX area)
1990s-era VW Beetle (seen in the Houston, TX area)
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Independent importers continued to supply several major countries, including Germany, France, and the UK until the end of production in 2003. Devoted fans of the car even discovered a way to circumvent United States safety regulations by placing more recently manufactured Mexican Beetles on the floorpans of earlier, US-registered cars between 1998 - 2003. The Mexican Beetle (along with its Brazilian counterpart) was on the DOT's hot list of gray market imports after 1978 since the vehicle did not meet safety regulations to which a US citizen who drove one across the border is likely to end up with the vehicle seized by the US government.

In the Southwest United States (Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas) - Mexican Beetles (and some Brazilian T2c Transporters) are a common sighting in San Antonio and Houston since Mexican nationals can legally operate the vehicle in the United States as long as they have the registration papers.

The end of production in Mexico can be primarily blamed on the Mexican government's decision to gradually outlaw the use of 2-door cars as taxi cabs, since the Beetles did no longer meet environmental friendliness requirements for Mexico City, in which Beetles were used abundantly as affordable taxicabs. In addition, Volkswagen (now Germany's largest automaker) has been attempting to cultivate a more upscale, premium brand image, and the simple Beetle, with its US$7000 base price, clashed with VW's new identity, as seen in the Touareg and Phaeton luxury vehicles.

Pop culture

Like its competitors the Mini and the Citroën 2CV, the Beetle has been regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement; and the obvious attributes of its unique and quirky design. Much like their Type 2 counterparts, Beetles were psychedelically painted and considered an art car ancestor.

HOLLYWOOD COMES CALLING: Disney became hip by immortalizing the Beetle in the film The Love Bug, 1969's highest grossing film. The popular franchise, about a Beetle with a mind of his own, led to three sequels, a TV series, and 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded.
HOLLYWOOD COMES CALLING: Disney became hip by immortalizing the Beetle in the film The Love Bug, 1969's highest grossing film. The popular franchise, about a Beetle with a mind of his own, led to three sequels, a TV series, and 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded.

From 1968 to 2005, a pearl white Beetle with racing number "53" and red, white, and blue stripes named "Herbie" played a starring role in The Love Bug series of Disney comedy films. A yellow Wunderkäfer, called DuDu, appeared in a series of German films for children. Also made famous is the Autobot Bumblebee (Gold Bug) in the cartoon The Transformers.

New Beetle

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At the 1994 North American International Auto Show, Volkswagen unveiled the J Mays-penned "Concept 1", a concept car with futuristic styling deliberately reminiscent of the original Beetle's rounded shape. Strong public reaction convinced the company to move the car into production, and in 1998, 20 years after the original Beetle was sold in the United States, Volkswagen launched the New Beetle, designed by Mays and Freeman Thomas at the company's California design studio.

New Beetles are manufactured at VW's Puebla, Mexico assembly plant.

The New Beetle is related to the original only in name and appearance: under the hood, it is a modern car in every way, based on the Volkswagen A platform. In stark contrast to the original, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the New Beetle among the best safety ratings in its class at the time of its launch.

Marketing campaigns have enhanced the continued goodwill towards the original, and helped the new model to inherit it. The Volkswagen New Beetle was Motor Trend's Import Car of the Year for 1999.

Phase-out of the original Beetle

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In 2002 total production of the VW Golf, at 22 million units, overtook that of the Beetle. However this measure includes all four distinct generations of Golf since 1974, and these are really different cars using the same name, as is also the case with the Toyota Corolla.

By 2003 Beetle annual production had fallen to 30,000 from a peak of 1.3 million in 1971. On July 30, 2003, the final original VW Beetle (No. 21,529,464) was produced at Puebla, Mexico, some 65 years after its public launch in Nazi Germany, and an unprecedented 58-year production run since 1945. VW announced this step in June, citing decreasing demand. The last car was immediately shipped off to the company's museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. In true Mexican fashion, a mariachi band serenaded the last car.

The final edition had the following specifications:

  • Length: 4 m (13.32 ft)
  • Width: 1.6 m (5.08 ft)
  • Height: 1.5 m (4.92 ft)
  • Length between axles: 2.4 m (7.87 ft)
  • Weight: 810 kg (1,786 lb)
  • Engine: 4 cylinders, 1.6 L
  • Transmission: Manual
  • Brakes: front disc, back drum
  • Passengers: Five
  • Tank: 40 L (10.57 gallons)
  • Colors: Aquarius blue, Harvestmoon beige.

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