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The history of the VW Beetle

The history of the VW Beetle

Often called the Super Beetle, Bug, Maggiolino, Fusca or Cucaracha the Volkswagen (VW) Beetle economy car was manufactured and marketed by VW from 1938 until 2003. During the 1938-2003 production period, 21,529,464 cars were built, making the Beetle the world’s longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single platform.

Whose idea was to build the Beetle?

2- 1935 VW Beetle prototype copy

1935 VW Beetle prototype, source:

Even though it is widely known that the idea of the car was first suggested by Adolf Hitler, Ferdinand Porsche had started thinking about ways to build a family car long before Hitler was elected in Germany. While designing Mercedes cars, before the World War II, Porsche was also creating schemes for an economy family car that could be mass produced. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he officially announced his intentions of mass-producing a family car for the German people, and decided to collaborate with Porsche, after hearing about his ideas and achievements. After the meeting, Hitler send Porsche some sketches of a small car that could carry two adults and three children at a speed of 60 mph. He also asked Porsche to build the car that would cost only 1000 Reichmarks, a requirement Porsche took as a personal challenge. Together with his team, Porsche started building the car in 1934 and introduced it to the public in 1938.

Who came up with the name?


1938 Volkswagen Beetle, source:

On May 26, 1938, Hitler officially announced that the car would be called KdF-Wagen after the KdF (Kraft durch Freude) nazi movement. At the same event Hitler also announced that the car’s production would start in September 1939, but due World War II, the production was put on hold so Porsche can produce military vehicles instead. It is known that Porsche hated the name KdF- Wagen (Strength Through Joy Car) and preferred the name Volkswagen better. Nevertheless, neither of the names became appealing to the world, which seemed to prefer the name Beetle over all the other suggested. The name Beetle first appeared in a New York Times article in 1938 and since then, even though ‘Beetle’ never became the car’s official name, it is still widely known by that name due to the car’s shape and design that clearly looks like a beetle.

History of the VW Beetle in the U.S.

According to a journal by Bernhard Rieger called “From People’s Car to New Beetle: The Transatlantic Journeys of the Volkswagen Beetle,” the Beetle became popular in the States, thanks to VW’s great recovery in Germany, and worldwide. “Viewing the success of their exports as an important sign of their international rehabilitation, West Germans developed a sensitive radar for American recognition, particularly high-profile consumption of the product that epitomized the Federal Republic’s ‘economic miracle’.” The American journey of the Beetle showed “an important aspect of postwar cultural and commercial relations between the United States and Western Europe.” He added that by following popular American trends and products, Western Europeans “took pride in the importance that some of their exports achieved with the new global superpower.”


VW Beetle hit U.S. shores 65 years ago, source:

After the WW II, the British occupiers of Wolfsburg auto plant restored the factory by using Porsche’s design and leaving the auto plant in the hands of Heinrich Nordhoff, who not only consolidated the factory, but also improved Porsche’s original design in order to make the Beetle a future success. “As early as 1949, the management introduced an export version of the Beetle that featured a wider color range, more engine power, and stronger hydraulic brakes than the cheaper standard model available domestically,” Rieger notes.

Nordhoff’s decision proved to be the right thing to do at the time as Volkswagen’s annual sales abroad went up, especially in the United States during the 1953- 1968 period. According to Rieger, “by 1955, Volkswagen was selling more vehicles abroad (177,657) than at home (150,397)…Between 1953 and 1959, annual sales of the Volkswagen Beetle in America rose from a mere 980 to 120,422, ultimately reaching a peak of 563,522 in 1968. When Beetle sales were terminated in 1980, American drivers had acquired almost 5 million models of the classic automobile.”

Rieger added that during the 1960s, Wolfsburg engineers increased the vehicle’s horsepower from 36 to 57, expanded the window’s size, and introduced new paint colors in order to keep up with new fashion trends while keeping the car’s air-cooled engine, unique size, and bug-shape that made the Beetle so adorable in the eyes of Americans at the time.

Hard times for the Beetle

Despite the success in the American market, the Beetle never became a serious threat to the US auto industry as its annual sales by 1968 did were less than 7%. Its low price and convenience, made the Beetle highly valued in the States, but despite that sales started to decline significantly in the late 1960s and continued to do so until the 1970s. In 1966, Volkswagen’s reputation was shaken after several accidents happened due to minor production faults as well as VW’s unstable design that did not guarantee safety. During the early 1970s, the Beetle’s small size was charged by consumer activist Ralph Nader as “insufficient protection in accidents.” Nader also said that “the Beetle was prone to over steer, proved unstable in cross winds, frequently caught fire after collisions,” and added that the VW was “the most hazardous vehicle used in significant numbers in the United States.”

Although all the charges were rejected by the company and the media, in 1974 VW faced a deficit of $150 million in exports “because it was forced to sell its cars below production costs.” In 1977 VW announced that the Beetle would be removed from the market in the next 3 years. Rieger included in his journal the reaction of a CBS journalist who said: “the bug . . . becoming extinct. . . . As the Beetle chugs its way out of our lives, you’ve got to say a part of our lives goes with it.”

The New Beetle

After VW stopped selling the Beetle in the US, the company had a difficult time finding a replacement that would have the same appeal as the Beetle did in the US market and abroad. According to Rieger, “the early 1990s recession affected Volkswagen’s position in America severely. In 1993, the company sold fewer than 50,000 vehicles in the United States, a decline that gave rise to speculation about whether the German manufacturer would retreat from the world’s most lucrative auto market altogether.”

During the same year, in 1993 VW had a global deficit of approximately $1.2 billion, but a few years later, the company undertook what Rieger called “a highly unusual corporate maneuver” which brought the company’s image and reputation back to life. According to him, the idea of returning in the US with the New Beetle did not come from Germany, but from the United States instead. As most Americans associated the company’s image with the Beetle, instead of other VW products, it felt reasonable to bring the Beetle back, but VW’s German executives did not like the idea, especially since Beetle’s successor, the Golf was becoming a new classic at the time.

“Only after an early prototype had attracted many compliments at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show did the Wolfsburg plant begin to support the idea of launching a revival car to bolster operations
in the United States,” Rieger clarifies.


1998-2005 Volkswagen New Beetle, source

The launch of the New Beetle in March 1998 in the States was a great success and was received
as “the complete mechanical opposite of the original,” with a much more advanced technology. “With its water-cooled, 122 horsepower, front-mounted engine, vigorous acceleration, and air-conditioned interior, the New Beetle possessed none of the original’s technological simplicity symbolized by a low-powered, air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and an absence of extras,” Rieger wrote.

What consumers and media liked about the New Beetle, was how the car still reflected its classic shape but was much more powerful and advanced. The demand was so high and “was so strong that American customers willingly waited several months for delivery as Volkswagen struggled to raise its output from 56,000 to 83,000 during the first two years after the New Beetle’s introduction,” Rieger says. “The hype created by the revival car also alerted customers to other Volkswagen products, and, consequently, the company’s American sales rose from 133,415 to 347,710 between 1997 and 2000,” he added.

2001- Today


Volkswagen New Beetle 2015, source

From 2001 until today a few changes have been made to the New Beetle. In 2002 VW launched the New Beetle – Turbo S, while in 2003, the New Beetle Cabriolet appeared. According to today Mexico is the only country in the world which still manufactures the Beetle. The car has made little changes in design during the last 50 years, and even though its sales have gone down, the Beetle is still going strong. Do you own a Beetle? If you do, make sure you show it to the world especially on June 22nd, the World VW Beetle day.


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