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Friday, October 21, 2005

The Volkswagen's First Test Drive, October 22, 1936

Today in 1936, the first test drives of the Volkswagen began in Germany. The “Beetle”, as it was later known, would serve as an instrument of Nazi propaganda, a vital economic boon to a shattered nation and a symbol of the counter-culture of the 1960’s.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, only one in every 50 Germans owned an automobile. The next year, Ferdinand Porsche submitted a design for a small, simple and easy-to-maintain automobile and offered the plans to the new government in Berlin. The Nazi leadership loved the idea; it was they who coined the name “Volkswagen” or “people’s car”. The concept of a car that a working family could afford was not new; Henry Ford had produced such a vehicle, the Model T, for nearly 20 years in the United States. Porsche received a grant from the government and began his work.

It was not until 1938 that the production Volkswagen design was first presented to the public. The New York Times gave the vehicle a harsh review and dubbed it a “Beetle”. The name stuck not as a criticism, but in homage to the car’s rounded original design. The name is still in use today.

The Volkswagen plant was used to produce vehicles for the German military during the Second World War. The Volkswagen chassis was used as the base for several jeep-like vehicles. There were Volkswagens produced during the war, but most of them went to government officials. Before the war, the company started a savings plan in which owners would be delivered their Volkswagen after they paid for it a little at a time. Because of the war, very few people ever saw a car or their money.

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the allies took over the Volkswagen factory, which had been heavily damaged from aerial bombardment. The British Army ordered 20,000 cars, giving the company a huge push towards post-war prosperity.

On July 30, 2003, the final classic VW rolled off the assembly line in Mexico. This is not to be confused with the new Beetle, which was introduced in 1998 and is still in production. The last classic Beetle was sold in the US in 1978, Europe in 1985 and Brazil in 1996. The little car had taken on the competition for 58 years, but the world and the company had changed. Volkswagen was the now the largest auto manufacturer in Germany and wanted to project a classier image. The Bug no longer had a place in the lineup. The last original Beetle, number 21,529,464 is now on display at the company museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.

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