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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Beetle is Born, June 22, 1934

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Today in 1934, Ferdinand Porsche signed a contract with the German government to begin development of a “People's Car”, a vehicle that would be affordable, carry two adults and three children and run with limited maintenance for many years. What emerged from this contract was a vehicle known by the German words for “People's Car”, “Volks-Wagen”. Today, we call it the Beetle.

The Volkswagen Beetle, officially known as the Type 1, began life during the Nazi regime in Germany. In 1933, the same year he came to power, Adolf Hitler met with Ferdinand Porsche and Richard Whittle to discuss the production of a simple, reliable automobile that would sell for less than 1,000 Reichsmark at a time when the average German was making a little more than 30 RM per week. Porsche had already designed such a car and had working prototype units available. With very few changes, this would become the Volkswagen. Its rounded shape was the brainchild of Erwin Komenda, Porsche's chief designer. Despite the simplicity and low production costs of the vehicle, it would only turn a profit if some of the costs were underwritten by the government, something to which the Nazis agreed. But before full-scale production began, Hitler decided to invade Poland, triggering the Second World War in Europe. Resources meant for the Type 1 were redirected to military needs.

The Type 1 engine and chassis formed the basis of several military vehicles during the war, but it was a British Army officer, Major Ivan Hirst, who was most responsible for bringing the Beetle back from the dead after the war. Hirst was placed in charge of the Volkswagen factory, which still contained an unexploded bomb dropped by an American bomber. With the bomb safely removed, Hirst began the next phase of his plan: convincing the British military to order Beetles. This they did, eventually buying 20,000 of the cars. By the middle of 1946, one year after the end of the war, the factory was producing over 1,000 cars a month.

It didn't take long for the Beetle to become a German export. Almost every nation with paved roads imported the car and named it in their own language, usually a native word meaning “beetle”. In 1955, 10 years after starting production, the one millionth Beetle was driven off the factory line. These early versions had a 34hp engine, which was paltry by anyone's standards. But the Beetle would run over 70 MPH and get 31 MPG, which made it a stiff competitor to other small European cars of that era. The 1967 model introduced a 53 HP engine and a 12 volt electrical system, making the car even more popular on the American side of the Atlantic.

The success of the Beetle drove other manufacturers, especially those in Japan, to refine their small car designs. Volkswagen tried several times to replace the aging Beetle design with the Type 3, Type 4 and K70; all were sales failures. It was not until the introduction of the Rabbit in 1974 that Volkswagen had another successful model created from the ground up.

By the mid-1970's, the appeal of the Beetle in Europe and North America was beginning to wane. In 1978, Volkswagen moved Beetle production to Brazil and Mexico, countries in which the car still sold extremely well. The last of the original Beetles was produced in the summer of 2003 in Puebla, Mexico. It remains the most-produced car in history.

The new Beetle, first sold in 1998, is today produced at the Puebla, Mexico plant.

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