Volkswagen Beetle reaches the end of the road — this time (apparently) for good
Iconic hippie vehicle originally designed to fulfil Hitler's vision for a 'people's car'
Volkswagen says it's halting production of the last version of its Beetle model this week, at its plant in Puebla, Mexico — the end of the road for a vehicle that has symbolized many things and gone through some makeovers over its eight-decade history.
First built in 1938, it has been:
- A part of Germany's darkest hours as a never-realized Nazi prestige project.
- A symbol of Germany's postwar economic renaissance and rising middle-class prosperity.
- An example of globalization, sold and recognized all over the world.
- An emblem of the 1960s counterculture in the United States.
Above all, the car remains a landmark in design, as recognizable as the Coca-Cola bottle.
The car's original design — a rounded silhouette with seating for four or five, a nearly vertical windshield and the air-cooled engine in the rear — can be traced back to Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who was hired to fulfil German dictator Adolf Hitler's project for a "people's car" that would spread auto ownership the way the Ford Model T had in the United States.
Aspects of the Beetle bore similarities to the Tatra T97, made in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and to sketches by Hungarian engineer Bela Barenyi published in 1934. Mass production of what was called the KdF-Wagen, based on the acronym of the Nazi labour organization under whose auspices it was to be sold, was cancelled due to the Second World War.
Instead, the massive new plant in what was then countryside east of Hanover, Germany, turned out military vehicles, using forced labourers from all over Europe under miserable conditions.
1 millionth Beetle produced in 1955
Relaunched as a civilian carmaker under supervision of the British occupation authorities, the Volkswagen factory was transferred in 1949 to the German government and the state of Lower Saxony, which still owns part of the company. By 1955, the one millionth Beetle — officially called the Type 1 — had rolled off the assembly line in what was now the town of Wolfsburg.
The United States became Volkswagen's most important single foreign market, peaking at 563,522 cars in 1968, or 40 per cent of production. Unconventional, sometimes humorous advertising from agency Doyle Dane Bernbach urged car buyers to "Think small."
"Unlike in West Germany, where its low price, quality and durability stood for a new postwar normality, in the United States the Beetle's characteristics lent it a profoundly unconventional air in a car culture dominated by size and showmanship," wrote Bernhard Rieger in his 2013 history The People's Car.
Production at Wolfsburg ended in 1978 as newer front-drive models like the Golf took over. But production in Mexico continued until 2003. More than 21 million original Type 1 Beetles had been produced by the time that model ended production, nearly half a million of them sold in Canada.
A 1998 redesign — a completely new retro version built on a modified Golf platform and called the New Beetle — had resurrected some of the old Beetle's cute, unconventional aura while the company was under CEO Ferdinand Piech, Ferdinand Porsche's grandson. That model continued to be produced, and in 2012 was once again redesigned to make a bit sleeker version.
But sales have steadily declined.
The end of the Beetle comes at a turning point for Volkswagen. The German automaker has been rocked by the fallout from a recent scandal caused by its admitted cheating on diesel emissions tests. Now, Volkswagen is gearing up to launch a wave of electric vehicles to appeal to a new generation of environmentally conscious consumers — children and grandchildren of the 1960s Beetle enthusiasts.
The last of 5,961 Final Edition versions is headed for a museum after ceremonies in Puebla on Wednesday to mark the end of production.
With files from Reuters