It’s the most recognisable car of all time. The 2nd best-selling ever produced. The first to sell 20 million units. A car which spanned a 65-year production and was even the star of a series of Hollywood films. It’s reckoned more than 1 billion people at one point or another have been in one. It is of course the Volkswagen Beetle, though with the little German darling all that glitters is not gold. Harbouring a past rarely known outside of automotive circles, the Beetle tells a fascinating story of how it managed to shed its dark past and become an icon of peace and love.
The idea of a German’s people’s car was the brain child of Josef Ganz, a Jewish engineer who’s Zündapp concepts shared many features with the forthcoming Volkswagen. Ganz’s concept of the Volkswagen (German for “people’s car”) was stolen by Adolf Hitler upon viewing Ganz’ car at a 1933 auto show, the 3rd Reich roping in Dr Ferdinand Porsche to engineer the Nazi automobile. Hitler demanded his people’s car to be capable of transporting a family of 5 at 100km/h at 39mpg through an air-cooled engine; Hitler’s thinking being a water-cooled engine would freeze through Germany’s winter months. What resulted was the Nazi people’s car, the Kraft der Fruede Wagen (Strength Through Joy Car). KDF promoted the positives of living under the Nazi dictatorship, the KDF Wagen being the regimes flagship product. German people were given the opportunity to save for a KDF Wagen of their own through weekly payments of totalling at 990 Reichsmark’s. The catch was if just 1 of these payments were missed the entire deposit was lost.
By the time German’s had saved the appropriate number reichsmark’s to receive a car, World War II had broken out; No German families received a KDF Wagen. Instead, unbeknownst to the German Public their money was being put towards funding the Nazi war machine, building concentration camps, the Volkswagen factory building the V1 bomb. Becoming a part of the war effort itself, Porsche’s KDF Wagen was found to be incredibly adaptable, its rugged simplicity the perfect platform for the Nazi’s off-road Kubelwagen and amphibious Schwimmwagen.
Upon defeat of the Nazi’s Post-war, the British found prototype KDF Wagen’s within the Volkwerke factory, offering the KDF’s designs to car companies as reparations. With no takers, the KDF was returned to the German people, renamed the Volkswagen Type 1 and sold to the public.
Putting aside the Beetle’s dark history, granted, it was on the precipice of some supremely clever engineering, curtesy of Ferdinand Porsche. Unbelievably aerodynamic, the Beetle’s slippery design fed air through the vents above the engine, cooling it; the inspiration for the Beetle’s beetle-like appearance coming from Hitler, a wildlife enthusiast, declaring natures design couldn’t be improved upon. The aforementioned 1.1-litre air-cooled engine was rear-mounted, reducing noise, increasing traction and philosophically leaving all pollution behind the car, also allowing Ferdinand Porsche more fluidity when sculpting the nose. Despite its watertight engineering, the Beetle’s were far from problem free. The glue used to seal together the rear upholstery would heat up and become inhalable due to the engine placement. This glue is carcinogenic. The breaks were cable operated and the gearbox lacked synchromesh; even by the standards of 1939 the Beetle was rather ramshackle.
The first production Volkswagen Type 1 (or Beetle) arrived in New York in 1949. Anti-German sentiment understandably rife within the US, the Beetle fought an uphill battle in gaining traction in the States, despite so, around 35,000 Beetle’s were scattered through the US by the mid 50’s, at which point the Beetle managed a textbook rebrand, courtesy of the advertising powerhouse Doyle Dane Bernbach. DDB’s Volkswagen advertising of the 50’s and 60’s is among the greatest pieces of advertising ever created. The use of clever, succinct, somewhat irreverent copy garnered the ads a higher reader attentiveness than many of the magazines articles. Not only succeeding in selling Volkswagen’s in America hand over fist, DDB’s campaign created loyal brand ambassadors among the public, cementing the Beetle as a staple of American roads. Possibly peaking with their famous ‘Lemon’ print ad and ‘funeral’ TVC, DDB modernised the automotive ad game, stepping away from the ornate, artistic ads of the past, revolutionising the industry with its clean lines, negative space and rapturing copy.
DDB opened the floodgates of a newfound American love of the Beetle. Volkswagen’s ‘cute’ design humanised the car, allowed the Beetle to transcend the automobile; for many owners, their Beetle’s were members of their families; living, breathing creatures. ‘The Love Bug’ film hitting cinemas in 1968, cementing Volkswagen’s little car as an anti-capitalist, anti-status symbol of the 60’s counter-culture hippie movement. You probably already see the irony in this; young American’s preaching love and tolerance whilst driving around in Hitler’s personal car that effectively funded the holocaust. The grave irony of this is the reasons many struggle to take the Beetle seriously in the modern day.
Despite the people’s cars tumultuous history, the Beetle managed to endure through the 20th century, the final Beetle rolling off the production line in Mexico in 2003, 65 years after the first Volkswagen did so. 21,529,464 Volkswagen Beetle’s were produced in total, one for around every 300 people on Earth. It’s fair to say the Beetle will never be usurped as the worlds most popular car.