What in the world was this strange new vehicle that suddenly appeared on the American scene in the early 50s?
It was small, and so small it was considered ridiculous. It began a fad among cartoonists and provided plenty of new jokes for TV comedians. It wasn’t very fast and was especially slow on steep hills but always got to where it was going. On snow and ice it out-performed bigger cars. With its innovative air-cooled rear engine, antifreeze was history. It ran forever on a tank of gas, and the repairman became a stranger. Heck, you could fix most problems yourself!
The “people’s car,” translated from the German volkswagen, was the idea and political pawn of the infamous dictator, Adolph Hitler. In 1933 he directed the talented designer, Ferdinand Porsche, to develop a small 4-seater car that had a durable air-cooled engine, got 40 miles to the gallon, and sold for no more than 1,000 Marks—about US$250 at that time. It was Hitler who said “it should look like a beetle, you’ve only got to look to nature to find what streamlining is.”
Redesigning some earlier prototypes—the Zundapp Type 12 and Type 32 Porsche he had developed—Ferdinand Porsche came up with an acceptable design. The final prototype was the VW30 with a 995cc/25 hp engine. The talented designer Erwin Komenda was Porsche’s chief engineer and the leader of his car-body construction department. Komenda was responsible for the final car-body-construction patent on the VW Beetle as well as the famous Porsche 356 model, produced years later in 1948.
The Czechoslovakian automobile company Tatra was at the cutting edge of technology in the 30s, and had designed a popular rear-mounted, 4-cylinder air-cooled engine that Volkswagen coveted. Tatra licensed numerous patents to Volkswagen but had trouble collecting on royalties, and so a lawsuit was filed against the German company. When he was told of this, Hitler replied that it wasn’t necessary to worry, he would “solve the problem.” Two weeks later Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
Serious production of the VW Beetle began after WWII and by 1946 Volkswagen was producing 1,000 cars a month. During the 50s the car was modified progressively with larger engines and small refinements in the rear window design. By 1973, total production was over 16 million. The last Beetle, No. 21,529,464, was produced in Puebla, Mexico in July 2003—65 years after the Vee Dub Bug’s original launch. The little Beetle—with its simple, no-nonsense design embraced by everyone from housewives to hipppies—had started a trend that changed the face of the automobile industry forever.