In 1934, Adolph Hitler called for an inexpensive, durable, easily fixable German automobile. Frustrated by the German automotive industry, which wanted to build luxury cars for the few who could afford them, Hitler needed cars to justify the system of superhighways he built as an economic stimulus.
Ferdinand Porsche designed racing cars and luxury vehicles, but he wanted to build a car for the masses. In 1938, they built the factory home of the Volkswagen Beetle, officially the “Type 1,” the longest running and most manufactured automotive design in history.
The war changed German manufacturing priorities, and the Wolfsburg plant—then called Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben—went to work building the Kübelwagen, Germany’s answer to the Jeep, and its amphibious version, the Schwimmwagen. The factory also produced about 600 Beetles for Nazi officials during the war.
After Germany surrendered, there was a sentiment among the Allies—the Morgenthau Plan—to pastoralize Germany, eliminating any industry that might allow the Germans to start another war. The Volkswagen plant was to be torn down and sent to Britain. Fortunately, no British manufacturers believed the Beetle would ever sell and cooler heads prevailed regarding the Morgenthau Plan.
The British hired engineer Heinz Nordhoff as head of the company and ordered 20,000 Beetles for occupation staff. Nordhoff set the business plan of concentrating on and retaining one design, but constantly improving it.
The Volkswagen had an early unit-body chassis. In other words, the chassis was a single piece rather than a floor fastened to steel beams. The four-cylinder, air-cooled engine was in the rear, and there was a four-speed manual transmission. It was a light car.
Over the time in which VW made the Beetle, changes in cylinder size and improved compression ratio raised horsepower from 25 to 60, compared to the Edsel with 345 horses under the hood, or the modern Fiesta with 120, but the Beetle never got much faster than 70 mph, and it took a while to get there.
Gas mileage was in the mid-20s, although mechanic and Beetle aficionado Kate Meloan claims to have gotten 35 miles per gallon on a trip from Illinois to Oregon.
“You could work on Bugs without a lot of expertise,” says Meloan. “Just a little know-how, or maybe a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” referring to drop-out engineer John Muir’s 1969 repair manual for Beetles, hand-lettered and illustrated in pen-and-ink.
Meloan says one person could jack up a Beetle and pull the engine for an overhaul. “It probably wouldn’t need everything...You could stop off at a commune, and share a few doobers, then change the pistons and the rings before you hit the road again.”
Meloan says Beetles did have a few mechanical bugs. Valves need to be adjusted every 10 thousand miles, maybe with every oil change. “It’s easy to burn a valve with an air-cooled engine.”
Another problem was the precise German engineering. “Tolerances are tight. You need attention to detail. I overhauled one Bug in Monmouth before a trip west. I should have had the heads machined. I lost compression on the way, 'cause the pistons were hitting the heads.”
Still, everything was accessible. The carburetor and the distributor were “right there.” Oil changes were easy.
Ironically, the economical Beetle contributed to wasted fuel and wasted manufacturing capacity by increasing the number of cars on the road. In the wealthy US, it enabled middle-class families to own a second car.
GIs brought the first Beetles to the US in 1947, but actual imports were negligible—157 in 1950—until 1954 when we bought 6,343. Motor Trend magazine gave the Beetle a favorable review in 1956. In 1959, the US bought 120,442; in 1961, 177, 308.
In 1965, Volkswagen owned 67 percent of the American import market, but American manufacturers had caught on to the market for compact cars, producing vehicles like the Chevrolet Corvair and Ford Falcon. Other European companies, like Renault and Opel, began poaching VW’s sales, and Japanese manufacturers Toyota and Datsun hit the beach. By 1970, the year Honda, which had been selling motorcycles in the US, introduced its first US car, Volkswagen’s share was below 50 percent.
But the damage had been done. In 1960, there were a little less than 62 million passenger cars on US roads. By 2012, there were a little more than 183 million. In fact, counting buses, 18-wheelers, and heavy-duty pickups, there are about a quarter billion—more than one for every licensed driver. But Meloan doesn’t blame the Beetle.
“Americans were living high on the hog back then. If there weren’t VWs, it might have been worse. Maybe there would have been two Country Squires.”
Emissions regulations stopped Beetle imports after 1977. Wolfsburg had replaced it with the Golf and Dasher by 1974, but various Third World plants continued to build Beetles. Puebla, Mexico, made the last Type 1 Beetle in 2003. It’s now on display at the Wolfsburg plant.