In 1924, Adolf Hitler was in prison for an unsuccessful putsch on the Federal German capital. Having time on his hands, the future F?hrer devised an ingenious plan to solve Germany's unemployment problem. The government would build special roads-autobahns-for motor vehicles. It would also mass-produce a car that the man on the street could afford. These were the humble beginnings of the People's Car, the Volkswagen.
Nearly a decade later, in February 1933, the Nazis swept to power and at the first cabinet meeting Hitler laid out his cunning plan. Work on the autobahns began in September, and a Stuttgart design firm working with Daimler-Benz, headed by one Ferdinand Porsche, was commissioned to design the people's car within ten months. However, it wasn't until 1938 that the design for the Volkswagen was finalised.
Hitler specified certain criteria the car must meet: it must have a top speed of 62 mph and achieve 42 miles per gallon; it must have an air-cooled engine and be able to transport two adults and three children. And most importantly, it should market at no more than ?86. It was for reasons of economy that Ferdinand Porsche decided on a rear-engine car, the car was then known as the Type 60. He experimented with various engine designs: flat four, vertical four cylinder, two cylinder, but none of them proved adequate. In 1935 a new Austrian engineer at the firm came up with a design for a flat four engine in two days. Accountants and other stodgy, careful people checked it out and it proved to be the most financially viable option. The same engine design has driven the Volkswagen Beetle for the last 60 years.
Ferdinand Porsche had been working on other cars for various manufacturers before the Volkswagen and he incorporated some older designs within this new project. The backbone chassis and the idea of independent front and rear suspension came from one car, and the torsion bar front suspension had been patented by Porsche back in 1931. The body styling itself dates back to 1931, to a car called the Wanderer which never reached production. However, Beetle-fiends who insist on the car's superiority, design-wise, at least, to every other passenger vehicle in history, will be pleased to learn that the only prototype built was used by Ferdinand Porsche for his personal transport. Hitler had his own reasons for approving the Bug's design. He is supposed to have briefed Porsche, "It should look like a Beetle, you have to look to nature to find out what streamlining is."
The car went into production in 1939, and Hitler announced its new name, the KdF Wagen, short for Kraft-durch-Freude Wagen, which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. Not, of course, that KdF Wagen sounds like anything other than what it is, an genocidal ideologue's dream car. Unofficially, the car was still called the Kubelwagen, or the beetle-car. The Nazis even built a township for the factory workers who'd produce the car. It was called KdF Stadt, or KdF City. (Kraft durch Freude, which means 'power through joy' was also what the leisure section of the Nazi party was called.) The factory was the largest motor factory in Europe, capable of producing 150,000 cars per year, with plans for expansion. By 1942 the production rate potential was projected to be1.5 million cars per year. Unfortunately, that pesky WW II broke out, and the factory was handed over to the German Air Force when just over 600 cars had been built. (Interestingly, variations of the KdF did see military action. These were variously suited to off-road use, carrying three men, ammunition and a machine gun, travelling in water.)
After the war, KdF Stadt was renamed Wolfsburg by the Allies, and the family of KdF cars, Volkswagen, and the factory came under the jurisdiction of the British Military Police. In the summer of 1945, after British motor manufacturers had gracefully-and foolishly, as it turned out-declined the offer to produce and market the Beetle, production of the Kubelwagen restarted with spares that were lying around the factory. The factory was sold to a man called Heinz Nordhoff in 1947. The new management decided to keep the Bug's unique design, by now code-named Type 1, and less than five years after the war, the factory was producing close to 20,000 cars annually. By 1949, in fact, there was even an export model.
By 1955, Bug production had reached a million. Various changes were made to the Beetle over the years, and the car was steadily growing in popularity. Most of the changes were to do with increasing engine size and exterior specifications. The Beetle reached its highest ever production in 1969 (almost 1.1 million bugs). In1970, VW tried to improve on a good thing and produced a markedly different Beetle which tried to overcome criticism of the car's small under-bonnet capacity. The most visible changes were a slightly curved windscreen and a more bulbous bonnet. Production fell every year after this, although by 1973 the Beetle was officially the most popular car ever in the world, zwith over 16 million having been produced. The final model of the Beetle as we know it (more later on what purists call the travesty that is the New Beetle) was launched in 1973. The creature had slid into ugliness, some insisted, with its very curved windscreen, shorter bonnet, plastic-padded dashboard and wider rear wings that framed the new football-like rear lights.
Whether it was the new, un-improved design, or a sadly changing world with no place for a comic-book car, in 1974, VW announced massive losses, the first ever in the history of the company. The upshot: the Beetle would have to die. German production of the car stopped in 1980. However, VW factories in places as far afield as Brazil continued to produce the car into the mid-1980s. In its heyday, the Beetle had been produced in South Africa, Nigeria, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. Today, 52 years after it started production, Mexico still makes the Beetle the old-fashioned way. Despite its waning popularity, the hippie Bug was still endearing enough to star in those silly Disney movies, playing Herbie.
As for the so-called New Beetle, its similarity to the old Bug is only skin deep. It is a thoroughly modern, rather soulless car. If you want a front wheel drive, water-cooled engine, twin air-bags, power steering, front suspension, large wheels, automatic transmission, side-impact door beams, front and rear crumple zones, air-con, and a compound crank rear axle, whatever that is, go drive a Golf. Like we said, the similarity between the ageing Bugs and the pretender is skin deep. Of course, it is a rather nice skin, but even so-they just don't make 'em like they used to.