Arguably, the most famous and popular car line ever built has a history as mind boggling as the car itself. The Volkswagen Beetle was the longest-running, most manufactured car of a single design basis anywhere in the world. It was produced from 1938 until July 30, 2003.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler gave Ferdinand Porsche orders to design and build a “people’s car” or “Volkswagen”. Hitler had specific requirements for the automobile. The dictator said that the vehicle must be able to transport two adults and three minor children at 100 kmph (62 mph). The engine must be efficient enough to use less than seven-litres of fuel per 100 kilometres (27 mpg/US). Also, the engine must be strong enough for rapid sustained cruising on the Autobahn system.
The engine must be air-cooled. Furthermore, the car must be designed in order that any worn out parts could be inexpensively and quickly replaced. The car must cost no more than 1,000 Reichsmarks. It would be made available to citizens of the Third Reich through a Sparkarte or savings card for 990 Reichsmarks.
A possible variation on this accepted history of the Beetle has recently come to light. The original design might have originated in the mind of Jewish engineer, Josef Ganz. Ganz had come up with a small car called the “Maikaefer” or May Bug.
The Maikaefer featured a tubular chassis, air-cooled rear engine, independent suspension and a cute, streamlined body style. Hitler saw the Maikaefer at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show and proceded to sketch it. A few days later, Hitler allegedly called a meeting with Porsche and submitted sketches and the description of the car’s specifications.
After a few more days, Josef Ganz’s automotive magazine was ordered to halt publication and Ganz was interrogated by the Gestapo. Ganz immediately moved to Switzerland for protection. He did survive the war. Ganz died in Australia in 1967.
Hitler spoke at the Fallersleben, Germany factory on May 26, 1938. In the speech he said that the new car would be named after the Nazi leisure organization “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength Through Joy). Hence the first name of the Beetle was “Kraft durch Fruede-Wagen” or KdF-Wagen.
Only a few of the KdF-Wagens were built for civilians during the war years. Most of the cars went to members of the Nazi higher-ups. Production was forced to stop because of heavy air raid damage inflicted by Allied bombers.
Following the war, much of the VW factory was dismantled and shipped to Great Britain. However, none of the English manufacturers expressed much interest. They believed the car was ugly and didn’t meet the requirements of British motorists. Not only did the British reject the VW, Henry Ford also hated the car, he said it “wasn’t worth a damn”. So, the postwar British VW factory stayed afloat by building vehicles for the British Army.
The German factory reopened after an unexploded bomb was removed from some irreplaceable equipment. If the bomb had exploded, there likely would never have been a modern Beetle. By March of 1946, the factory was manufacturing the cars under the original name “Volkswagen”. The factory town was renamed “Wolfsburg”. From 1946 until the end of production, the Beetle underwent continual, minor improvements or industrial evolution.
In the mid 1970s the VW Golf (Rabbit in North America) was introduced to compete with the flood of Japanese and U.S. small cars that were competing with the Beetle. Production of the Beetle then shifted away from Germany in 1978 to resume in Mexico and Brazil.
The last production run of Beetles was made in Puebla, Mexico in 2003. They were sold under the name “Última Edición”. The very last VW Beetle rolled off the assembly line on July 30, 2003.