How the VW Beetle went from nazi invention to pop culture icon

Written by Simone | 2nd August 2019

Bye-bye, Beetle. On 10th July 2019 the last Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line and the iconic car is officially no more. Originating in Nazi Germany and beloved by hippies in the ‘60s, the history of the Love Bug is as compelling as it is complex. How did the Beetle become the icon that it is today? And what do we do now that there will be no new Beetle? Classic car expert Jan-Bart Broertjes is here to educate and reassure us about the history, significance and future of the VW Beetle.  

From nazism to nearly nothing...

The VW Beetle might be the most impressive rebranding case of all time. For a car that has its roots in Nazi Germany and was produced during WWII using slave labour, it has done surprisingly well for the last 80 years.

The need for a ‘Volkswagen’ (German for ‘car of the people’) was formulated by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, Adolf Hitler’s labour organisation. Hitler wanted a cheap and simple car for families, suitable for mass-production to occupy his brand new road network; the Reichsauotbahn. He opened the VW-factory in 1938 in what is now known as Wolfsburg, but only about 210 Beetles were built before Hitler started the war in 1939 and shifted production to military vehicles instead. 

There is a flip side to this disturbing and problematic beginning. Next to playing an important role in the economic resurgence of Germany after WWII, the design of the car was actually conceived long before the Nazis were involved. The first design was made by Béla Barényi in 1925, 12 years before Volkswagen was established, and not Ferdinand Porsche, who claimed it was his and Hitler’s creation. 

Volkswagen's main plant, Wolfsburg, Germany, July 1951. 

It’s a small miracle that after the war, with the country in ruins, the company stayed afloat. British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst was put in control of the factories immediately after the war, together with his assistant Heinrich Nordhoff, a former senior manager at Opel. They stabilised the social situation and restored production. By 1946, the factory produced 1,000 cars a month; a feat made even more impressive when we consider that production needed to be shut down whenever it rained, due to roof and window damage. 

The company was offered for next to nothing in the years after the war to anyone that would have it, including representatives from American, Australian, British, and French motor industries. But literally no one was interested, and Heinrich Nordhoff stayed at the helm after Hirst left.

...and from success to shutdown 

In the 1960s, the VW Beetle reached the height of its success. With its quirky design and affordability, the car was popular with the younger generation, especially in the US. It became the go-to car of the underdogs and the outcasts, and its quirky aesthetic started appearing in pop culture, most notably in the movie The Love Bug (1968), and in the background of the album cover of Abbey Road by the Beatles (1969). 

The first Beetle convertibles appeared in 1949. “Karmann of Osnabrück designed a four-seater and would go on to produce open-top Beetles for many years,” says Jan-Bart. “[Coachbuilding Company] Hebmüller of Wuppertal was asked to come up with a sporty version [of the VW Beetle] and designed a 2+2; a two-seater with two very small seats in the back.” 

The ‘Heb’ is instantly recognizable by its flowing rear, and, according to Jan-Bart, it is the fairest of them all: “With its convertible top stowed away out of sight, it is a true beauty, arguably the best looking Beetle of all. Despite this, only 696 Hebmüller Convertibles were produced between 1949 and 1954. Survivors are rare, making this the most desirable Beetle of them all.”

Original Volkswagen Beetle Type 14A Hebmüller from 1950. One of only 659.

Unfortunately, with the 60s coming to an end, the Beetle’s popularity waned, competition increased and sales plummeted. Production continued for years, but in substantially smaller numbers. Until, finally, the curtain fell for the classic in 2003, and now for the revived versions as well.

“The original Beetle has been out of production since 2003, but the model was so popular that Volkswagen updated it with to retro versions known as New Beetle in 1997. These were made in Puebla, Mexico, where they’ve been building Beetles since 1955,” Jan-Bart explains. “It was a sad moment for the factory workers when the last of the Beetles rolled off the production line.” The model outlasted almost every other car model on the market and is the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single platform ever made. 

“Over 22 million of these “People’s cars” were made and many are coveted by classic car lovers. Early Beetles are very sought-after and can command high prices. Of these, the convertible versions are among the rarest.”

So… what now?

Now that the Beetle has died once again, what will the future hold? There have been some rumours that the little bug would be revived as an electric car, just like VW have been teasing us with an electric version of the classic VW T1 van. Hinrich Woebcken, chief executive of VW in the US didn’t rule it out: “I would say, never say never”. 


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