VW’s last Beetle rolls off factory floor this week

VW’s last Beetle rolls off factory floor this week

Volkswagen is bringing an end to its much-loved Beetle car this week at its plant in Puebla, Mexico.

In total, over 21 million original Volkswagen Beetles were produced in its lifetime.

• Volkswagen’s Beetle was conceived by the Nazis in 1938
• Production of the car under Nazi rule never happened, but restarted with the British
• The marque produced over 21 million versions, and was embraced around the world
It’s the end of the road for a vehicle that has symbolised many things over a history spanning the eight decades since 1938.

Initially birthed as a project of Germany’s Third Reich, it then became a symbol of Germany’s post-war economic renaissance and rising middle-class prosperity. Adolf Hitler wanted the Beetle to make motoring available to the German masses.

It also stands as an example of automotive globalisation, sold and recognised all over the world alongside peers spanning a similar lifespan from the post-war period, such as the Citroen 2CV or Land Rover Defender.

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Today, the Beetle stands as a formidable piece of 20th-century design — about as recognisable as a Coca Cola bottle.

The car’s original design — a rounded silhouette with seating for four or five, nearly vertical windshield and the air-cooled engine in the rear — can be traced back to Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, the founder and namesake of fellow German marque, Porsche.

He was commissioned by Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler to create a “people’s car” that would make motoring widespread among the German people, which was then known as the KdF-Wagen — the acronym of the Nazi labour organisation, Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) — under whose auspices the car was to be sold.

Preparation for the vehicle even involved creating a purpose-built factory town, which was then known as the City of the KdF car at Fallersleben. Aspects of the car bore similarities to the Tatra T97, made in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and to sketches by Hungarian engineer Bela Barenyi published in 1934.

But due to World War II, production of the Beetle never happened. Instead, the factory switched to military vehicle production, using forced labour sourced from occupied Europe. Liberated by US troops in April 1945, the factory town was renamed Wolfsburg a month later.

By June of that year, control of the factory was turned to Britain, which at the time boasted a considerable automotive industry, and ordered 22,000 Volkswagens from the factory in August.

But not all Brits were immediately on the side of the Beetle, with automotive baron Sir William Rootes telling a meeting of the country’s leading car manufacturers the vehicle would be “quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer”.

By the end of 1949, the Volkswagen factory had produced over 45,000 vehicles, and had transferred ownership over to the West German government and the state of Lower Saxony, which still owns part of the company.
By 1955, the one millionth Beetle, officially called the Type 1, had left the assembly line.

German people’s car synonymous with coastal California

During the 1960s the Beetle, or the ‘bug’ went on to become a symbol of counterculture in the United States.
The United States became Volkswagen’s most important foreign market, peaking at 563,522 cars in 1968, or 40 per cent of total production.

This was aided in part by sometimes humorous advertising from agency Doyle Dane Bernbach that urged US car buyers to “Think small” from 1959. The Beetle was seen as an antidote to the big brash American cars of the post-war period.

It went on to become the biggest-selling foreign-made car in the US throughout the 1960s, and cameoed in many of the America’s significant social and cultural moments in that decade.

Bernhard Rieger, author and historian of the Beetle, wrote in his 2013 book that the vehicle’s humble German characteristics were precisely what made it stand out against bravado of American cars in that period.

“Unlike in West Germany, where its low price, quality and durability stood for a new post-war normality, in the United States the Beetle’s characteristics lent it a profoundly unconventional air in a car culture dominated by size and showmanship,” Mr Rieger wrote.

Throughout the 1960s, the car would become a symbol of America’s counter-cultural revolution, known as the hippie movement, which reverberated from California to the world, preaching a doctrine of pacifism, environmentalism, artistic expression, and an openness to the use of recreational drugs.

By the end of the decade, the Beetle would become a star of Hollywood, where an anthropomorphised racing-variant of the car — known as Herbie — featured as the main character in a series of Disney-produced films starting with The Love Bug in 1968. Herbie would go on to cameo in another five films between 1968 to 2005. The car was popularised in film by Disney throughout the late 20th-century.

Beetle spearheaded car industry’s retro turn

In a company document outlining the history of the vehicle from 2003, Volkswagen said the Beetle “helped to influence the streets everywhere around the world”.

From 1998–2011, the company produced the New Beetle, a contemporary version of the vehicle that was based on the platform of the Volkswagen Golf.

That saw the company resurrected some of the original Beetle’s spirit in 1998 under CEO Ferdinand Piech, Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson.

In 2012, the New Beetle evolved into the Beetle A5, which involved a subtle redesign and the switch to the company’s Jetta platform.

A number of retro auto resurrections followed the revival of the Beetle, which included BMW’s iteration of the Mini Cooper in 2001 and the Fiat’s relaunch of the 500 in 2007.

Both the Mini and the 500 remain in production, while the production of an all-electric Mini will happen later this year.

Volkswagen — a company that is still reeling from a scandal that involved widespread cheating on diesel emissions tests — said it would not electrify the Beetle, despite current plans to introduce a raft of other electric vehicles.
Sales of the contemporary Beetles have never matched the output of its original, where over 21.5 million units of the original Beetle were produced its lifetime.

About 500,000 contemporary Beetles have sold globally since 1998.

The final batch of over Volkswagen’s A5 Beetles will roll off the factory line in Mexico this week, with the last of them produced headed to a museum after factory celebrations.

With thanks, and photo credits – ABC News

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