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The Long, Lovable History of the Volkswagen Beetle
Posted Dec, 05 2009
As VW announces the end Beetle production, AOL Autos looks at the icon through the decades.
Nothing lasts forever. Not even the most recognizable and beloved automotive designs, on sale off and on since 1938.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show, Volkswagen announced the end of production for the current New Beetle. The VW display at LA showed "Final Edition" coupe and convertible models. The aptly named New Beetles go on sale this spring, and then production is over.
Only 1500 coupes and 1500 convertible Final Editions will be produced, each wearing distinctive Aquarius Blue paint and special 17-inch alloy wheels. Styling cues tap the car's long and storied history, conveniently presented in the following pages.
Adolph Hitler was not the Beetle's father, but another famous German was.
Some would-be automotive historians mistakenly credit Hitler for dreaming up the Volkswagen Beetle.
The fact is that Ferdinand Porsche (yes, Porsche's founder) began developing an inexpensive and practical vehicle in 1931, two years before Hitler became Germany's chancellor.
At the time, Porsche was considered one of the finest engineers in the world, an honor earned while working for Mercedes-Benz (called Astro-Daimler prior to World War II). Porsche did collaborate with Hitler's government on the Beetle's development. A vehicle for the German military was the first production model, the KdF-Wagen.
Bunker-stored tooling and an order from the British military help start civilian "Pretzel" Beetle production.
The downfall of the Nazis almost exterminated the Beetle before it ever had a chance to succeed. Lady luck would help Porsche's concept of a people's car (volks-wagen in German) begin its decades-long drive toward becoming a worldwide icon.
Reports from post-war Germany indicate the plant in Wolfsburg where the Beetle was made suffered heavy damage in an Allied bombing raid in 1945. Thankfully, much of the car's production equipment had been removed and hidden in a bunker. The plant was rebuilt and began production in 1946 with an order of 20,000 Beetles for the British military.
Due to the split rear window of the car, which Germans felt resembled a beer pretzel, the car is sometimes referred to as the "Pretzel" Beetle.
What makes the Beetle run?
After the war, Mr. Porsche stayed true to his original concept of a simple, low-maintenance vehicle that working-class families could afford.
The designed mandated an air-cooled, horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine mounted in the rear for easy repairs. The robust body rode on an equally robust suspension designed for durability, not lithe handling or speed.
Those who have ever driven Beetles, especially cars from the 1940s and 50s, know the cars to be glacially slow. Early cars had tiny four-cylinder engines (995 cc) that produced only 30 horsepower, equal to some modern riding lawnmowers. The simple suspension proved tough and smooth riding, but the swing axle rear design wasn't the most stable.
Engineers create a better Beetle.
The Beetle stayed true to its design DNA for its entire evolutionary life. The final Beetle was produced in 2003, coming out of a plant in Mexico.
Some Volkswagen aficionados consider the mid-50s Beetles to be the most desirable given their high-quality materials and excellent build quality. The vision-hampering split rear window was replaced with a single oval window in 1953, which was itself replaced with an even bigger rectangular window in 1958.
Throughout the 1950s, performance improved and features were added. However, air conditioning would not become an option until 1968!
The Sales Success Continues
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, it was not uncommon for Volkswagen to sell upwards of 500,000 Beetles per year. Like the Ford Model T already was, the Bug was on its way toward becoming an automotive icon.
Engineering refinements continued to improve the little car's drivability, comfort, and performance. The skittish swing arm suspension was replaced with a much better semi-trailing arm design in 1969.
By 1967, the engine was 50-percent larger (1.5-liters) than the original Bug and produced 53 horsepower. Chrysler's 440 cubic-inch V-8 (7.2-liters) from the same year made 375 horses. But it would not be competition from Detroit that would challenge the Beetle.
Mammals Vs. Reptiles
Porsche's original engineering concept was showing its age, but the continuous improvement went on. The Super Beetle was introduced in 1971. It was the largest, best-equipped variant, and provided the base for Type 1 production through 2003.
These improvements couldn't keep the Beetle competitive against more efficient and refined competitors from Honda, Datsun/Nissan, and Toyota.
Volkswagen knew the end was coming. The company's front-wheel-drive Golf successfully superceded the Beetle when it began production in 1974. US Beetle sales concluded in 1980. When Beetle production ended in Mexico, more than 21.5 million had been produced.
A Nation Falls For Herbie The Love Bug
Long before actress Lindsay Lohan, the heroine of the 2005 movie Herbie: Fully Loaded, was born, the Beetle had significantly impacted American society. Some saw the Bug as a symbol of the hippie counter culture. Others considered it the future of efficient transportation, much the way Mr. Porsche originally envisioned.
Regardless of one's point of view, there was no denying that the Beetle was "cute" and invited personification.
Walt Disney Productions delivered with a series of movies that began with the original The Love Bug, released in 1969. Four more movies followed, as did a TV series and a made-for-TV feature.
Americans drive the rebirth of the Beetle
In the early 1990s, Volkswagen reportedly thought resurrecting the Beetle was a bad idea.
However, their staff at the company's Simi Valley, California design studio felt differently. Lead by a young J Mays (now Ford Motor Company's Global Design Chief), the studio created the Concept One. It debuted at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show. Your author was at the event, and the crowds did go wild.
In addition to bringing the Beetle's shape into the 20th century, Mays' team included whimsical touches including a dash-mounted bud vase. The public's strong reaction to the Concept One influenced VW decision to produce the car.
A Second Chapter Begins
Following the popularity of the Concept One, production of the New Beetle commenced for the 1998 model year.
The car made people smile. Some liked it for what it made them remember. Others, too young for personal experiences, liked it solely for what it was.
The New Beetle was based on the popular Volkswagen Golf, also known as the Rabbit in the U.S. The Golf was a thoroughly modern compact car that utilized a front-engine, front-wheel-drive powertrain layout.
This excellent chassis and a number of modern engines, including a diesel and 2.0-liter turbo, made the New Beetle as fun to drive as it was to look at.
Awaiting The Third Chapter
The New Beetle's production run lasted from 1998 through 2010. In a world where car models change ever 4-6 years, the New Beetle lasted admirably.
Volkswagen knows the Beetle remains popular, and also recognizes the modern reality of needing to offer a competitive transportation alternative. Another Beetle is coming in 2011 (the New New Beetle?). It is expected to be based on the sixth-generation Golf platform, a car that's already receiving positive reviews. Some signs point to recent concept cars (such as the Up! Concept, featured here) as a look to the future.
Stay tuned to AOL Autos for news on the next Beetle.
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