Everything You Need to Know About the Dark History of a True Classic
Born from the minds of one of the most evil men in history, the Beetle is claimed to be the greatest car of the 20th century. It has survived wars, fires and economic strife, and still it shines. How did this supreme feat of technological endeavour and economy achieve its position at the pinnacle of the motoring world?
The history of the Beetle goes back to pre-World War II Germany and Hitler’s chancellorship. In the 1930s, Ferdinand Porsche had a dream shared by many in the industry at the time: to produce a mass vehicle that was affordable to the average German. The Beetle came about from an overlap between his vision and the idealistic plans of the greatest war criminal the world has ever known.
Whilst in prison in 1923, Hitler read the biography of Henry Ford. He became an avid fan of the American car manufacturer and was deeply inspired by his production lines. When Hitler became chancellor in February 1933, he stated his intention to boost the German motor industry and get more people on the roads. At the 1934 Berlin auto show, he announced that the government would support and fund the creation and development of a ‘peoples’ car’.
Impressed by Porsche’s design capabilities, Hitler delivered the famed car producer with a design brief and commissioned him to build a vehicle capable of carrying two adults and three children at a speed of 60mph with at least 33mpg. He insisted that it must cost no more than 1,000 Reichmarks, little more than a motorcycle.
Porsche named the project car Type 60. The earliest design was heavily based on the NSU, which helped to speed up the creation process and work within the time constraints. By 1935, the first prototypes were on the autobahns. The V1 saloon and convertible V2 had aluminium bodies mounted over traditional wooden frameworks. In 1936, all-steel floorpans were introduced. This latest version of the car was powered by a 984cc, 22bhp engine and could reach a top speed of 65mph.
A further 30 prototypes were produced by Daimler-Benz, despite their reluctance. Deimler-Benz was of the opinion that producing such a cheap car would be heavily detrimental to their high-class reputation. This did not, however, dampen the quality of their work or the effort that went into perfecting it. The cars they built were rigorously tested at the SS barracks near Stuttgart, driven in shifts by 200 soldiers until even the smallest problem had been detected and resolved.
Largely due to Daimler-Benz’s misgivings, the development program was then transferred to the Nazi German Labour Front. In 1937, they used coachbuilders Reutter to make a further 30 vehicles. These, a mixture of saloons, sunroof, and convertible models, were shipped to various festivals and fairs to entice the German public to buy. A savings scheme was also introduced by Hitler, which allowed the public to collect stamps to fund their car.
On the 26th May 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone of a new factory, in a huge ceremony witnessed by 70,000 Germans. In front of 150 reporters, all controlled by the Nazi propaganda machine, Hitler declared that the car was to be called the ‘KdF-Wagen’, KdF standing for ‘strength through joy’. He told the crowd that production would officially start in September 1939. This was to be the month that World War II seized Europe in its terrible grasp. None of the thousands who stood there that day, nor those who had collected their stamps, ever received their Beetle.
Moving Forward Under Heinz Nordhoff
In 1948, Heinz Nordhoff was appointed as the General Director of the VW factory. The decision was made to expand the Volkswagen range under their new head, and permission was given for two factories to produce prototype convertible versions of the Beetle. Karmann was instructed to produce a four-seater, whilst Hebmüller would make a two-seater roadster.
The roadster that Hebmüller designed was very similar to the ‘Radclyffe Roadster’, with an aesthetically identical hood and side windows. However, unlike the Radclyffe, the car featured a hand-formed panel as its rear engine cover, not a converted front bonnet.
Strength problems with both models quickly became apparent. Sill strengtheners, cross braces, extra panels and a flattened off windscreen top were used to combat the problem. In the Karmann, the semaphores were relocated to the rear quarter, although the Hebmüller’s remained in the front quarter. Each of the prototypes was rigorously tested before being signed-off by Volkswagen. An order was given for 2,000 cars, with the Hebmüller officially designated as Type 14A and the Karmann labelled Type 15A.
Disaster Strikes Hebmüller
By the close of 1949, Hebmüller had produced 358 two-seater convertibles and Karmann had made 364 four-seaters. However, disaster was about to strike Hebmüller. A fierce fire broke out in the paint shop, tearing through the factory and causing extensive damage.
Volkswagen claims that 696 Hebmüller were built over the course of the factory’s lifetime, although Hebmüller themselves suggest a figure closer to 750 cars. It is likely that the latter is correct, as surviving cars with body numbers over 700 are known to exist.
The Wolfsburg factory continued building saloons until their eventual discontinuation in 1978. In 1971, they had introduced the ‘Super Beetle’, which came equipped with the IRS that had previously only been available in American models. The design also featured a brand-new, highly innovative McPherson strut front suspension which replaced Porsche’s original torsion bars. The change in design allowed the creators of the 1971 model to reposition the fuel tank and spare tyre, increasing the car’s luggage capacity. The 1320S Super Beetle also featured a subtly redesigned 1600cc engine that produced 50bhp. A revised external body and new floorpan completed the amendments.
In 1972, on the 17th February, the Beetle overtook Henry Ford’s Model T as the most popular car ever made. Although this was disputed by Ford, who produced new production figures, Beetle maintained that there was no doubt about the veracity of their findings.
The last Beetle made in Germany rolled off the production line in January 1978, marking the end of an era. Cabriolet production continued for the American specification, with the final car produced on the 10th January 1980. This was not the end of the Beetle. Ever popular in Mexico, the factory which had been built in 1954 continued. The 20,000,000th beetle exited their production line in May 1981. Demand in Europe remained high, and Volkswagen of Germany continued to import cars from the factory until 1985.
The Car of the Century
In 1991, the Volkswagen Beetle was crowned Car of the Century. When you consider it, its election as king of the 20th century cars is hardly surprising. What other car can boast over 21 million sales, a production period of over half a century and an eternal, unwavering popularity?
It seems that the Beetle, despite its unusual and controversial conception, looks set to endure. The brainchild of one of the most evil men in history, and one of the most famous, admired and respected car designers, born in a time of strife and cruelty, the Beetle is brilliant still, its allure undimmed by its grisly beginnings. The final Original Beetle may have left the production line in 2003, but, with the New Beetle still in production, it seems that the public’s obsession still continues to this day.