Conceived as a populist vehicle to enable mass transport on German dictator Hitler’s new Autobahns, the Volkswagen Beetle evolved through three generations over 80 years to become a beloved automotive icon.
The same car that put Germany on wheels carried American college kids to their first classes and took Elle Woods to court in “Legally Blonde.” Barbie even drove one. But the Beetle will be discontinued after 2019.
“The Beetle is a premium-priced small car, and in today’s market that’s about as tough of a place to be as there is,” said Jeremy Acevedo, an industry analyst for Edmunds. “As Americans make the shift to SUVs, demand for cars tumbled. Sales of the Beetle have steadily declined, and in 2018, accounted for just 4.1 percent of Volkswagen sales.”
It is a very different world than the one in which the Beetle was born.
Hitler and Henry Ford were admirers of each other. Hitler wanted his own Model T, a people’s car for working class Germans. So, Hitler tapped Ferdinand Porsche to engineer a rear-engine car. Pre-production models were on German streets by 1936. Citizens said they looked like beetles.
Initially driven by a 25-horsepower four-cylinder air-cooled engine, it topped out at 62 mph. Despite the Allies effort to destroy the VW plant, cars began arriving in the U.S. during 1949. By the late 1960s, a 40-horsepower version could reach 71 mph, smoke 0-62 mph in 27.5 seconds, and achieve 36 MPG.
Neither fast nor stylish, it nevertheless became a hippie totem. Beetles were cheap, reliable, counter-culture alternatives to the hulking V8-powered Detroit iron their parents drove. Disney’s “Herbie The Love Bug” movie and clever ads by Doyle Dane Bernbach with headlines like “Think small” and “Ugly is only skin-deep” resonated.
“It’s got personality,” Acevedo said. “That distinctive shape makes it recognizable from a mile away; the perfect fit for TV and movies, or games of Punch Buggy or Slug Bug, which all contribute to the Beetle’s place in pop culture.”
Only two Beetles were sold stateside during 1949, but the car reached its sales peak during 1968 with nearly 400,000 cars. On Feb. 17, 1972, VW produced its 15,007,034th Beetle, finally exceeding the Model T (it eventually sold 21,529,464 worldwide). By the mid-70s, the Beetle was no longer competitive with Japanese compacts, prompting VW to introduce the front-drive Golf in 1974. U.S. sales ceased in 1979.
But, it wasn’t over. In the early ’90s, VW’s stylists desired a dramatic way to showcase hybrid technology. They could have created a sleek lozenge, but J. Mays and Freeman Thomas had another idea: Wrap it in a futuristic shape as familiar as Mikey Mouse. The Concept One, looking like a modern Beetle, debuted at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show. Four years later, Ferdinand Piech, VW chairman and Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, launched the New Beetle.
With the song “Dream The Same Dream” playing in the background, Piech recounted how focus group participants smiled, then reached out to the car as if to hug it. A large speedometer, rear seat grab straps and steering wheel coverings echoing the original’s vinyl seats were instantly familiar.
Contrasting the classic Beetle, the New Beetle was built on the front-drive, Jetta/Golf platform. The base engine was a 115-hp four-cylinder that rolled 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds, but a 170-hp five-cylinder and 180-hp Turbo S came later.
Volkswagen overhauled the Beetle for 2012 with a more vertical windshield, “kaferfach” upper glovebox and alloy wheels with hubcaps that recalled early Beetles. The 2019 Final Edition, starting at $23,045, is available with diamond-stitched leather seats, 19-inch white alloy wheels and Fender audio.
Recent sales have never reached the heights seen in the 1960s. The New Beetle racked up more than 50,000 sales in its first year, but the recent peak was 43,134 cars in 2013. Just 14,411 sold in the U.S. in 2018. Still, enthusiasts can become emotional about the weird little car.
“With its unique body lines, the Beetle is the most recognizable car in the world,” said Amanda Robbins, a member of the Circle City VW Club in Indianapolis. “It was fun, cheap and marketed to be a car that anyone could work on. They’ve been ratted-out, souped-up, chopped-up, drag-raced, lowered, lifted and turned into dune buggies.”
Beetles run in her family.
“My dad has a VolksRod, my stepdad has a VolksRod and my stepmom has a 1979 convertible Beetle,” said Robbins. “I own a 2015 Beetle Classic, customized to be more retro with 17-inch wheels and a plaid interior.”
Robbins says everyone has a Beetle story, it seems.
“Someone is always stopping us to tell us about how their first car was a Beetle, their parents had a Beetle, they got in trouble doing something stupid in a Beetle. … So many people hold a special place in their hearts for this iconic car. We’ll always see them on the road.”
Even given diminishing car sales, it’s strange that VW would discontinue its famous car.
“The Beetle is synonymous with VW,” Acevedo said. “However, Volkswagen’s reputation as a small car specialist hasn’t done the brand any favors in today’s SUV-intent market. So if the Beetle is Mickey Mouse, think of the Tiguan and Atlas as Marvel and Star Wars – highly profitable growth drivers aimed at today’s shoppers.”
It seems as though VW could have developed the Beetle into a compact crossover, something like the Fiat 500X. If history is indication, it’s not over.
“Volkswagen did all it could to salvage this run of the Beetle,” Acevedo said. “I do think the Beetle may re-emerge as an EV (electric vehicle). The I.D. Buzz concept, based on the Microbus, makes it look like the brand is aiming to infuse their upcoming EVs with some Volkswagen heritage.”
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