Beetle mania: How Volkswagen's iconic little car conquered the world

It first went into production 75 years ago and the last unit rolled off a Mexican assembly line 10 years ago - and in-between more than 21 million Beetles were sold, winning hearts and changing lives around the world.

Hitler inspects the new people's car at the Fallensleben factory in 1938; on Hitler's left is the car's designer, Dr Ferdinand Porsche. Popperfoto / Getty Images
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A maxim of postwar Germany is that, despite compromised origins, people can transcend pedigree and transform themselves into something else – such as the republic that Germany is today.

As much as the Volkswagen Beetle shares its phenomenal global journey with modern Germany, the basic product itself – with its air-cooled rear engine, spartan interior, vertical windscreen, and hunched frame – changed little across six decades, from its earliest incarnation as one of Hitler’s prize projects to its heyday in the US as an icon of 1960s counterculture, and beyond, too.

Even the original name – Volkswagen, or “people’s car” – somehow survived the Third Reich’s crushing defeat, British occupation, denazification, West Germany’s democratisation, and years of international fame and scrutiny.

The Beetle had a stupendous run, which the British academic Bernhard Rieger traces in his absorbing account, The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle. Even though its beginnings as a much-hyped (but never realised) Nazi invention to motorise the Aryan masses were never a secret, the car’s simplicity, low price and durability enabled it to transcend its tainted past as no other Nazi artefact did.

But Rieger notes that the product’s technical properties alone don’t explain everything about the famous Beetle, like the way it took on multifarious national identities and enjoyed the adoration of people from diverse walks of life – for utterly different reasons. “As the Beetle moved from country to country, its global success was intimately linked to its chameleon-like qualities,” argues Rieger, an instructor of history at University College London. Even though the last original VW Beetle rolled off the production lines in Mexico in 2003 – after selling 21 million worldwide – it still lives on today, and not just in the memories of those generations that claim it as their own.

“This model will open up the automobile to millions of new customers on low incomes,” announced Adolf Hitler with much pomp in 1938 at the Berlin Auto Show. Hitler was never so right about one of his projects – but for the wrong reasons. During the war years, the Volkswagen would never make it out of the factory en masse and on to the Third Reich’s freshly paved autobahns. Yet in the decades that followed the war, the passenger car that later became known as the “Bug” would break sales records across the globe – surpassing the Model T Ford in 1972 – and helping make Volkswagen the second-biggest in the world.

Indeed, the Beetle owes its existence to Hitler’s notion of a technologically advanced, motorised Germanic volk. Germany didn’t even have a major car maker specialising in economy models when Hitler’s underlings visited the factories of Henry Ford, whom Hitler much admired.

What Americans can do, Germans can do better, reasoned Hitler, who never learnt to drive. Rather than leave it to the market, he commissioned a reliable, fuel-efficient, family-size motor car that could handle rough terrain and, if need be, carry a mounted automatic weapon. Germany’s existing car makers said it couldn’t be done, not at the rock-bottom sticker price that Hitler demanded.

The man who gladly took on this mission impossible was an eccentric Austrian mechanical engineer from Stuttgart by the name of Ferdinand Porsche. He and his children would go on to found the world-renowned car maker that bears his family name.

Porsche cut his teeth in the service of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy designing vehicles to tow heavy field artillery before going on to Daimler-Benz, where he was eventually fired for exorbitant cost overruns.

Since cost was no factor for Hitler in the mid-1930s, Porsche enjoyed a latitude that he could not have dreamed of at Daimler-Benz. He also enjoyed exceptional access to Hitler, who came to consider him among his closest technical advisers and later promoted Porsche, who was an SS officer, to a senior position in the Reich’s wartime munitions production. (After the war, Porsche was arrested for war crimes and imprisoned for nearly two years in France before winning his release without being sentenced or put on trial.)

The accolades came as recognition of Porsche’s blueprint for the people’s car. The 63-year-old engineer defied sceptics by producing a unique design for a compact vehicle with a four-cylinder, 23-horsepower engine located at the rear of the chassis. This was an exceptionally powerful motor for such a small frame, just four feet in length.

Moreover, the all-steel design with rear-wheel drive was so basic that it required little maintenance and could withstand punishing wear and tear. Porsche and his Stuttgart team also made their brainchild air-cooled, which not only reduced the vehicle’s weight, making it extremely fuel efficient, but also made it fit for both hot and cold weather. Since it boasted high ground clearance and a rugged underbody, it could also negotiate uneven topography. And finally, its unique rounded hull made it aerodynamic, one of the features that enabled it to travel at an impressive 90km an hour.

The prototype that Porsche presented to Hitler in 1937 would closely resemble the variations that would roll out of VW factories worldwide for another 60 years. Hitler loved it, and two months after the Wehrmacht marched into Austria in May 1938 the foundations were laid in an evergreen forest an hour west of Berlin.

There, a brand new factory facility would mass-produce it for the enjoyment of the Teutonic volk. This production facility, Volkswagenwerk, and the housing built for its workers would form the embryo of the city of Wolfsburg after the war, the headquarters of Volkswagen operations in the postwar decades and today.

But by the time the factory was up and running, Germany was at war and wartime considerations relegated the much-hyped “people’s car” to a secondary priority. Only 630 Volkswagen passenger cars ever emerged from the Wolfsburg factory, almost all of which went to Nazi functionaries.

This, however, didn’t spell the end of its Nazi legacy. The Volkswagenwerk factory had availed itself of thousands of forced labourers from Eastern Europe. German historians estimate that 80 per cent of Volkswagen’s wartime workforce was slave labour.

“The ‘people’s car’ emerged from the Third Reich with a profoundly ambivalent legacy,” writes Rieger, “since it owed its existence to a murderous regime that had placed a shining future before the German population but left postwar society with a ruined country as well as the moral burden of genocide and countless war crimes.” Moreover, “if Volkswagenwerk survived the war as an operational manufacturing site, it only did so because an overwhelmingly foreign-born workforce of forced labour maintained production amid countless human rights abuses”.

Unlike so many of Germany’s bombed-out industrial centres, the Volkswagen factory sustained limited damage and had the good fortune to land in British, not Soviet, hands. “The pragmatic decision of the British,” writes Rieger, “to alleviate a vehicle shortage in their sector by putting Ferdinand Porsche’s prototype into production proved crucial for the future of Volkswagen because it removed it from the list of potential reparations.”

In the years that followed, the publicly owned works thrived under the direction of Heinrich Nordhoff, a former wartime executive at the German car maker Opel, whose hands weren’t entirely clean either.

But the Allies often looked the other way when it came to staffing important positions in the new state, and Nordhoff, like many others, went on to have a brilliant career in the Federal Republic, just as the Beetle did. As for its international career, which started in the US, argues Rieger: “The car’s Nazi heritage presented few obstacles in 1950s America, as West Germany came to be seen much more as an important Cold War ally than a former enemy.”

Volkswagen, as the company was renamed, produced just one model for a beleaguered West German population struggling to get back on its feet: the Volkswagen sedan, dubbed the Beetle by VW’s US branch, was a slightly modified version of Porsche’s people’s car. Indeed, over the years there were changes to adjust to higher expectations, such as an expanded range of colours, increased horsepower, bigger windscreens and adjustable seats. But the reasonable price that Hitler had promised and the car’s essential features enabled it to sell more than one million units in the course of the 1950s.

The vehicle became an icon and cash cow for a young republic creeping out from the long shadow of the Nazi past. The West Germans had very little that they could call their own and be proud of, so tainted was their world. One would think that Hitler’s paramilitary people’s car would have been off limits, too. But, no. “Rather than remain a neutral, functional object,” argues Rieger, as one might expect, “the Volkswagen turned into a prominent collective symbol inseparable from West Germany’s rapid recovery.”

The Beetle not only made money, it came to embody the values of the prosperous, hard-working West Germans. The Beetle was itself a sturdy, reliable, unpretentious car. So, too, did the Germans want to picture themselves as they dug themselves out of the postwar rubble. Moreover, the fact that it began selling abroad too was evidence that Germany could be accepted again in the wider world.

By 1952, the Beetle was being sold in 46 countries. No longer was Germany’s prowess in coal, steel and iron, but rather mechanical engineering, chemicals, household appliances and, significantly, cars. These German goods were known for their durability and technical precision, a reputation West Germany was pleased to nurture. The modern, highly efficient Wolfsburg site itself was the oft-featured poster child of the postwar boom.

How did it outmanoeuvre its fascist heritage? Much like the early Federal Republic itself, by ignoring it the best it could, shifting blame onto Hitler and his henchmen. Volkswagen kept quiet about its origins, even if it didn’t deny them. It wasn’t until 1998, in light of a lawsuit filed by survivors, that Volkswagen admitted that it had used 15,000 slaves during the war effort and only then did it set up a restitution fund.

In the US, Beetlemania lasted three decades, during which the Beetle’s sales outpaced all other foreign models. The economical Bug, so much smaller and fuel-efficient than its American peers, became the second car of choice for many newly affluent families in suburbia. In 1955, one observer noted that the Beetle “was just the thing for the wife to run around town in”. But it wasn’t only its material features that drove demand. Owners exhibited a strong personal attachment to the car. Drivers “have actually fallen in love with a car”, wrote the magazine Popular Mechanics. The Beetle possessed endearing qualities that the bulky American cars did not have.

Oddly, at much the same time, the Beetle became a favourite of the counterculture. The Beetle, sometimes painted in eccentric colours, morphed into an icon of the Summer of Love generation. “Members of the countercultural movements,” writes Rieger, “were drawn to the Volkswagen because they needed affordable rides.” But the nonconformists were also “predisposed to the Beetle because of its unconventional aura”. The hold the 1960s’ generation had on the image of the Beetle was set in stone with a 1969 Walt Disney movie, The Love Bug, about a down-on-his-luck car racer in southern California whose fortunes change with Herbie, a VW with which he eventually falls in love.

But then in the 1970s, the postwar wunderkind began to lose its lustre. The functional interior, cramped space and vulnerability in crosswinds were among the shortcomings that caused sales to level off. As the Germans and others became more affluent, they looked for larger, more comfortable cars than the basic Bug. Other manufacturers in Germany and elsewhere now had small cars, too – which were less tank-like. While Volkswagen undertook cosmetic and technical improvements – and expanded its line of cars as well – the era of VW’s market domination was coming to a close. In 1977, the last Beetle rolled off German assembly lines.

This, though, was by no means the end of its journey. In Latin America and Africa, which were undergoing their own developmental spurts, the Beetle won an extended lease of life. In Mexico above all, the Beetle became a best-seller and beloved national icon. Between 1967 and 2003, more than 1.4 million vochos, as the Mexicans called it, were produced at the main factory site.

“The VW’s comparative plainness and robustness,” argues Rieger, “struck Mexicans as attributes that highlighted a cultural similarity between life in their country and the car. The Beetle was a tough, thick-skinned Mexican capable of handling both actual and metaphorical bumps in the road.”

Still, even before the car’s Latin American run was over, the US was reinventing the “New Beetle”, a chipper, cheerful, much more costly remake that bore a distinct, though streamlined, resemblance to the classic Beetle, but with none of the old Beetle under its hood. The Germans quickly bought into it too, and thus extended the postmodern Bug’s longevity by another decade.

Of course, today there are still old and new Beetles and one sees them here in Berlin parked next to BMWs and Audis. They are inevitably in near-mint condition, babied by their owners and even driven off to shows across Europe where other connoisseurs meet to discuss their common object of affection.

Rieger is rightly fascinated by the way a commodity, to use the Marxist term, was able to take on so many diverse cultural mantles. But he also notes that “the Beetle provides a potent example of how national socialism shaped 20th-century Germany far beyond the crimes and military disasters that remain the regime’s starkest hallmarks”. This is not something that Germans today tend to discuss.

Rieger has written a fascinating book that will inevitably find resonance among those who were themselves touched by the magic of an object made of steel, glass, and plastic that was designed in the heart of Hitler’s Reich.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany. The author’s family has previously owned a Beetle.