VW Beetle, the real miracle (2024)

On January 17, 1934, Ferdinand Porsche wrote his "Exposé regarding the construction of a German People's Car". In his opinion, a people's car, or Volkswagen, should be a fully adequate and reliable automobile, although with a comparatively light construction style. It should offer room for four people, reach speeds of up to 100 km/h and be able to overcome gradients of 30 percent.

The first prototype of the sedan was completed on February 5, 1936. Its design was a novelty for automobile manufacturing that year:

The chassis had independent wheel suspension with torsion bars and friction shock absorbers. Although there were no hydraulic brakes yet, the braking was boosted mechanically using a corresponding control lever in the cable brake system. The soft rubber mountings for the engine are a considerable step forward in automotive technology. The air-cooled engines, optionally exchangeable as two-stroke or four-stroke versions in the trial program, reached a power level of 22.5 hp.

The V 3, three copies of which were built, covered a distance of more than 50,000 kilometers (over 30,000 miles) in an endurance test conducted from October to December 1936. The knowledge gained here was pumped back into the following 30 trial specimens, which ran through a full-scale endurance test under the abbreviation VVW 30.

To set up the factory and production systems, Ferdinand Porsche searched American automobile factories to recruit experienced émigré German engineers. Only then was the car given its final shape. It was perfected in a model wind tunnel and corrected in actual usage. Furthermore, it proved possible to develop a very simple suspension system.

The topic of discussion at this time was the engine selection, in particular. In the end, a four-cylinder Boxer engine got the green light.

Success story without end

At the beginning of the tremendous Volkswagen development, there were energetic people who, after years of deprivations and hopelessness in the war, of physical stresses and intellectual suppression, began to build automobiles.

In August 1945, the British military authorities, which managed the factory in trust from 1945 until 1949, commissioned the Volkswagen plant with the production of 20,000 sedans.

In December 1945, mass production of the Beetle started with 55 assembled vehicles.In a secluded location on the Mittelland Canal, the factory, with the rubble from the war cleared out of the way, housed a community of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. They built up their new homeland from the chaos.

The VW employees, plagued as they were by their struggle for survival, could not foresee that it would become a success story. But in 1946, the first milestone was already reached: the 10,000th Volkswagen was completed. The vehicle was inscribed with the demand "Mehr schmackhaftes Essen, sonst können wir vieles nicht vergessen" (More good food, or else there's much we won't be able to forget").

In the next three years, restrictions and external events worked against the establishment of the factory. Deliveries to private persons were not permitted. Coal shortages in 1947 led to the VW plant being shut down temporarily. But the success story continued. In 1948, the workforce already numbered 8,400 employees, who built almost 20,000 vehicles. The average hourly wage was 1.11 DM.

Exports started in August 1947. The Pon brothers from the Netherlands were employed as Volkswagen's general importers and received 56 Beetle sedans as the first delivery. One year later, exports were expanded to Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and Switzerland. The first sought-after foreign currency flowed in: 4,464 Beetles brought in a tidy 21 million DM.

In 1948, Heinrich Nordhoff took over the management of the Volkswagen plant and had to address some fundamental problems: "The Beetle," he says, "has as many faults as a dog has fleas."

But even if the weak buying power after the currency reform did not allow a booming business, the certainty grew that this car really was the "people's car". In times when snow plows and winter tires were ideas still to come, the Beetle managed to climb on icy roads: The rear engine provided adequate traction for the driving wheels.

Heinrich Nordhoff also kept summer in mind and, in 1948, had the Joseph Hebmüller Company in Wülfrath build three prototypes of a convertible based on the Volkswagen. As many original VW sedan parts were to be used for the manufacture as possible; the car's exclusive interior was Hebmüller's own idea. The Volkswagen plant ordered a series of 2,000 units. As a result of a large fire in the manufacturing works, the Hebmüller Company was forced to close its gates four years later. By that time, only 696 convertibles had made it to market.

On January 8, 1949, a Beetle left the Netherlands, heading across the ocean towards the United States. It proved to be the ambassador of both Germany and the Volkswagen plant and successfully gained a foothold in the New World.

People didn't have to wait long for the "topless Beetle", the VW convertible. On July 1, 1949, Karmann presented an open body model and the number of the body builders grew, especially in the USA.

The flood of improvements continued in this year, as well. For the most part, however, they were felt more than they seen. The undemanding Boxer goes down in history as the engine behind Germany's economic miracle. But the development of the VW bus was striking. It could be built on to the universal Beetle chassis and ushered in a new era in trade and business for commercial vehicles. The VW bus made a name for itself.

Another cause for celebration: The 50,000th VW Beetle rolled off the line. Such sensational production numbers were attributed to Volkswagen General Director Heinrich Nordhoff, who maintained extremely close and warm relations with the workforce. His farsighted business policies, especially his contribution towards an efficient sales and customer service organization, lay the foundation for Volkswagen's rise to the largest automobile manufacturer in Europe.

Nordhoff's demands for exemplary customer service made in the 1950's still apply today. He gave customer service top priority. As the sales figures rapidly increased, the number of Volkswagen-licensed repair shops also grew, and many of them developed into major operations. Volkswagen made the effort to ensure the supply of replacement parts around the world.

Meanwhile, the people in Wolfsburg quickly got used to large numbers: in 1950 the 100,000th VW Beetle rolled off the line; one year later, VW had already reached a quarter million - even though material shortages led to a temporary production shutdown and reduced working hours. In 1952, annual production exceeded 100,000 units for the first time. The 500,000th VW Beetle was produced in 1953. The VW share of car production in the Federal Republic of Germany was 42.5 percent.

In 1955, it finally happened: the 1,000,000th VW Beetle rolled off the line. In an extremely successful business year, production increased to 280,000 vehicles. In the annual average, daily production exceeded 1000 vehicles for the first time.

Annual production had now reached a scale of more than 700,000 VW Beetles, and continued to grow until the "sound barrier" of one million vehicles built was broken in 1965. The 10,000,000th VW Beetle was produced in 1967. Meanwhile, there were already five plants in Germany - Hanover, Kassel, Braunschweig (Brunswick) and Emden in addition to Wolfsburg.

The year 1972 brought a very special event: On February 17, the 15,007,034th Beetle rolled off the line. This broke the previous production record, held by the Model T Ford, and the Beetle became the new "world champion". But the writing was already on the wall for the end of the Beetle monoculture, which had determined the company's model program until now.

After almost 30 years of production history, 1974 saw the end of an era in Wolfsburg, in which - like never before in the history of the automobile - a product was identified with a plant and manufacturing location: Wolfsburg was "Beetle City." The last Beetle produced in the original plant - the 11,916,519th - rolled off the line. The Beetle was by now being manufactured in Emden, Brussels and overseas. Globally, around 3,300 vehicles were produced each day.

Mastering the problems of the times was the challenge that had to lead to a fundamental transformation of VW technology.

The VW Golf, the radical break from the Beetle, was offered to the Volkswagen public as the third model of the new era, after the VW Passat and Scirocco, and was again a car like no other. With its new technical concept, it was a success right from the start, and became the front runner in the registration figures in German automobile statistics.

Beetle manufacture ended in the Wolfsburg plant in 1974 and in Emden in 1978. The last car was produced in Emden on January 19 and brought to the automobile museum in Wolfsburg. The demand in Europe, as large as ever, was initially covered by production in Belgium and later in Mexico. One year later, on January 10 1979, the last Beetle convertible - it is the 330,281st - rolled off the Karmann line in Osnabrück.

In 1981, a further important milestone in the history of the company was reached in Mexico: on May 15, the 20 millionth Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla.

In 1984, the 100,000th export Beetle left Mexico for Europe. Deliveries were suspended one year later. By this time, more than 900,000 Beetles had been produced in Mexico.

Towards the end of the 1980's, the Beetle experienced a true renaissance in Mexico. Around 33,000 models were sold in 1989; three years later, this number had almost tripled. The increase could essentially be attributed to a new government automobile decree regarding the "classic Beetle". It called for a 20 percent price reduction, which made the "Sedán Clásico" - as it is called in Mexico - the most economical vehicle on the Mexican market.

Because of the great demand, third shift production of the Beetle was added in 1990. In the same year, the millionth Beetle was produced at VW de México.

In June 1992, the VW Beetle celebrated a unique production record. The 21 millionth rolled off the line. The Mexican VW subsidiary kept the Beetle up to the level of the times technically and in terms of appearance, and made possible its journey into the 21st century. In the year 2000 alone, 41,620 models left the factory, where 170 vehicles were built each day in two shifts. In 2003, production is drawing to a close. The "Última Edición", presented in Puebla in July, represents the end of a complete development cycle, and simultaneously, an automotive century. As a true world citizen, the Beetle was not only sold in every imaginable country, it was also produced in a total of 20 countries.

Two factors in particular were responsible for bringing about the upswing at Volkswagen and for establishing its success: one must be the people, with their energy, industriousness and wealth of ideas, who went all out for the company and its products. Heinrich Nordhoff epitomized the style of the social partnership: "The only value that a company has are the people who work for it and the spirit in which they do it." And the other must be the products themselves, which found satisfied buyers all over the world for almost six decades.

The VW Beetle certainly played a major role here. Until the 1970's, it dominated the image of the Volkswagen Company, and helped to influence the streets everywhere around the world.

The requirements and progress of today's world have overtaken the Beetle. Millions of people got to know their first car with the Wolfsburg emblem on the steering wheel while still in driving school. Millions naturally purchased the Beetle as their first car, new or used. It is still a trusted friend to today's driving generation, while they enjoy the progress of the new era.

VW Beetle ...and runs and swims and flies

When motor sports got going again around 1950, after strenuous efforts in the years after the war, some Beetle fans were enthusiastic participants in rallies and races. The large wheels, tight wheelbase, high ground clearance and stable body made the Beetle thoroughly suitable for open terrain.

While there aren't any success statistics for rally Beetles, the many victories in Germany and other countries speak for themselves. Thus, four 1302 S and 1303 S type Beetles made names for themselves. They were driven by experienced Volkswagen drivers. In international rallies throughout Europe, they rapidly made it clear that they were serious competition for the previous favorites. This was also true at the 6th International Rally Elba, which covered more than 1,500 kilometers (almost 1000 miles) of gravel tracks and sprint trials in rugged terrain. The team of Achim Warmbold, Germany, and Gunnar Haggbom, Sweden, took the final victory. Of 90 starters, 68 dropped out.

The winning car had reinforced shock absorbers; engine and transmission were covered as protection against flying stones and the power of the 1.6-liter engine was boosted from the standard 50 hp to 126 hp by the tuners at Volkswagen-Porsche.

Another example for successful rally cars in the Beetle series was the New Caledonia Safari Rally of 1974. The 4,000 kilometer (almost 2500 miles) long stretch led through very difficult terrain. This cross-country event was won by an unmodified 54-hp engine; only the bottom of the car had been reinforced with aluminum trussing to protect against bouncing gravel when crossing rivers.

In 1962, when the American VW dealer Hubert Brundage came up with the idea to fit his own small racecar with a Beetle engine, Volkswagen supported this questionable enterprise. Another American, Air Force Colonel Smith, took up the idea and had Nardi in Italy build him his own monoposto out of original VW parts.

In 1963, the new type of race car based on the Beetle was approved by the sport authorities. As a result, Ferry Porsche, son and successor of Ferdinand Porsche, the father of the Volkswagen, introduced the new sport vehicle in Europe with a great deal of enthusiasm. Formula V - for Volkswagen - set out to conquer, and allowed up and coming racecar drivers an economical entry into motor sport.

Until now, 8,000 monoposti have been built according to the V brand formula. This is an unofficial individual record, with the highest circulation of formula cars that has ever been reached in the world.

The sporty Beetle fans didn't only want to tackle such strict regulations as those of formula V, however. Driven by the urge for freedom, the descendents of the Wild West pioneers searched for rough tracks away from the main roads. The result - dune buggies and similar open-air automobiles. No desert, no beach and no dunes in the expanses of Nevada, Arizona and California are safe from them any longer.

In 1967, the "Baja 1,000", proclaimed the hardest competition of this type, was held for the first time on the Mexican Baja California peninsula, through a region in which it is more likely that rattlesnakes rather than foxes will wish you "good night." 80 percent of all competing cars participated with VW parts. Two of the nine starter classes were reserved exclusively for VW modifications. As the supplier of sturdy and economical parts, the Beetles played an important role here - both for the front axle and the rear axle, usually with oversized tires, and for the engine. It was all held together by a tubular space frame of the most head-strong and robust construction, without regard for its own weight. It held the "sand bug" together, even after a hard landing following a jump through the terrain.

In Wolfsburg, "the city of the Volkswagen", the Beetle was given a very special honor. Since 1958, a VW train had driven though the city, without tracks, much to the pleasure of the children and grownups. It chauffeured up to 45 people through the city, past the City Hall and to the Wolfsburg Castle. A spirited act of strength, because around six tons have to be kept moving by 34 hp of Beetle power. In 1975, a Golf traction engine took over from the Beetle locomotive.

Beetles were also harnessed for the hard work of making a living. Bill Peters, a farmer from California, converted his VW into a very useful potato Beetle. He attached farm equipment, including the plow, to the back to till his fields. With great success - his farm's fuel consumption fell considerably.

Even that telephone booth game so popular with young people, namely seeing how many people can be squeezed into a glass box, was transferred to the Beetle all around the world. 35 students from La Crosse State College in Wisconsin squeezed themselves into and onto the Beetle, and then covered a distance of five meters. But the glory was not theirs for long. Students in Dublin increased the number of passengers to 36 and still covered the prescribed distance. A little later, 57 mountain climbers actually climbed into and onto their record Beetle. This represented a load of approximately three tons.

Finally, there is still the story of the VW Beetle who became an international star - Herbie. In the American film "Love Bug", which ran under the title "Ein toller Beetle" in theaters in Germany, Herbie is the star. And a Volkswagen. One that can do it all: he races, acts as matchmaker, can be understanding and furious - in short, he is a very unusual car.

The film's success was also unusual. In the first eight months it was shown in Germany, it drew five million viewers. It received the "Goldene Leinwand" (Golden Screen) award from the Association for German Cinema. The film music received a "Goldene Schallplatte" (Gold Disk) award. It was the same all over the world. People poured into the movie theaters to see Herbie.

A true water Beetle fever raged in 1973, after the Beetle body proved to be seaworthy during several involuntary swimming attempts that ended happily. In Italy, a man mastered the Straits of Messina between Calabria and Sicily with his VW 1200, which he had carefully sealed and fitted with a propeller, in only 38 minutes, or two minutes faster than the regularly scheduled ferry.

Afterwards, the Viking Malc Buchanan set off in the very rough waters of the Irish Sea. Starting from the Isle of Man, he reached the county of Cumbria in England after seven and a half hours afloat. That set a new "Water Beetle Record" in the category "standard car over 59 kilometers".

Meanwhile, Volkswagen Beetle swimming had become a popular hobby in the USA. Outboard motors were naturally frowned on. The amphibian had to be driven using the original VW engine and a propeller that had been added on. At least this is what the statutes of WARA, the "Waterbugs of America Racing Association" called for.

But Beetle technology was the talk of more than just the land and water. The sturdy VW engine was even put to use in the air. An inventive engineer equipped a Turbulent model machine with a VW engine at the Royal Air Force's Withe Waltham airfield. Prince Philip had an officer explain the operation to him, and took off into the air. The flight lasted 35 minutes. The Prince returned to earth safe and sound - "quite taken," as he subsequently declared.

But even flyers without any titles were at least as venturesome. And, above all, more persevering. The record of them all must be held by Mira Slowak, a Czech-American jet pilot. He built a mini airplane - made of standard parts from a VW 1200 engine - called "The Spirit of Santa Paula" and flew out of New York with it, headed for London. After more than 175 hours, with a total of nine stopovers, he finally arrived at his destination, making him the winner in his class.

Mira Slowak's comment after the long journey by air: "I believe that with its 35 horsepower, the Spirit is the smallest airplane ever to fly across the Atlantic. The VW engine was fantastic; it purred like a kitten and didn't cause any problems the whole way."

Volkswagen – an international partner

The Volkswagen Group, with its involvements around the world, has already been a global player for many decades. The company owes its climb from practically nothing into this position to the early decision of farsighted men, to send out feelers throughout the world from a decidedly homey location, to find chances in other countries - and to use them. This couldn't be a matter of short-term success, but instead had to involve long-term partnerships that served the cooperation and trust in benefits of all those involved.

Until the 1970's, the VW Beetle stood at the center of these internationally oriented activities. A mass-produced automobile whose concept, technology, quality, economic efficiency and reliability were intended like no other's to take over the work of an automotive and industrial development aid worker.

Thus, Volkswagen assumed the important function of partner in the realization of economic and social progress in many countries over the past decades. The company almost always followed the strategy of building up a separate production base by starting with purely export activities and working together with a local partner.

Logically, the international orientation began in 1947 with the first vehicle exports; country of destination: the Netherlands. Receivers of 56 Beetle models were the Pon brothers in Amersfort, named as VW general importers. In that year, 9,000 vehicles were built in Wolfsburg, with 1656 - or 18 percent - of these going for export.

Only one year later, 23 percent of the production was already for export. A milestone of a special kind was reached for Volkswagen exports in 1949. The first vehicles were shipped to the United States and exhibited at the German Industrial Show in New York. Now there were already seven countries on the export list. Only two years later, the number was already 29, an indication of the tumultuous export development during this time.

In 1952, the importer Pon picked up the 10,000th Volkswagen for the Netherlands in Wolfsburg. In the same year, a VW marketing company was founded in Canada. In the following year, there were already Volkswagen customers in 83 of the world's countries. Almost 70,000 exported vehicles brought in more than 250 million DM in foreign currencies.

A further export milestone was reached in 1953, when Volkswagen do Brasil was founded in Sao Paulo on March 23; it soon developed into one of the company's most important subsidiaries. The final assembly of the "completely knocked down" (CKD) Beetle, introduced in 1951, passed over from the Brazilian company Brasmotor to the new VW subsidiary. Then things started to get going. In 1954, the first Beetles rolled off the lines in Australia, Belgium and New Zealand and in 1955, Volkswagen of America was founded as the sales company for the American market. Exports in this year rose to almost 180,000 vehicles. The foreign currency proceeds this year totaled 600 million DM, and there were already 2,500 dealers in other countries selling and servicing Volkswagens.

Volkswagen took the next step towards an international character in South Africa. Here the company acquired the interests of the South African importer in 1956 and founded a subsidiary as an assembly operation. In the same year, the foundations for the largest car factory on the South American continent were laid in Sao Bernardo do Campo, near Sao Paulo, with the goal of producing as many parts as possible within the country.

In 1959, the new Volkswagen do Brasil plant was put into operation in Sao Paulo, and by January, the first series Beetle had already rolled off the line. VW France was established in 1960 and the 500,000th vehicle was shipped to the USA. In 1962, the 1,000,000th Volkswagen reached the United States.

The development of the Asian-Pacific area therefore took place over general importers, who put together the Beetles in the assembly plants. Beetle assembly started on the Philippines in 1959. Malaysia and Singapore followed in 1968, with Indonesia and Thailand four years later.

Encouraged by the success in other countries, the people from Wolfsburg risked the next step, too, to Mexico. Volkswagen de México received the order to build Volkswagens with as many parts as possible from local production. Only three years after the company was founded, the new plant in Puebla opened, and thereafter built the Mexican Sedán.

In 1966, one hundred percent ownership of the South African subsidiary founded in 1956 passed over to the parent company; its new name, effective immediately, was Volkswagen of South Africa.

The Beetle's American success continued without pause. In 1971, a transport ship brought the 5,000,000th Volkswagen to the United States.

In the same year, Volkswagen took over VW Bruxelles and thereby created its own leg to stand on in Beetle production. With the joint venture "Tvornica Automogila Sarajevo" (TAS) founded on June 14, 1972, a second European production site came into being, where Beetle production started on November 10, 1973 with a daily output of 20 cars. 1973 also saw the signing of the contract for the foundation of Volkswagen of Nigeria, and the start of construction of a branch plant near Lagos.

Production of the Fusca, as the Beetle is called in Brazil, temporarily ended in Brazil in 1986, after 30 years. A total of over 3,300,000 vehicles were built.

The Fusca enjoyed a comeback in 1993 when production started up again. It proved its quality once again, until its final farewell in 1996.

In July 2003, the definitively last Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Puebla at Volkswagen de México.

VW Beetle, the real miracle (2024)
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