The History of the Volkswagen Beetle

Learn about the history of the Volkswagen Beetle and how it managed to achieve such popularity since it was developed.

The History of the Volkswagen Beetle

Is there honestly a more iconic car than the Volkswagen Beetle? Few cars have been as ubiquitous as the Beetle, and its distinctive shape is recognizable to pretty much everyone. The original Beetle is one of the longest-lived and most produced cars of all time; from 1938 to 2003 (yes, 2003) over 21.5 million original Beetles were built.

So how did the Beetle last so long and gain such popularity around the world? Well, in this article, we aim to answer just that. We'll be taking a look at the history of the Volkswagen Beetle throughout the decades and explaining how it was that this car managed to last for so long.

Origins of the Beetle

The creation of the Beetle began with the idea that the German people needed a true "people's car"; in other words, a car that the majority of German citizens could actually afford to buy. If you're not aware, this is where the name "Volkswagen" actually comes from; translated from German, Volkswagen literally means "people's car".

Considering the fact that Germany was the birthplace of the car itself (after Karl Benz developed his Motorwagen in 1885), you would think that cars would have been fairly widespread in Germany by the 1930s, but this wasn't the case.

Ford in the U.S. had been making the Model T since 1908 and by 1930 almost half of all households in America owned a Model T. In contrast, cars were still very much an unaffordable luxury item in Germany in 1930; only about one in 50 Germans actually owned a car at this time.

Finally, in 1934, the German government set about developing a new car that could truly function as a people's car. This is really the only blemish on the Beetle's history, as the man leading the German government at the time was none other than Adolf Hitler.

To develop his people's car, Hitler reached out to Ferdinand Porsche, an automotive engineer who worked for Zündapp, a company that made motorcycles and cars. Porsche had recently completed work on the Zündapp Type 12, a prototype car that was pretty similar in appearance to the Beetle.

One thing you may not have known is that while Porsche is usually the man credited with designing the Beetle, it wasn't actually his design. In 1925, a full five years before Porsche came up with his design, a Hungarian engineer named Béla Barényi drafted the original design for the Beetle.

In fact, in 1953, Barényi successfully sued Volkswagen for copyright infringement and had his contributions to the design of the vehicle officially acknowledged.

The original Beetle was also partially based on the Tatra V570, a prototype car built in 1931 by Czech automaker Tatra. Tatra was actually about to sue Porsche for infringing on some of their patents, but Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and the subsequent takeover of the Tatra factory put a stop to this.

Initial Development of the Beetle

The development of the Beetle really began with the creation of the Zündapp Type 12 prototypes developed by Porsche, as these are what really laid the groundwork for the subsequent prototypes that would eventually become the Beetle.

Following the development of the Type 12, Porsche started work on another prototype car for NSU, another German motorcycle manufacturer. This new prototype was designated the Type 32 and was a lot more similar to the final design of the original Beetle than the Type 12 was.

The first real attempt at designing the Volkswagen Beetle, however, came with the development of Porsche's Type 60 prototype, of which five were originally made. Based on these prototypes, the Daimler-Benz company helped Porsche build 30 development models for more testing in 1937.

The following year, the Daimler-Benz factory produced 44 more cars as pre-production models. At this point, however, Porsche's prototypes were getting pretty close to the final product. Porsche was fully committed to using a flat-four engine to power his prototypes, and this series of cars also had the same dashboard and split rear window that would be used in the actual Beetle.

Initial Release of the Beetle

When the Beetle was first announced to the German public, however, it was not actually called the Volkswagen Beetle, or even the Beetle at all. Instead, in his announcement speed, Hitler named the new car the "Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen" (the "Strength Through Joy Car"). The car was often referred to as the KdF-Wagen for short.

Unfortunately for anyone who actually wanted to own one of these cars, the KdF-Wagen was released to the public in 1938, just a year before World War II began. Once the war started, production of the civilian KdF-Wagen immediately stopped, as the factory making them was repurposed for the war effort.

Even before the war, it would have been hard for the average civilian to actually buy a KdF-Wagen. Only about 210 KdF-Wagens had actually been built before the war started, and most German citizens were still too poor to actually afford one.

In order to make the KdF-Wagen more accessible for the average buyer, Hitler introduced a savings scheme as a means of paying off the car. To access this scheme, customers needed to first buy a savings booklet (called the "Sparkarte") that allowed them to pay off the cost of their KdF-Wagens over the course of a few years.

The Sparkarte contained four pages with space for 50 stamps each. To pay off their new car, each citizen was required to buy at least one stamp a week and stick it in the Sparkarte. Each stamp cost 5 Reichsmarks, with the total cost of the KdF-Wagen being 990 Reichsmarks.

Considering that the average weekly income of a German household at the time was about 32 Reichsmarks, it's no surprise that the KdF-Wagen was still a pretty expensive purchase for most people.

What's more, no civilian who bought a KdF-Wagen actually received one until after the war ended. When the war started, all of the KdF-Wagens that had been made up to that point were given to military officers as personal vehicles. Despite this, many people continued to put money into the KdF-Wagen savings scheme throughout the war.

During the war, Germany produced military vehicles based on the KdF-Wagen's chassis, most notably the Jeep-adjacent Kübelwagen and the amphibious Schwimmwagen.

Post-War Beetles

Mass production of the Beetle for civilian markets didn't start again until after the end of the war and the Allies had occupied Germany. At this point, the factory that made the Beetles and other German military vehicles had been heavily bombed and was in a state of disrepair.

The reopening of the factory was largely thanks to an officer in the British military, Major Ivan Hirst. At the time, Britain needed to replenish its supply of military vehicles and the German people needed jobs, so in 1946 Hirst persuaded his superiors to let him get the factory up and running again and hire out-of-work Germans to man it.

In 1946, the factory mainly produced Beetles for British officers, but in 1947, the factory started making Beetles solely for civilians. It was at this time that the car started being called the Volkswagen instead of the KdF-Wagen, although it still wasn't known as the Beetle; the first Beetles were instead called the Volkswagen Type 1.

It didn't take too long after that for the Beetle to start gaining some real popularity. By 1955, a million Beetles had been made, and the Beetle was being exported out of Germany for sale. Part of the Beetle's popularity was that it was actually a superior car to a lot of its contemporaries, despite the fact that its design was incredibly simple.

The original Beetle had a top speed of 71 mph and boasted a pretty impressive fuel economy of 35 mpg. These figures totally eclipsed those of other similar cars like the Citroën 2CV and the Morris Minor.

The Beetle continued to gain popularity throughout the 1960s, although its popularity began to decline after Japanese automakers began dominating the industry in the 1970s. This forced Volkswagen to diversify its model lineup, which ultimately resulted in the creation of the Volkswagen Golf, another iconic economy car.

The Modern Beetle

As we mentioned earlier, the original Beetle was in production for an astounding 65 years, from 1938 to 2003. However, prior to the discontinuation of the original Beetle, Volkswagen made a couple of attempts at evolving the Beetle as a car.

The first one of these efforts was the New Beetle, first introduced in 1997. Volkswagen aimed to create a new car that was inspired by the original Beetle while still being its own thing.

While the New Beetle did look fairly similar to the original, it was completely different underneath; the engine was now at the front instead of the back of the car, and it used a front-wheel-drive system instead of rear-wheel-drive.

Even though the New Beetle didn't quite capture the popularity of the old Beetle, it was still a pretty successful car in its own right. The first generation of the New Beetle was made from 1997 to 2011, and over 1.7 million were sold.

Volkswagen's final attempt at continuing the Beetle name was with the A5 Beetle, so-called because it was built on Volkswagen's A5 platform, which was the same platform used to make the Volkswagen Jetta at the time. The A5 Beetle was built from 2011 to 2019, with the last-ever Beetle made at the Volkswagen factory in Puebla, Mexico.