I’m pretty sure that readers of a certain age (say born before 1970) have owned or driven or were passengers in a Volkswagen Beetle. Sometimes call the VW Bug, either way we all are familiar with the little two-door sedan. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it was the best-selling import by far, and for a spell more than 500,000 left dealer lots annually.
Ignored at first when the first two Beetles arrived in the States in 1949, the air-cooled, rear engine little German car with an amazingly low price tag slowly but surely captured buyers’ hearts, and sales bloomed during the ’50s until it became the best-selling import car. Its success forced Detroit’s Big Three automakers to respond with smaller cars of their own. American buyers in the fall of 1959 welcomed the 1960 Ford Falcon, Chevy Corvair and Chrysler Corporation Valiant (the Valiant became a Plymouth in 1961).
Most car buff readers probably know the long history of the VW Beetle. For readers with little knowledge of the car’s history, here is a brief recap of the little car that became a big splash in the 1950s and 1960s and made the automobile company Volkswagen a household name in North America. Many younger readers may not know that the Beetle was conceived as the “people’s car” (or Volks Wagen) in the mid 1930s during the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The dictator hired Austrian engineer Ferninand Porsche to design a car that was affordable to the masses, much like Henry Ford’s Model T. The VW Beetle that arrived in very limited numbers after WWII in the U.S. was pretty much the same car that Porsche had created before WWII, but the program was cancelled when war broke out.
After the war, British occupation authorities supervised rebuilding a plant that ended up building the Beetle, and in 1949 handed ownership of the factory over to the German government and the state of Lower Saxony. Lower Saxony still holds partial ownership of VW to this day. Sales of the light-weight, low-brow but economical sedan were slow at first, but after those first two Bugs were delivered to the U.S. in 1949, the interest in the little cars picked up. By 1955 the millionth Beetle was built for worldwide consumption and VW was on a roll.
Quickly the U.S. became the Beetle’s most important market and sales peaked at 563,522 in 1968. The Beetle seemed to almost become the “anti-car.” Its dated bulbous shape, low price, fun-to-drive-factor and unique advertising campaign (Think Small!) captured both young and old American car buyers’ imaginations, and the rest is history. After building millions of Beetles in nearly 20 factories in over 15 countries around the world, production in Germany ended in 1978 after the replacement small car, the Golf (called initially the Rabbit in the U.S. and built in a Pennsylvania auto plant) was introduced in the mid 1970s. A Mexican plant in Pueblo continued building the Beetle until 2003 when it was reported that 21,529,464 units had been built. By the way, in 1972 VW’s Beetle sales bypassed Ford’s Model T production record when it was reported that 15,007,034 Bugs had hit the road.
In 1998 VW capitalized on the long love affair Americans had for the Beetle, and under the direction of CEO Ferdinand Piech, Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson, introduced the New Beetle. It was a retro version of the original and was created by using the front wheel drive platform of the popular Golf. The New Beetle enjoyed fair success around the globe, but sales slowed in recent years, and earlier this month, on July 10, the last Beetle was assembled. It was announced by VW that the last Beetle will be sold online through Amazon.
It is a shame that the car was discontinued, in my opinion. It, unlike most of the cars on the road, was instantly recognizable and had a delightful cheery way about it that puts a smile on one’s face. I especially like the freshened New Beetle that was introduced in 2012. In an effort to make it look a touch more manly, the designer flattened the roof and made some other design changes that reduced the cuteness but not the fun aspect of the compact car. VW announced earlier that it would build 5,961 Final Edition Beetles, and the last one would go to a museum.
The Beetle plant will now build a new subcompact crossover (no surprise there) and it will be introduced in the U.S. in 2020. As I understand it the new utility wagon presently being sold as the Tharu in China and the Tarek in other foreign markets will get a new name for North America. VW seems to have a propensity for picking odd names for their vehicles (Touareg, Routan, Tiguan, Arteon, Jetta, to name a few), so it is anyone’s guess what name this new subcompact model will be christened.
I mentioned earlier that nearly everyone of a certain age has either driven or ridden in a Beetle, either the original or the new one. I’m one of them. My Beetle story started in the summer of 1975 when I was vacationing with my family up north near Harbor Springs just above Petoskey. I was in town to do some shopping and drove past a gas station where I spotted a cute little red 1970 V-Dub convertible with a for sale sign in the window. At the time I was perfectly happy with my unpretentious 1973 AMC Hornet Sportabout but evidently something was missing in my life because that little red car just pull me right off the street and before I knew it I had bought a new car.
I enjoyed owning the fun-to-drive, top-down buggy and used it mostly for around-town errands. It was not a great long distance, high-speed travel car. Sadly, the rust bug showed no mercy and after seven years of ownership I found a buyer for the car here in St. Joseph in 1982. It wasn’t perfect but it sure had style and pannaz and I loved pulling down the manual top in the garage and backing it out into the open sky. What a feeling!
In 1999 the Beetle, in a Car of the Century survey, was ranked number 4 behind only Ford’s Model T, the UK’s Mini and the French Citroen DS. The Beetle is no more, but it had a remarkable run. Not bad for a little unpretentious car that had risen from the ashes of WWII and sold only two cars its first year in the U.S.
• Trivia Answer: No. Scion, introduced in 2003 (in California initially), was discontinued after the 2016 model year.
Dar Davis founded the Lake Bluff Concours and chaired the event for many years. He has been writing this column since 1999. He can be reached at email@example.com.