The origins of the Volkswagen date back to
1930s Nazi Germany, and the project to build the car that would
become known as the Beetle. Hitler was good at marketing his
government to the German people, he commissioned several large
projects to win their favour, one project was to build a car
that everyone could afford. The project fitted with a proposal
by car designer Ferdinand Porsche. The intention was that
ordinary Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme,
which around 336,000 people eventually paid into. Prototypes of
the car called the KdF-Wagen (German: Kraft durch Freude =
strength through joy), appeared from 1936 onwards. The car
already had its distinctive round shape and air-cooled,
flat-four, rear-mounted engine.
The new factory in the new town of KdF-Stadt, now called
Wolfsburg, purpose-built for the factory workers, had only
produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939.
Consequently the first volume-produced versions of the car were
military vehicles, the jeep-like Kübelwagen and the amphibious
The company owes its postwar existence largely to one man,
British army officer Major Ivan Hirst (1916-2000). In April 1945
KdF-Stadt and its heavily bombed factory were captured by the
Americans, and handed to the British to administer. The factory
was placed under the control of Hirst. At first the plan was to
use it for military vehicle maintenance. Since it had been used
for military production, and had been a "political animal" (Hirst's
words) rather than a commercial enterprise, the equipment was in
time intended to be salvaged as war reparations. Hirst painted
one of the factory's cars green and demonstrated it to British
army headquarters. Short of light transport, in September 1945
the British army was persuaded to place a vital order for
20,000. The first few hundred cars went to personnel from the
occupying forces, and to the German Post Office. By 1946 the
factory was producing 1000 cars a month, a remarkable feat
considering the factory was still in disrepair: the damaged roof
and windows meant rain stopped production; the steel to make the
cars had to be bartered with new vehicles.
The car and its town changed their Second World War-era names to
Volkswagen (meaning peoples car) and Wolfsburg respectively, and
production was increasing. It was still unclear what was to
become of the factory. It was offered to representatives from
the British, American and French motor industries. Famously, all
rejected it. After an inspection of the plant Sir William Rootes,
head of one of the largest British car companies, told Hirst the
project would fail within two years, and that the car "is quite
unattractive to the average motorcar buyer, is too ugly and too
noisy ... If you think you're going to build cars in this place,
you're a bloody fool, young man." Ford representatives agreed:
the car was "not worth a damn".
From 1948, Volkswagen became a very important element,
symbolically and economically, of West German regeneration.
Heinrich Nordhoff (1899-1968), a former senior manager at Opel
who had overseen civilian and military vehicle production in the
1930s and 1940s, was recruited to run the factory in 1948. In
1949 Hirst left the company, now re-formed as a trust controlled
by the West German government. Apart from the introduction of
the "Type 2" commercial vehicle (van, pickup and camper) and the
Karmann Ghia sports car, Nordhoff pursued the one-model policy
until shortly before his death in 1968. Production of the "Type
1" VW Beetle (German: 'Käfer', US: 'Bug', French: 'Coccinelle',
Brazil: 'Fusca') increased dramatically over the years, the
total reaching 1 million in 1954.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, although the car was becoming
out-dated, American exports, innovative advertising and a
growing reputation for reliability helped production figures to
surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model
T. By 1973 total production was over 16 million.
VW expanded their product line in 1967 with the introduction of
several "Type 3" models, which were essentially body style
variations (Fastback, Notchback, Squareback) based on "Type 1"
mechanical underpinnings, and again in 1969 with the relatively
unpopular "Type 4" (also known as "411" and "412") models, which
differed substantially from previous models with the notable
introduction of Unibody construction, a fully automatic
transmission and fuel injection.
VW were in serious trouble by the end of the 1960's. The Type 3
and Type 4 models had been a comparative flop, and the NSU-based
K70 also failed to woo buyers. The company knew that Beetle
production had to end one day, but the replacement problem had
been a never ending nightmare. The key to the problem was the
1964 acquisition of Audi/Auto-Union. The Ingolstadt based firm
had the necessary expertise in front wheel drive and watercooled
engines that VW so desperately needed to produce a credible
Beetle successor. Audi influence paved the way for this new
generation of Volkswagens, known as the Polo, Golf and Passat.
Production of the Beetle at the Wolfsburg factory switched to
the VW Golf in 1974, marketed in the United States as the VW
Rabbit in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a car unlike its
predecessor in most significant ways, both mechanically as well
as visually (its angular styling was designed by the Italian
Giorgetto Giugiaro). Its design followed trends for small family
cars set by the 1959 Mini and 1972 Renault 5 -- the Golf had a
transversely mounted, water-cooled engine in the front, driving
the front wheels, and had a hatch-back, a format that has
dominated the market segment ever since. Beetle production
continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until
1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico.
In 1998 VW launched the New Beetle, a
"retro"-themed car with a resemblance to the original Beetle but based
on the Golf, in Mexico it sold along side the original beetle which is
simple know there as the "VW sedan".
Like its competitors, the Mini and the Citroen 2CV,
the original-shape Beetle long outlasted predictions of its lifespan.
More so than those cars, it maintains a very strong following worldwide,
being regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association
with the hippie movement. By 2002 there had been over 21 million
On July 21, 2003, the last old-style Volkswagen Beetle rolled of its
production line in Puebla, Mexico. It was car number 21,529,464 of the
model, and was immediately shipped of to the company's museum in
Wolfsburg, Germany. In true Mexican fashion, a mariachi band serenaded
the last car in the 68-year-old history. The last car was nicknamed El
Rey, which is Spanish for "The King".