Automotive history

Freeze Frame: Beetle overtakes the Model T

by Antony Ingram
16 February 2022 2 min read
Freeze Frame: Beetle overtakes the Model T
Photos: Volkswagen

Welcome to Freeze Frame, our look back at moments from this week in automotive history.

17 February 1972 – VW Beetle surpasses Model T as the most produced car in history

A few interesting if largely useless statistics for you: 15,007,034 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetles lined bumper-to-bumper would stretch almost 61,214 kilometres, or 38,036 miles.

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As well as being a hell of a traffic jam, the line would encircle the equator one and a half times, though that distance would still be just 16 per cent of the way to the moon. There would be logistical issues with either, so let’s just assume we’re talking in hypotheticals here…

At the top speed of a 1972 Beetle 1200, 71mph, it would take about 536 hours of continuous driving to cover that distance – ignoring time taken for fuel stops – or a hard-driven 22 days (though with the Beetle’s legendary reliability even flat out, the car would undoubtedly handle it better than the driver would).

15 million VW Beetles

That said, you’d need to factor in servicing too, and by the time the Beetle at the back of the line had reached the front, it’d have visited dealerships six times to keep up with its 6000-mile service intervals, and be around a third the way to its seventh service.

It would do all of this, though, with greater ease than the vehicle it had overtaken on February 17, 1972, to become the most-produced car of all time: the Ford Model T.

That’s not to take anything away from the Ford. At 34 years, Beetle production had taken quite a while to catch up to the Tin Lizzie’s figure, set in a remarkable 19 years. That alone showed just how astonishingly successful the Model T had been in the first third of the 21st century.

In fairness, Beetle production had only started in earnest in 1946, so the bulk of that 15 million left Wolfsburg, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and South Africa in the span of 26 years. But when that 15,007,034th Beetle left the line in 1972, Volkswagen paid rightful reverence to the car it had surpassed, featuring the T in its celebrations and advertisements.

Volkswagen Beetle Ford Model T

What few could have anticipated in 1972 was just how many more Beetles would be built. The car’s sales were already in decline by the 1970s as more modern designs out-competed it, and in 1974 Wolfsburg production switched over to the car’s nominal replacement, the watercooled, front-wheel drive Golf.

German production ticked along until 1978, with Brazil and Mexico taking over the bulk of production from that point. But while the Beetle fizzled out of Europe into the 1980s, it just kept on puttering along in these South American markets, and by the time the final Beetle left the Puebla line in Mexico in July 2003, the final tally was in: 21,529,464.

Toyota has built more than 50 million Corollas, long ago eclipsing Volkswagen’s total. But unlike either Ford or Volkswagen, numerous completely new and different models have worn the Corolla badge since 1966. It’s unlikely the Beetle’s single-model tally will ever be beaten.

Read more

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