To many people, the Volkswagen Beetle was the most important car of the 20th century. It should be, the company sold 21.5 million from about 1938 to 12003, when the last one rolled off a Mexican production line. Oddly, it only took fourth place in the 1999 Car of The Century competition, which rated the Model T Ford (14.6 million) BMC Mini (5.4 million) and Citroen DS (1.4 million) ahead of it.
That contest in no way dims the Beetle’s remarkable achievement. Ferdinand Porsche’s 1931 prototypes led to Hitler’s demand in 1934 for a “people’s car”, a handful of pre-production models in 1937-39 and a successful World War II career as the “Kubelwagen” Jeep (52,000 built). Production finally began in 1945 West Germany after the British Army dismissed the car as “quite unattractive to the average buyer”, but needed vehicles to help rebuild the country, whose residents also needed jobs. By 1946 the factory was producing 1,000 cars a month.
The basic platform endured (with improvements), for almost 60 years. A flat-floor platform featured torsion bar front suspension, with coils and swing axles at the rear. The 25bhp, 1,131cc rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat-four cylinder engine proved indestructible with Rommell’s Afrika Korps, and was attached to a four-speed transaxle. The “coming and going” saloon body was known as a “kafer”; German for beetle. Early cars were khaki with no chrome trim and a tiny split back window.
Heinz Nordoff took over running the factory in 1949 and the one millionth car was built in 1955. By that date the Beetle outperformed its principal competition, the Citroen 2CV and Morris Minor, with top speed of 71 mph (at which it could cruise), and 0-60 mph in 27.5 seconds.
Running changes were made to the Beetle, as it progressed. Telescopic shocks and hydraulic brakes arrived in 1950, vent windows were added, and the top three gears synchronized in 1952, when 15-inch wheels and brake lights installed. An oval rear window was introduced in 1953, and the engine increased to 1,192cc and 30bhp in 1954, with the 1200 model. Boot size increased in 1955 when a canvas sunroof was available, and the windshield and rear window much larger from 1957.
The rear swing arm pivot was lowered in 1959; horsepower increased to 34bhp in 1960, and turn signals replaced semaphores. Fresh air heating was developed in 1962, all four gears were synchronized, power went up to 40bhp and a petrol gauge was introduced. A sliding steel sunroof supplanted the canvas one in 1963, and undercoating arrived in 1964, along with still larger windows. The rear seat folded down in 1965, significantly increasing luggage capacity.
The engine increased to 1,285cc in 1966 and the 1200 became the 1300 with 50bhp. The 1,495cc 54bhp engine was offered in 1967 in the 1500 model, headlights were now sealed beams, electrics became 12 volts and a safety steering column was installed. Larger taillights and an external petrol filler marked 1968, when the automatic stick shift was introduced. A dual braking system arrived in 1969, and the rear swing-axle was replaced by more stable trailing arms.
The Super Beetle of 1971 gained a 1,585cc engine, good for 60bhp, and McPherson strut front suspension, which extended the wheelbase and doubled the boot space. Self-cancelling turn signals were fitted and a larger rear window followed in 1972. The Super Beetle gained a larger curved windshield in 1973, and flow-through ventilation. Fuel injection arrived in 1975 to combat emissions regulations.
The last Beetle saloon was built in Germany in 1978, though production continued in the rest of the world until the very last car was built in Mexico in 2003, when taxi regulations required that cabs have four doors. In all, 21,529,464 Beetles were produced.
Karmann built a total of 331,847 Beetle Cabriolets between 1949 and 1980. Development paralleled improvements to the saloons, with the final cabriolets built for the U.S. market with the Super Beetle’s curved windshield. The cabriolets were known for their fine finish and superb lined canvas tops, though they were expensive to replace, and were very bulky when folded.
|Year||Make||Model||Submodel||Body Type||Average value|
|1953||Volkswagen||Beetle||1200||Cabriolet||£ 9,800 15,000 26,300 40,900|
|1958||Volkswagen||Beetle||1200 Full Window||2dr Saloon||£ 6,270 9,110 16,040 21,290|
|1958||Volkswagen||Beetle||1200L||2dr Saloon||£ 6,440 9,210 16,340 23,270|
|1965||Volkswagen||Beetle||1300||Cabriolet||£ 7,500 10,500 19,300 22,100|
|1965||Volkswagen||Beetle||1500||Cabriolet||£ 7,700 11,200 21,100 25,200|