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Vintage Volkswagen Beetle History

Updated on March 9, 2015
First prototype of 1937 offered to Hitler for appraisal.
First prototype of 1937 offered to Hitler for appraisal.

Out of a crushed Nazi Germany came the World's best selling car - The VW Beetle

The first part of VW Beetle history was Lord Rootes (Head of Rootes cars - Hillman, Humber, Singer, Sunbeam) for Germany and amid the rubble and ruin of Post War Germany, a British commission that he headed visited the small town of Wolksburg to report on the remains of the air cooled VW factory and the future of the "Peoples Car." The Commission reported back "The vehicle does not meet the technical requirements of a motor car. As regards performance and design it is quite unattractive to the average motor car buyer. It is too ugly and noisy - a car like this will remain popular for two or three years, if that." They finally said that the air cooled VW would be completely uneconomic to build commercially.

Famous last words from Lord Rootes.

That the ugly and noisy car which represented the life's dream of Ferdinand Porsche and a major plank in the political success of Adolf Hitler would rise in VW Beetle history to become the best selling car in the world was then quite unforeseen by even the most ardent air cooled VW supporters and there were not many of those at this time.

The car by 1945 had been an unfulfilled promise for more than a decade as the result of developmental problems., obstacles planted by other German manufacturers jealous and worried about the Government backed interloper, and of course the war.

About 336,000 Volkswagen savers - workers who had lay-byed their future cars at the rate of about five Marks a week before 1939 - had seen their 267 million Mark deposits, scooped up by the Russians as they took Berlin, and with that money went many hopes.

A trendsetter it certainly was. Taken back to its first principles, the first Volksauto designed and conceived by the brilliant Ferdinand Porsche was a direct development of the theme which created the World's first really successful rear engined racing car, the 545 hp Auto Union which together with Mercedes dominated European racing in the last five years of the 1930s.

Although initially produced in many variations by Porsche's Stuttgart industrial design firm to suit a number of potential customers. Ferdinand's dream car for the masses always had the same basic theme, that of a small, aerodynamic sedan with an engine behind the rear axle, and all independent suspension.

Revolutionary ideas indeed in Germany in early VW Beetle history of the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was an unacceptable format to the big German manufacturers who still believed a car should be a luxury.

Porsche's first thoughts of a people's car developed soon after WW1, fell on deaf ears for more than a decade before Hitler gave the project the go ahead for the financial incentive that it demanded. The new German Chancellor surprised the German motor industry with his speech in opening the 1933 Berlin Motor Show.

A nation, Hitler said, was no longer judged by other nations by its miles of railroad track but by its miles of paved highways. He called on the manufacturers to bring prestige to Germany on the motor racing circuits and finally requested them to develop a cheap small car for the masses. On this last matter he was very serious, and as a motoring enthusiast himself and a great fan of Henry Ford he regarded the American car ownership to population ratio with some envy.

The legend goes in early VW Beetle history that Porsche first met Hitler when obtaining a subsidy for Auto Union to challenge Mercedes in motor racing. The result was the 16 cylinder Auto Union race car but that was less important than the introduction it gave Porsche to the air cooled VW



Early VW History

Auto Union Type C Race car
Auto Union Type C Race car

Porsche and Hitler

The following year, in early VW Beetle history, Hitler learnt of Porsche's small car plans and disgusted with the apathy which the German manufacturers had greeted his 'people car' request, offered the job to the Czech master designer to design the air cooled VW.

He listened with great interest to Porsche's plans but insisted it be more economical and knocked 650 Marks off the estimated cost price. The German Automobile Industry Association was to coordinate the building of the car but because of great internal jealousy in the industry, there were immediate delays. Nevertheless by the end of 1938 three prototypes were running and the following year Mercedes built another 30 cars for testing.

These unusual hump backed cars had no back window at all, a low smooth sloping front and were powered by a four cylinder engine of one litre capacity with two banks of horizontally opposed cylinders. It was very much the forerunner of the air cooled VW Beetle.

That year Hitler grew impatient with the stalling of the rival manufacturers and a company was established to produce the Peoples Car. To raise the necessary funds, the German Labour Front Organisation, the KdF - Kraft-durch-Freude or Strength Through Joy - was called in. An ingenuous five Marks a week layaway scheme was devised and announced in late 1938. Workers were encouraged to lay by one of the new cars which had been labeled the KdF Wagen - Strength through Joy Wagen - By Hitler. A factory town was established near Hanover to produce the air cooled VW.

In early VW Beetle history, the original price had risen from 900 to 990 Marks and there were promises of 1,500,000 cars being assembled annually in the near future. At the five Marks weekly rate it would take a saver four years and seven months to meet the planned purchase price. In return the saver was promised a document of ownership. There was nothing about actually getting a car and there was no guarantee of a fixed price and no warranty was offered. However, 336,668 Germans eventually put aside 267 million Marks and it appears Hitler intended the scheme to work as the money was rifled from a special bank account by the Russians in 1945.

None of the savers ever got a car and it was not until 1961 that a VW Savers lawsuit was finally ended with a mutual settlement being reached. It was not until the late 1940s that the first Volkswagens managed to find their way into the hands of the private workers it was designed for. The early VW Beetle history pre war production cars went immediately to Hitler's staff while during the war the factory produced the odd looking but very effective military Kubel-wagen and its amphibious brother the Schwimmkubel. Immediate post war production was used by the Germans and their British overlords as barter materials to obtain the steel and machinery necessary to restore the badly damaged plant at Wolsburg. The air cooled VW, Volkswagen's rise to fame since WW11 is now well known.

Early German Beetle advertising.
Early German Beetle advertising.

History from KFF to Beetle

My Own Beetle Experiences

I have my own early VW Beetle history. I once owned a 1957 split window air cooled VW Beetle. Heavily stacked with four friends and their luggage that somewhat shabby lime green machine would maintain 60mph tirelessly and at that steady speed gave an incredible 40mpg. In those days syncromesh was a luxury which Volkswagen could not afford and the crash type gearbox required some familiarization. It was a case of pause... two-three....change going up and a suitable rev and double shuffle coming down, but the gears then slipped in as sweet as sugar.

The brakes left a lot to be desired and it was always a hope and pray maneuver to bring the Beetle to a stop in an emergency. But the clutch and steering were feather light, the turning circle was good, the vision was reasonable despite the binocular back window and the finish like everything German was excellent. A lot has been written about early VW Beetle history handling. I agree with all the critics. But in 11,000 miles of driving this split window Beetle I only had one 'moment' and that was in the first 20 miles. I had rushed into an unfamiliar corner, lifted off the accelerator and the swing axles just picked themselves up and skipped. The back wheels immediately rose to their toes and the tail of the Beetle shot from under me. I got a hell of a shock but managed to catch it. After that we were good friends.

In fact I soon found out I could hustle the car along at surprisingly good speeds. With four friends and their luggage and the suspension fairly flattened I found the air cooled VW sat squarely and handled even better, much to the disquiet of my friends.

It had one strange quirk through which was never accurately traced but we suspect came from the worn bushes on the entire front end. If you hit a pothole at a particular angle, the whole front end would begin a violent shimmy and the only way to stop this was to reduce speed, jam on the brakes and hang onto the steering wheel like grim death. Volkswagens in those days were a lot more sparten than the last models. The centre of the dashboard simply housed a large speedometer and matching clock and was flanked by two lidded glove boxes. air cooled VW Beetles never had a fuel gauge until the mid 1960s.

Like most owners I carried a graduated stick in the front boot and you calculated your mileage and dipped as you travelled. But there was a reserve petrol tap. Even in those days the car had a heater which was in effect hot air from around the exhaust system and engine compartment re-routed into the cabin by levers on the centre tunnel.

I got to truly love my Beetle. In those days they were plentiful and fairly cheap. It ended up a beach buggy. A friend and me unbolted the body in about an hour. Rolled it off the floorpan and installed the new aluminium body in about another hour. A little bit of wiring and we were ready to go. So a total car transformation in an afternoon. We called up a truck and they took the body to the tip. What a shame. These days that split window air cooled VW Beetle history would have been worth about 20 times more than what it was in the 70's.


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VW Karmann Ghia

Its very important to include in the VW Beetle history some other models successfully produced under the VW umbrella. The one probably most known is the Karmann Ghia. The Karmann Ghia had quite a long production life of between 1955 until 1974, with very few changes in that period. Both coupes and convertibles were manufactured. It combined the chassis of the VW Beetle along with the coachbuilding abilities of the German manufacturer - Karmann.

455,000 Karmann Ghias were produced over the 19 year production period, with a surprising amount still around even though rust issues were ever present.

Although they were initially powered by the 1192cc single solex engines, with an option of power from a 1195cc with twin Solex carburetters, they were eventually powered by 1500 and 1600cc Beetle engine versions.

VW Karmann Ghia

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VW Type 34

The Type 34 is my personal favorite in another chapter of VW Beetle history. They were introduced in 1961 with a 1500cc engine.

Its difficult to understand how they ever got through the Boardroom. At the time VW were having a great run with the Karmann Ghia, so why introduce yet another sports car to the range. My guess is that the Type 34 was basically a much more upmarket version of the Karmann Ghia, with options in 1963 such as an electrically operated sunroof. There were also a lot more padded areas in the Type 34 as opposed to the Karmann Ghia. It was also larger inside and faster. I've probably just answered my own question.

There's very few Type 34's around these days (although there are quite a lot on the road in Australia). Rust issues in the Type 34 were plentiful as they had lots of internal sealed welded panels. Restoration jobs because of this can be hugely more expensive than what the car is actually worth when once restored.

Only 42,000 were ever produced and they cost the equivalent of two Beetles in their day. Production ended in 1969. Today the estimate is that 1500 - 2000 remain.

Type 34

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VW Type 3 History

In 1961 VW introduced the Type 3, on its own completely different chassis to the Beetle. This platform was also shared by the Type 34.

The Type 3 was available in Fastback, Notchback and Estate forms, all with four seats but two doors. The Notchback was introduced first, followed closely by the Estate, which was called the Variant. The Fastback entered production in 1965. The Fastback had a 1600cc engine, whereas the Notchback and Variant both came with a 1500cc engine.

The Fastback was meant to replace the Notchback but VW hadn't researched the market particularly well and ended up keeping both on the market, competing against each other until production finished in 1963.

When production ceased in 1973 over two and a half million had been manufactured across the three versions. When covering VW Beetle history, the Type 34 is a very much loved part of it for all enthusiasts.


VW Type34 Fastback

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VW Type 34 Notchback

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VW Type34 Variant

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Split Window Beetle
Split Window Beetle

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    • Pidi profile image

      Philip Kleudgen 3 years ago from Germany

      Like your article although I personally drive a VW bus ;-)

    • JerryFisher profile image
      Author

      Jerry Fisher 3 years ago from Wellington

      Buses are cool. I've had two. A 1962 and a 1974.

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