Volkswagen Beetle – 1938

After coming to power in 1933, the Nazi dictator Adolf Hiller wanted to produce a ‘People’s Car (Volkswagen). Hitler told brilliant engineer Ferdinand Porsche to create this affordable vehicle in an echo of Henry Ford’s ‘any color as long as it’s black’ remark telling Porsche that the price could be anything he liked ‘as long as it’s under a thousand marks’.

This was impossibly low and, despite Porsche’s efforts, little progress was made until the German state threw its weight behind the project in 1936. American technicians were hired and mass-production know-how imported.

But in truth the People’s Car, or Type 1 (nicknamed ‘Beetle’ for its shape, though the title was not listed officially by Volkswagen until the New Beetle was launched in 1998) was merely a propaganda tool to impress the German people. No Beetles were delivered to the German citizens who had joined a savings scheme to purchase one, though Hitler was presented with a Type 1 cabriolet on his 49th birthday in 1938. As World War II loomed production at the purpose-built Wolfsberg factory (complete with new town for the workers) switched to an open-topped military version called the Kubelwagen (Bucket Car).

One of the world’s great automobile success stories really started after the war, when the British occupation forces reopened the damaged factory in 1946. It finally ended in 2003, when production of Beetles was stopped in Brazil after 21,529,464 had been built over half a century. Along the way the Beetle hardly changed visually, retaining its unmistakable shape and trademark rear-mounted air­cooled engine – though there were plenty of technical modifications and a commercial version (including the famous camper van beloved by hippies and Aussies touring Europe) was introduced. So the Beetle is surely the easiest-to-find ‘must-drive’ car in the world, wherever you may be.

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:

 Germany (later also manufactured in Brazil)

FIRST MANUFACTURED:

1938

ENGINE:

985 cc eventually uprated to 1,303 cc (four sizes in between) Flat Four

PERFORMANCE:

The early Type 1s could reach 71 mph (115 km/h)

YOU SHOULD KNOW:

After World War II the Volkswagen factory was offered (free!) to American, British and French motor manufacturers. They all turned it down, Ford dismissing the car as ‘not worth a damn’ and Britain’s Sir William Rootes describing the Beetle as ‘too ugly and too noisy’… hindsight, anyone?

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