June 1, 2023

The Bug’s Life: A History of the Volkswagen Beetle

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Volkswagen’s Beetle is one of the oldest nameplates in automotive history still in use today. In the U.S., the Bug was sold between 1950 and 1979, with sales resuming as a new model was introduced in 1998. But the little VW’s history stretches all the way back to 1934, when development work started in earnest in Germany. The first batch of finalized cars were birthed in 1938, only to see the gleaming new factory built to assemble them pulled into Germany’s war effort and later bombed to near-oblivion. European civilians wouldn’t get their hands on the car until 1947, after production was restarted to provide ground transportation for Allied occupying troops. U.S. importation grew from a trickle in the early ’50s to a flood a decade later, and eventually 21 million Beetles would be sold worldwide. Even after U.S. sales ceased in 1979, the car continued to be built and sold in Mexico and Brazil. Over the years, very little about the Beetle changed; it wasn’t until 1998 that the car received its first major redesign. For a look at the major events in the Bug’s history, continue on:

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1945 Beetle production

War is over! While Times Square goes nuts, sailors kiss random women, and the world lets out a collective sigh of relief as Germany falls to the Allied forces, the factory where Volkswagens were to be built lies in ruin. Located in a buggy swampland along the river Aller in what would later become Wolfsburg, the factory had yet to build a single civilian model, having been converted to build war munitions and VW-based vehicles shortly after its construction in 1938. Immediately after the war, the only American experience with the Volkswagen comes when occupation forces stationed in Germany are provided cars built by the restarted factory.

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1946: From KdF Wagen to Type I

Production of the Volkswagen—the name “Beetle” had yet to stick—was plagued by ongoing repairs to the Wolfsburg factory, coal and materials shortages, and by the company not having a true owner. The Allied Military Government placed a Brit, Major Ivan Hirst, in charge of the factory, which was put back into service to fulfill an order for 20,000 VWs for the occupation forces. Pictured here is the 10,000th Bug assembled there.

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Wolfsburg factory, 1947

An ex-Opel executive, Heinz Nordhoff, is hired to run the place when the British began attempting to transition ownership of the “Wolfsburg Motor Works,” as it had come to be named, to almost anyone who would take it. Henry Ford II refused to take the operation as a gift; the British auto industry also had no interest in the car or the factory. Undeterred, Nordhoff set up exports to Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, and Switzerland. Nordhoff’s zeal for exports is less about expanding the VW’s sales and more about bringing in hard currency from outside Germany. Sales were strong at home, but German currency wasn’t worth much. The factory needed machinery from abroad, particularly from America, and holding foreign currency would be a boon. But no currency glows greener in Nordhoff’s eyes than American dollars.

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1949: Beetle Cabriolet by Karmann

One of VW’s first export markets was Holland, where a man by the name of Ben Pon sold 56 cars so successfully that Nordhoff called upon him in 1949 to make a go at the U.S. market. A few cars had made their way to the States by this time, brought over by returning servicemen as the occupation wound down. Pon traveled to New York with a single VW and some spare parts, but anti-German sentiment remained strong, and the trip was a disaster. Pon was forced to sell the car and attendant parts in order to pay his hotel bill and travel back to Europe. Nordhoff tried for himself later that same year, but he, too, was rebuffed. At the same time, ownership of VW was finally transferred from the Allied Military Government to the West German federal government. The first civilian cabriolet built by Karmann appears in 1949.

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1950 Beetle export

Success! A VW was officially exported to the U.S. An East Coast foreign-car dealer, Max Hoffman, was appointed exclusive VW importer for America east of the Mississippi River. Hoffman sold 330 VWs, mostly to other dealers throughout the U.S. Many of the VWs are tacked onto orders for Porsches and Jaguars—as in, to expedite orders of sexy sports cars, dealers would agree to buy a VW or two from Hoffman. The cars are cheap, and dealers find that they aren’t that difficult to sell.

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1951: Edging toward modernity

By 1951, the original Type I’s cable brakes were replaced by hydraulically operated drums at all four corners, and the engine gained a Solex carburetor. Power swells from 24 horsepower to 30.

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1952: Getting in sync

In 1952, Volkswagen fitted the transmission’s second, third, and fourth gears with synchromesh.

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1952: The final year for the split window

The split-rear-window design so coveted by VW collectors today was replaced for 1953 by a slightly larger, single oval rear window.

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1954: More displacement!

For the first time, Volkswagen increased the Beetle engine’s displacement from 1131 cc to 1192 cc. Power rises from 30 horsepower to 36.

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1955: Feelin’ like a million

In 1955, with production humming along, Volkswagen built its one-millionth Beetle in Wolfsburg. Only about 9000 had made their way to the U.S. The same year, Volkswagen of America was formed. A host of dealerships were established and held to strict parts-availability and presentation expectations. As for the Beetle, it lost its old-school turn-signal semaphores in favor of more modern signal lamps.

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1958: More window dressing

Once again, Volkswagen messed with the Beetle’s rear window, enlarging the opening for 1958. A year earlier, the company had equipped the little car with tubeless tires for the first time.

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1960: Advertising breakthroughs

The 1950s and 1960s saw the expansion of Volkswagen’s clever, often self-deprecating advertising. In 1961, the Beetle’s transmission became fully synchronized, and an automatic choke and a pump-type windshield-washer system were fitted. Output rises to 40 horsepower.

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1966: Another engine-displacement increase

The Bug’s engine grew in size again for 1966, to 1285 cc, prompting the addition of a slightly optimistic “1300” badge to the trunk. Output increased to 50 horsepower.

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1967: Engine size goes up again . . .

Volkswagen again juiced the Beetle’s engine, increasing displacement to 1493 cc, netting another 3 horsepower and a badge update to “1500.” In ’67, the Bug also inherited 12-volt electronics, dual-circuit brakes, and two-speed windshield wipers.

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1967: Meyers Manx makes the cover of Car and Driver

Throughout the 1960s, Bruce Meyers had worked to perfect his idea of the Beetle-based dune buggy. California beach culture spawned a few “kit cars” that utilized the Beetle’s floorpan, engine, and transmission, making it a snap to pick up a junked Bug and transform it into a wild beachcomber. A few years of development resulted in Meyers’ kit, the Manx, leading the pack. We placed one of his Manxes on thecover of our April 1967 issue.

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1968: A (sort of) automatic transmission!

For such a low-tech car, the Beetle, at least for a time, offered a decidedly high-tech transmission. In 1968, VW introduced the Automatic Stick Shift semi-automatic transmission option, essentially a regular Beetle four-speed manual with first gear removed, a torque converter added, and a vacuum-operated clutch that disengaged anytime the shifter is touched. Simply move the lever to the desired gate, let go, and get back on the gas, and the system figured out the rest. The technology was shared withPorsche (Sportomatic), but the brazen “Automatic” decklid badging was all VW’s.

In our testing, the Automatic Stick Shift (we dubbed it “A.S.S.” in our 1968 review) wasn’t much slower than the regular Beetle 1500. Its quarter-mile time of 21.1 seconds trailed the stick-shift model’s by only 1.3 seconds. The automatic model also added a new double-jointed rear-axle design, modeled after the setup in the VW Microbus. Compared with the Bug’s original swing axles, the new suspension greatly enhanced the Beetle’s handling.

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1968: The Love Bug

Disney’s first “Herbie” movie,The Love Bug, debuted in 1968. The plot featured prominently a self-aware Beetle that was tied up in hijinks while also proving itself a successful race car. Early autonomous technology enabled Herbie to motor about on its own, a feat slightly more believable than the ease with which the 40-hp ’63 Bug dispatched competitors at the track.

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1969: Improved rear axle for all!

The “double-jointed” rear axle fitted to ’68 Automatics expanded to every Beetle in 1969. Also, the rear window gained an electric defroster.

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1970: Bigger engine, more power

Engine displacement again increased, rising to 1585 cc and bringing horsepower to 57. Every U.S.-spec Beetle becomes a “1600.”

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1971: Never fear, the Super Beetle is here

Just as the rear suspension was updated for 1969, the front suspension receives its first redo for 1971. Super Beetle buyers net a larger front trunk, thanks to a strut-type suspension. Also in 1971, ports for computer-analysis tools are fitted halfway through the model year. In a six-car comparison test in 1971, the Super Beetle places fifth. About the new front suspension, we declare “only an expert could detect [it] from the driver’s seat.” The fitment of new cylinder heads with two intake ports per cylinder instead of one brings three additional horsepower (for 60 total). This renders the Super Beetle the fastest Bug we’d ever tested, dropping its quarter-mile time to 19.8 seconds. The run to 60 mph takes nearly as long, at 16.1 seconds.

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1972: Breaking the Model T’s record

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Beetle set sales milestones; in 1972, it establishes a big one. The 15,007,034th Bug rolls off the assembly line, matching the Ford Model T’s worldwide sales record. Of course, the Bug isn’t even close to being finished.

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1970s: Rally success?

If you can believe it, the Beetle succeeded in racing—rally racing. Credit the Bug’s near-indestructible toughness and decent rear-end traction. Austrian Porsche distributor Salzburg entered Beetles in European rallies into the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, half a world away, Beetles were infesting the Baja 1000 race in Baja California, spawning the modified “Baja Beetle” style, with cut fenders, big wheels, and tube-frame cages around the engine and cabin.

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1973: More windshield, please

For 1973, not much changed save for the enlarging of the windshield opening.

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1974: Wolfsburg builds its last Beetle

Another milestone was reached in 1974, although it had nothing to do with sales. Wolfsburg builds its last Bug, as production shifts to other European facilities, as well as Puebla, Mexico.

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1975: The Fuelie

The Beetle made another technological leap for 1975, with the arrival of electronic fuel injection. New power-rating standards dropped peak output to just 46 horsepower. Energy-absorbing bumpers were added for 1974, and the Super Beetle went away for ’75.

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1976: U.S. Type I sales wind down

By 1976 the Beetle’s existence began to wane. More modern competitors, combined with VW’s introduction of the Golf (called the Rabbit in America), were the writing on the wall. No more new Beetle sedans would be sold in the U.S. after 1976.

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1977: Convertibles only

The Beetle sedan may have been done, but the convertible wasn’t—yet. Volkswagen continued to sell the cabriolet through 1979. Eventually, the plug was pulled on that model, too, but Beetle production continued in Mexico and Brazil—and keeps going, with Brazil taking a hiatus between 1986 and 1993 before bringing back the model due to popular demand.

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1998: The return of an icon, slightly remastered

By the late 1990s, the “retro” craze among car shoppers was picking up steam, and Volkswagen’s Beetle concept had baby boomers going nuts. In 1998, the production New Beetle arrived; it was a sensation. In its first year, a 115-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder (water-cooled and driving the front wheels) and a 1.9-liter TDI diesel four were available. The next year, the New Beetle added a 150-hp turbocharged 1.8-liter four.We recorded a 7.3-second zero-to-60 time, matching that of the Acura Integra GSR.

Overall, the New Beetle was little more than a reskinned fourth-generation Golf. The New Beetle also was infatuated with semi-circles. That certainly nailed the warm-and-fuzzy look, but it also meant that the interior felt like an upside-down fishbowl. Chief among the features is a built-in flower vase.

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2001: An AWD/V-6/awesome odyssey

At perhaps the height of the New Beetle’s cute phase, Volkswagen built 250 “RSi” models for Europe that are anything but wussy. The limited-edition cars were equipped with a 221-hp 3.2-liter V-6, 4Motion all-wheel drive, and a six-speed manual transmission, not to mention a wild ground-effects package.

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2002: Gettin’ all Turbo S-y

If the 1.8T engine gave the Beetle some sporting cred—its first, really, since Formula Vee racers were in vogue and off-road Bugs competed in the Baja 1000—the Turbo Sreally amped things up. Using a 180-hp version of the same turbocharged four running more boost, the Turbo S also boasted slick front and rear fascias, unique wheels, and a sports suspension. The trip to 60 mph took just 6.7 seconds, and top speed was a heady 131 mph, but torque steer was an issue.

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2003: The Type I finally dies

Wait, you thought the classic Type I was dead? Think again! In fact, the final model was built in Puebla, Mexico, in 2003, 70 years after Ferdinand Porsche’s team was commissioned to build the first prototypes. Over its incredible life span, the original Bug sold more than 21,000,000 copies.

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2003: The convertible returns!

Predictably, Volkswagen introduced a convertible version of the New Beetle. It was popular.

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2006: Making the New Beetle new again

The trouble with naming a car “New Beetle” is that, sooner or later, it will no longer be new. In 2006, nearly eight years after the New Beetle went on sale, Volkswagen gave it a mild redesign. The fenders gained creases while the front fascia took on a blockier look. The biggest change came under the hood, where the old model’s anemic 2.0-liter four was replaced by a 150-hp 2.5-liter inline-five. The diesel TDI model was discontinued.

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2012: Men get the Bug back

The New Beetle died after 2010, and the world was forced to wait one year for its replacement, re-christened “Beetle.” The 2012 Bug ditched its outdated underpinnings for a mashup of Jetta sedan bits, growing significantly in the process. Happily, the designers returned the Beetle’s shape closer to that of the original, meaning a tapered rear with an upright windshield and a somewhat flattened roof. Initially, Volkswagen offered buyers a 170-hp 2.5-liter inline-five and a 200-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four from the Jetta GLI. The following year, VW added a 2.0-liter TDI. Transmission choices included a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic for the inline-five, as well as six-speed manual and dual-clutch automatic transmissions for the Turbo and the TDI.

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2013: The convertible returns, part II

For 2013, the droptop Beetle returned in the new body style. Any of the three engines available in the coupe can be had in the convertible. For perhaps the first time ever, the topless Bug is devoid of overt femininity.