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Vintage Volkswagen Beetle History

I've been fascinated by cars since I was five years old. These days, as style seems to have vanished, I fondly look back at the classics.

First prototype of 1937 offered to Hitler for appraisal.

First prototype of 1937 offered to Hitler for appraisal.

"Quite Unattractive...It Is Too Ugly and Noisy"

Amid the rubble and ruin of post-World-War-II Germany, Lord Rootes (Head of Rootes cars, which made the Hillman, Humber, Singer, and Sunbeam) visited the small town of Wolfsburg to report on the remains of the air-cooled VW factory and the future of the "People's 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.

These were famous last words from Lord Rootes.

This ugly and noisy car had represented the life's dream of Ferdinand Porsche and a major plank in the political success of Adolf Hitler. Rootes's postwar assessment seemed to sum up the end of its ride. Yet this homely car would become the best-selling car in the world.

It's true that the workers of the German Third Reich never benefited from the People's car—by 1945 the car had been an unfulfilled promise for more than a decade, stalled by developmental problems, obstacles planted by other German manufacturers jealous of the Government-backed interloper, and of course the war. But once the war was over, production blossomed all over the world.

The Idea of the Car Came to a Racing Car Developer

A trendsetter it certainly was. Taken back to its first principles, the first Volksauto, designed and conceived by the brilliant Austrian Ferdinand Porsche, was a 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.

Auto Union Type C Race car

Auto Union Type C Race car

The legend goes 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 a more important result of the introduction was the chance it gave Porsche to create the air-cooled VW for the masses.

Although initially produced in many variations for various customers by Porsche's Stuttgart industrial design firm, Ferdinand Porsche's dream car for the masses always had the same basic theme: a small, aerodynamic sedan with an engine behind the rear axle, and all-independent suspension. These were revolutionary ideas indeed, in the Germany of the late 1920s and early 1930s. The big German manufacturers still believed a car should be a luxury, not a household item.

Porsche's first thoughts of a people's car, developed soon after World War I, fell on deaf ears for more than a decade before Hitler gave the project the go-ahead and the financial incentive it required.

The new German Chancellor surprised the German motor industry with his speech at the opening of 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, as a motoring enthusiast himself and a great fan of Henry Ford. He regarded the American car-ownership-to-population ratio with some envy.

Porsche and Hitler

The following year, Hitler learned of Porsche's small-car plans. Disgusted with the apathy with which the German manufacturers had greeted his "people's car" request, he offered the job to the Austrian master designer of designing the air-cooled VW.

He listened with great interest to Porsche's plans, but insisted the car should 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 and a low smooth-sloping front. They were powered by a four-cylinder engine with a capacity of one liter, and two banks of horizontally opposed cylinders. They were very much the forerunners of today's air-cooled VW beetle.

That year (1934) Hitler grew impatient with the stalling of the rival manufacturers, and had a company established to produce the People's Car. To raise the necessary funds, the German Labor Front organization, Kraft-durch-Freude (Kdf) or Strength Through Joy, was called in. Workers were encouraged to make layaway payments to buy the new car, which Hitler had labeled the KdF Wagen—Strength through Joy car. A factory town was established near Hanover to produce the air-cooled VW. There were promises of 1,500,000 cars being assembled annually in the near future.

An ingenious five-marks-a-week layaway scheme was devised and announced in late 1938. It would take a saver almost four years to meet the planned purchase price (which had risen from 900 to 990 marks). In return the saver was promised a document of ownership. There was nothing about actually getting a car; there was no guarantee of a fixed price and no warranty was offered. However, 336,668 Germans eventually put aside 267 million marks.

The Reich's Workers Never Got Their People's Car

It appears Hitler intended the scheme to work, as the 267 million marks were deposited in a special bank account, but the Russians seized the account when they captured Berlin in 1945. About 336,000 Volkswagen savers, workers who contributed to their future cars at the rate of about five marks a week before 1939, lost their deposits. With that money went many hopes.

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 they were designed for.

The Volkswagens produced before the war had gone immediately to Hitler's staff. During the war, the factory produced military vehicles instead of passenger cars: the odd-looking but very effective military Kubelwagen and its amphibious brother the Schwimmkubel. Immediate post-war production was used by the Germans and their British overlords as barter material to obtain the steel and machinery necessary to restore the badly damaged plant at Wolfsburg.

Early German Beetle advertising.

Early German Beetle advertising.

My Own Beetle Experiences

I had my own piece of 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 60 mph tirelessly and at that steady speed gave an incredible 40 mpg. In those days, synchromesh 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 the handling of the early VW Beetle. 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; I 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 up and straighten out. 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 my air-cooled VW sat squarely and handled even better, much to the disquiet of my friends.

It had one strange quirk, though, which was never accurately traced but we suspect came from the worn bushings 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 spartan than the later models. The center of the dashboard simply housed a large speedometer and matching clock and was flanked by two lidded glove boxes.

Air-cooled VW Beetles did not have a fuel gauge until the mid-1960s. Like most owners. I carried a graduated stick in the front boot; I calculated my mileage and dipped the stick into the tank once in a while as I traveled. 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 center tunnel.

I got to truly love my Beetle. In those days they were plentiful and fairly cheap.

It ended up as a beach buggy. A friend and I unbolted the body in about an hour, rolled it off the floorpan, and installed the new aluminum 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 old body to the tip. What a shame. These days that split-window air-cooled VW Beetle would have been worth about 20 times more than what it was in the 70s.

A split-window Beetle

A split-window Beetle

VW Karmann Ghia

Volkswagen history includes, besides the Beetle, other models successfully produced under the VW umbrella and fondly remembered today. Probably the best known is the Karmann Ghia (known inside Volkswagen as the Type 14). The Ghia combined the chassis of the VW Beetle with the coach-building abilities of the German manufacturer Karmann. The Karmann Ghia had quite a long production life, from 1955 until 1974, with very few changes during that period. Both coupes and convertibles were manufactured.

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 1192 cc single-Solex engine, with an option of power from a 1195 cc engine with twin Solex carburetors, the Type 14 Ghia was eventually powered by 1500 cc and 1600 cc Beetle engine versions.

VW Karmann Ghia

VW Karmann Ghia

VW Type 34

The Type 34, my personal favorite, is another chapter of VW Beetle history. It was introduced in 1961 with a 1500 cc engine, the same engine as the Type 3 (below).

At the time VW was having a great run with the Karmann Ghia, so it's not clear why they introduced 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 that included 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.

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 it had lots of internal sealed welded panels. Restoring an old Type 34 can cost far more than what the car is actually worth once restored.

Only 42,000 Type 34s were ever produced, and they cost the equivalent of two Beetles in their day. Production ended in 1969. Today an estimated 1500-2000 remain.

VW Type 34

VW Type 34

VW Type 3

In 1961 VW introduced the Type 3, on its own chassis completely different from 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 ended in 1973.

Over two and a half million total were manufactured, across the three versions. The Type 34 is a very much loved part of Volkswagen history for all enthusiasts.

VW Type 34 Fastback

VW Type 34 Fastback

VW Type 34 Notchback

VW Type 34 Notchback

VW Type 34 Variant

VW Type 34 Variant