Find out what made the VW Beetle a classic for all time
Just as the boss of Decca Records somewhat erroneously predicted that the Beatles “have no future in show business”, so too did Sir William Rootes, chair of a commission of leading British motor manufacturers. Only Rootes was talking of a different icon with a similar name. The car we know as the Volkswagen Beetle was “quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer” as well as “too ugly and noisy”. The Beatles went on to sell more than two billion records, while the Beetle, designed and styled by Erwin Komenda and engineered by Ferdinand Porsche, became the best-selling and longest continually manufactured car we’ve ever seen.
One of the most notable characteristics of the Beetle is that, despite constant evolution, from the very first one off the line to the very last (after more than 21.5 million had been built) it was still recognisably the same car. With its origins in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, in a bizarre twist of marketing fate, the Beetle became the vehicle of choice for the hippie movement in the 1960s. What had originally been intended as the low-cost, high-volume ‘people’s car’ (Volkswagen) became associated with a different type of high, of the psychedelic and pharmaceutical variety. Such was the popularity of this small, noisy car that it starred in no less than six Disney movies as Herbie.
Of course, we can be sure that Hitler wouldn’t have envisaged the affection in which his car was to be held. His idea was for something cheap and utilitarian that would be the flagship of his new world order. Originally named the KdF Wagen (KdF stood for Kraft durch Freude or ‘Strength through Joy’), the coleopterous nickname came from an enterprising journalist on an American newspaper, which poetically ascribed animal characteristics to a classic of engineering.
The scribe in question could hardly have known that a beat-pop musical combo would end up making the name even more famous, while doing their bit to ensure that the car would become a cultural icon from the 1960s onwards.
The basic design criteria were dictated by Teutonic logic and efficiency. As far back at 1934, Chancellor Hitler was describing a basic vehicle to Ferdinand Porsche with performance parameters based on efficiency and economy. The projected vehicle needed to transport a German family of two adults and three children at 100km/h (62mph) at an economy of seven litres of fuel per 100km (32mpg). It had to be powerful enough to perform well on the autobahns and needed to be engineered so that maintenance could be achieved without the need for special tools. Before the days of widespread anti-freeze, the car needed to be air-cooled. The decision to put the engine in the rear was taken purely to keep manufacturing costs down.
The ‘People’s Car’ would be made available for a mere 990 Reichsmark - approximately 30 weeks average salary - or the cost of a motorbike. The final vehicle owed so much to the design of a competitor model, the Tatra V560, that by 1965 VW had made an out-of-court payment of one million marks to its rival in recognition of the alleged copyright infringement.
With its friendly styling and counter-cultural image, the Beetle became one of the world’s best-loved cars. It had been a project designed to counter austerity and, as the world became more affluent, it lost its allure.
Although the New Beetle has been on sale since 1998, it has never attracted the same level of affection. Critics complain that it’s just a VW Golf in modern Beetle styling.
Next month: The James Caird lifeboat
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