Shortly after Christmas 1945, an icon was born. World War II had at last come to an end, and out of its destructive wake rolled a round, cartoonish-looking compact known as the Volkswagen Beetle. Also called the Volkswagen Type 1 or VW Bug, the Beetle would eventually be sold more than 21 million times, making it the most prolific car in history. If there were a Mount Rushmore for automobiles, it would undoubtedly have a place reserved on it for the little Bug.
The first Beetle officially rolled off the production line 70 years ago this week, but the vehicle’s true foundations were laid much earlier. In 1934, Adolf Hitler contracted automotive engineer and Porsche founder Ferdinand Porsche to design an inexpensive, simple car to ride on Germany’s newly-laid Autobahn road network. Dubbed the KdF-Wagen or “People’s Car” by the Führer, the rear-drive two-door was capable of ferrying two adults and three children at 62 mph comfortably, while only using 7 liters of fuel per 100 kilometers — 32 mpg in the States. The People’s Car would be built just 630 times, but the Beetle’s path was set.
The U.S. military took control of the KdF-Wagen’s Wolfsburg production facility in April 1945, and subsequently transferred ownership to the British two months later. British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst was tasked with bringing the plant back up to speed, but in an apt representation of the vehicle’s militaristic origins, his first assignment was removing an unexploded bomb from in between several pieces of irreplaceable production equipment. If the bomb had gone off, the Beetle’s story would have likely ended right then and there, yet another casualty of the brutal global conflict.
Hirst’s hands proved steady however, and thus the Beetle was given its chance to shine. The plant was only able to churn out 55 cars by the end of 1945 — a result of improvised management and material shortages — but as Volkswagen describes, “The early vehicles were visible symbols of hope; a new beginning for the car plant under British control.”
“Volkswagen’s British roots remain discernible still today,” the brand says. “It was the British who converted the factory to civilian manufacturing, and who focused on the quality of the vehicles. They paid great attention to service and meeting customers’ needs, and set up a dealer network which was already covering all three western zones of Germany by 1948.”
In October 1949, the Volkswagenwerk GmbH company was returned to German hands, and the Beetle was a key player in the development of post-war democracy and economic stability in the country.
As the years ticked by, the vehicle became a symbol of flower power and surf culture, starred in Hollywood films, and even became a staple in motorsports. Then, 65 years after its introduction, the Beetle was finally squished. The Mexican-built Última Edición went on sale in June 2003, marking the end of a truly legendary production run.
The quirky Beetle has gone through just two redesigns over its lifetime, and even though you can buy an A5 version from a Volkswagen dealership today, there’s nothing quite like the original. Its bulging eyes have seen dictators come and go, social movements rise and fall, and the global landscape continue to change. And with countless examples still on the road, there’s still much more for the lovable Bug to see. Happy Birthday, Beetle.