When you used to draw a car as a child, you probably chose one of two basic shapes. A 3 box saloon – engine, cabin, boot – or the sloping semi circular shapes of a Volkswagen Beetle. Though it’s been usurped as the most popular car of all time by the equally ubiquitous (but arguably far less iconic) Toyota Corolla, the cutesy looking Beetle is a symbol of the groovy 60s that found popularity amongst the average motorist, rally drivers, moviegoers, surfers alike. But the Beetle, originally called the Kdf-wagen, had far more sinister origins. It was intended as the car that would provide mobility to the average citizen in the Third Reich.
The Volkswagen Beetle (or Type 1, or Kraft-Durch-Freude car to give it its earliest name) was conceived as a car that German citizens could acquire through exchange for special savings stamps acquired through work. Coupled with the introduction of the Autobahns (which were primarily ways of getting German tanks into neighbouring countries, but let’s not get into that right now,) these cars would allow Aryan families to go on holidays in organised KdF (Strength through Joy) camps and explore their localities. Hitler stated that they had to be easy to maintain (as not everyone in Germany had a garage,) able to carry a family of four at 62 mph, and use fuel at a rate of about 40 miles per gallon. They were first ordered in 1934, with Hitler handing control over the design to Ferdinand Porsche. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he founded Porsche, the sports car company.
Porsche was a talented designer, and he had already come up with a concept in conjunction with German automaker Zündapp for a ‘people’s car’ in 1932, the shape of which shows the genesis of the Beetle – though Porsche’s suggestion of using one of his engine designs was rejected. All of the Zündapp prototypes were lost in bombing raids. In early 1933 Porsche began development with German automaker NSU; this was discontinued when failure to increase car sales meant the government handed their factory to Fiat. The first prototypes that greatly resemble the iconic Beetle were built jointly by Daimler-Benz and Porsche in their factory and his shop. These were also the cars to which Hitler gave his assent, and the Beetle was born. There has been suggestion that Porsche was… heavily inspired, shall we say, by Czech automaker Tatra’s rear-engine, air-cooled car design but Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia put a stop to any litigation heading his way.
The car has a little bit of a confusing nomenclature; Volkswagen did not exist as a company in its own right, so originally it was simply named the Type 1. Volkswagen was the Nazi term for people’s car, so rather than Volkswagen Beetle, it was just the Volkswagen. Its bug-like shape earned it the nickname Käfer (Beetle) from German civilians, however few received one before the war when the factory was taken over by the state for the war effort. A few Type 1s made it out of the factory to Nazi high command (Hitler owned the first convertible,) and the light weight and ease of maintenance made a lightly modified Khaki version useful for the German army’s Afrika Korps in the desert. The Beetle’s chassis also made it into German army light vehicles named Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen (no prizes for guessing which was amphibious.) These early examples are incredibly rare and those that do still exist often belonged to those in the upper echelons of the Nazi government. Various different experimental versions of the car were produced for the military, though none were mass produced apart from the two aforementioned examples. There were a few built during shortages at the end of the war converted to run on gas and coal, but I couldn’t find any currently existing examples to look at.
The engineering genius of the Volkswagen was its air-cooled engine. Most engines at the time used water cooling, which meant the engine would overheat in hot weather and freeze in cold weather. The Volkswagen was thus unfazed by difficult desert conditions and could easily be adapted to off road uses – the Nazis even destroyed a contingent of them in Afghanistan to prevent the designs from falling into British hands when they occupied neighbouring Iran.
After the war, the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg was put under the control of Major Ivan Hirst of the British military administration. An unexplored bomb lodged into the factory’s roof nearly destroyed the only Volkswagen tooling in the world at the time, but it was luckily safely removed. Finding Beetle-making equipment in the factory made them an attractive option to the many servicepeople stationed there and Britain ordered 20,000 (doubled two weeks later to 40,000.) Initially, the factory had been earmarked for decommission as the industry wanted little to do with the strange Nazi car, but its low production cost and value to the new German economy convinced Hirst that it was an idea worth saving.
After a shaky start to production in post-war Germany, the Beetles picked up in popularity and models began to be offered for export in 1947. Early examples went to Germany and the UK. The first Beetles to arrive in the US (still wearing the name Volkswagen Type 1) came with their owners in the armed forces. It was actually the managing director of Volkswagen in Germany, Heinz Nordhoff, who convinced New York magnate Max Hoffman to set up dealerships which (after a little persistence) saw the Volkswagen emerge onto the American market, where it was immensely popular. It was low maintenance, fuel efficient and affordable – they had arrived into Hoffman’s American dealership network on the stipulation that they would help the bigger cars to be sold; in fact, it was the other way around. By the 1960s, millions had been sold. Whilst it was an outdated design by then and replaced in Europe by the front-engined, Mini-like Golf, its popularity was such that it continued to be built in Brazil until 2003. A design from the 1930s that thousands of people are still using today.
The ubiquity of the Beetle was incredible. It was more popular worldwide than the Mini ever was, it was more modifiable, it was more reliable and it spawned countless popular variants. Ever seen a beach buggy? It probably started life as a Beetle. Ever seen the Herbie movies? That’s a Beetle. Your mum would have had one, your dad, your grandad and your grandma. My Grandad had a garage that worked exclusively on Beetles. Chris Pratt, Ewan Macgregor, Jay Leno, Hugh Jackman have all got one. Rally teams used them, there were whole race series that just used Beetles. The first ever Porsche sports car shared Beetle parts. It’s rare that a car made infamous by figures so morally reprehensible as Hitler and Ted Bundy could be reclaimed by classic car enthusiasts and surfers and become a cultural icon of the flower power era.
Even when the shape was reintroduced on a Golf chassis for the 2000s era, it proved massively popular. You could even spec it with gaudy sunflower wheels and petals up the side (although God knows why you’d want to.) Whilst it may no longer be the biggest selling car of all time, it is certainly the most iconic. Even if car purists slate the way it drives (what are you expecting from a car designed in 1934?,) the way it looks (what are you expecting from a car nicknamed after an insect?,) nobody can dispute its impact on counterculture and how it was taken away from Nazis and reclaimed by the ordinary person.