Since its initial and rather low-key launch in the late 1930s, the Volkswagen Beetle has, without doubt, become one of the world’s most enduring and best-loved cars and boasts one of the longest production runs of any vehicle. Although it is argued that the initial concept was rooted in the 1920s, it took the automotive wizardry of Ferdinand Porsche (acting on the instruction of Adolf Hitler), to design a vehicle that could potentially put car ownership within reach of the German population and in 1938, production of the ‘people’s car’ began.
The outbreak of war in 1939 put the brakes on before figures could climb far beyond 200 examples, but the story of the low-cost, family-sized saloon – officially referred to as the Type 1 – was far from over and, ironically, it took British foresight to kick-start the project once peace had been resumed in 1945.
Major Ivan Hirst famously discovered one of the few examples produced before conflict consumed the world and from the outset, he was convinced that the saloon could have a bright future. His determination and enthusiasm soon paid off and by mid-October 1946, the 10,000th Beetle rolled off the Wolfsburg production line – the first milestone in what would eventually see over 21 million vehicles manufactured over the following 57 years and at various sites around the globe.
Despite obvious changes over its lifetime, the basic form of the Volkswagen Beetle remained immediately identifiable thanks to its unique profile and bug-like appearance. Mechanically, its evolution was marginal; powered by a flat-four, air-cooled engine from the outset (initially to help cope with cold winters), the power unit grew in size and swapped carburettor design throughout its life, but ultimately remained visually, and technically, very similar.
Different headlight arrangements – from sloped to upright, rear window shape and size and bumper stylings were the main telltale signs of a Type 1 that was on the receiving end of a makeover and inside, a painted dash gave way to a full-width moulded version. Perhaps the biggest evolution came courtesy of the suspension though, and in 1971, the Beetle’s traditional torsion-bar system was replaced by a MacPherson strut with the introduction of the 1302/1302S – a very slightly larger version of Wolfsburg’s most famous export.
Perhaps curiously, the Beetle is often on the receiving end of unwarranted criticism, yet this is usually from those who have yet to drive one in fine fettle. Accusations of its flat-four sounding ‘like a sewing machine’ soon fade into the distance when behind the wheel, as a well-tuned 1300 for example, will ‘thrum’ away nicely and provide an impressive tone and level of power – more than enough to comfortably keep up in modern motoring conditions.
Although the ergonomics take a little getting used to – the earlier wide-based vinyl ‘basket-weave’ seats hardly hold the driver in their place when cornering enthusiastically – the inside of a Type 1 is far from an unpleasant place to be. The trim may be minimal, but it offers enough sound-deadening (coupled with the engine being slung out the back), to make for a comfortable long-distance touring classic.
In their standard form, the drum brakes and soft suspension may not be confidence-inspiring, but are more than adequate and if you plump for the four-speed, manual gearbox, you will be surprised at the interval between changes – the flat-four enjoying the opportunity to pull at higher revs than some other classics of the period.
Perhaps like no other classic, the Volkswagen ‘Bug’ has inspired a vast scene of modification, upgrades and styling tweaks. Ask anyone who owned a Beetle in the 1970s and 1980s and the chances are they will have ‘dropped it down a spline or two’ in order to lower it and, theoretically, improve the handling. Others went for more extreme approaches with a ‘So-Cal’ scene awash with chopped roofs, front wings removed and Baja-inspired exposed engines fitted with exhausts worthy of artistic awards.
In fact, the ‘Vee-dub’s’ propensity for modification and customisation – coupled with a thriving business for spare parts with which to alter your Beetle, means that finding one still in standard form can sometimes be tricky.
Although production in Germany finally ended in 1978, some of the other assembly plants continued manufacturing the VW Beetle for a number of years – most notably Brazil who, after their initial run finished in 1986, then picked up the baton again in 1993 for a further three years, releasing the Bug under the Fusca badge.
Mexico was to have the final say however, continuing to manufacture the Beetle, despite overlapping production of Volkswagen’s new version by six years. All good things must come to an end however, and the last of the familiar classic mould came off the production line in 2003.