If you remember the original 1968 (it wasn’t released until March 1969) movie, The Love Bug, you probably also remember all those Bugs or Beetles on the highways and byways of America. The VW Beetle was ubiquitous from the late 60’s to the mid 70’s, and no wonder: Over 21,000,000 Beetles were produced – and driven – worldwide!
The VW (Volkswagen) Beetle name comes from the nickname Germans gave the little car. Because of its rounded shape, they started calling it ‘Der Kaefer’, the beetle, in the early 50’s. This was the shortened name, from ‘Der Brezelkaefer’, the pretzel beetle, which had a split rear window that mimicked a pretzel.
The car officially got the ‘Beetle’ name in 1968, just before the release of the first Herbie movie.
Herbie The Love Bug Movies
Herbie is a self-aware, anthropomorphic car with attitude and an ability to drive himself. He helps his ‘driver’, Jim Douglas, played by Dean Jones, win a race. But that isn’t the whole story, nor the only story of Herbie’s exploits. The last movie, in this series of films, stars Lindsay Lohan and was released in 2005.
There are a total of five movies about Herbie, a TV movie, and a TV series (short-lived, only five episodes were made). The second film has Herbie help a widow retain her house from a villain, while making other Beetles self-aware. In the next one, he goes to Monte Carlo and races in the Trans-France Race. For the fourth movie, Herbie goes bananas, befriending an orphan in Mexico. The last movie shows Herbie getting a new, souped-up engine and doing several types of races, from demolition derby to the Nextel Cup, and falling in love with a New Beetle.
Beetle History – The Early Years
The movies are just a small part of the rich and varied history of this wonderful little ‘Bug’! Shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power, he commissioned for a well-made, fuel-efficient, and cheap to maintain car; one that could sustain cruising on the new Autobahnen at 100km/hr (62mph). It also needed to carry two adults and three children comfortably. Hitler wanted a car for the people, literally the people’s car – Volks-wagen, as part of his Volks campaign. His idea was that everything should be ‘for the people’. At that time, the auto industry was only making luxury cars which only the rich could afford.
Ferdinand Porsche took the challenge, as he had already worked on a similar car for Zuendapp, a German motorcycle and auto manufacturer. It was a natural fit because he had already developed an engine that was air cooled and wouldn’t require that much maintenance. For this project, he collaborated with Hans Ledwinka, an Austrian car designer, who had developed the Tatra prototype V750, which had an air-cooled Boxer motor. The design for the Volkswagen was heavily influenced by the Tatra design.
World War II got in the way of the Volkswagen going from prototype to manufacturing. Only 210 cars were made, before the factory was switched to making vehicles for the military, including the Type 166 four-wheel drive amphibious off road vehicle, the most numerous mass produced amphibious vehicle in history. It was these vehicles that used the technology developed by Porsche for the Volkswagen.
Beetle History – After World War II
After the war, the British took over the factory and started limited production per the mandated post-war limits. But in 1949, with former Opel manager Heinz Nordhoff, production started in earnest and continued to climb quickly. By 1955, the one millionth car rolled off the factory floor. The Volkswagen’s performance was superior to other cars in its range, including the Citroen, the Morris Minor and the Austin Mini.
Nordhoff’s vision for the Beetle included making it more reliable and giving it more power. This last was accomplished by adding 2mm to the cylinder bore and redesigning the crankshaft, giving it 36 hp, up from the original 30 hp. Other improvements were minor design changes, such as the rear split window being exchanged for a single window, later made even bigger as times changed. Safety was another driver of the changes to the car. They included bumper modifications, as well as rear brake lights and turn signals.
The 60’s were the heyday for the Beetle. Because of its reliability and ease of maintenance, as well as the cheap price tag for a used Volkswagen, young kids just learning to drive as well as college kids drove them everywhere. The hippie counterculture was more than happy to thumb their noses at the gas guzzling American made cars, and the government they represented.
By the early 70’s, Japan already started making their own fuel efficient cars and were becoming increasingly popular. The falling exchange rate to the German Mark also played a role in the declining Volkswagen sales. Despite that, in 1972, Volkswagen produced the 15,007,034th Beetle, exceeding the previous record holder of production cars, the Ford Model T.
In 1973, the Super Beetle was introduced and was bigger in many ways; trunk space, engine size, and wider wheels. In 1974, the second Herbie movie, Herbie Rides Again was released, and the last Beetle rolled off the production floor at the main factory in Germany. The Beetle still managed to be quite popular world-wide through 1977, when the third Herbie movie, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo was released.
While some of the smaller plants in Germany still produced a number of Beetles, most of the manufacturing had already been transferred to Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, Yugoslavia (Sarajevo), and Nigeria. Each country had its own editions of the beloved Beetle.
The fourth movie, Herbie Goes Bananas, came out in 1980 as the Beetle’s heyday was coming to an end. Many of those manufactories had closed by then or moved on to produce their own, newer version of the car. Mexico was the last holdout until 2003, 65 years after its original post-war launch, when it marketed the last 3000 Beetles – the “Última Edición”, the Final Edition – in celebration of the last Type 1 to roll out. It was the 21,529,464th Volkswagen, nicknamed ‘El Rey’, Spanish for ‘the King’. It was sent to the company museum in Wolfsburg.
The New Beetle
When the German factories stopped making Beetles, they switched over to manufacturing Golfs, marketed in the U.S. as Rabbits. In 1997, the chassis for the Golf was repurposed to make the New Beetle using the old Type 1 as inspiration for its looks. Production for the New Beetle is in Mexico at their Puebla plant. Unlike the old Beetle, the New Beetle has its engine in the front and has front wheel drive, but you can definitely tell that it’s a Beetle. Headlights, taillights and the sloping roof are dead giveaways. With a 115 hp motor in the standard model or a 150 hp turbo upgrade, it has certainly grown up.
As the New Beetle motored its way into our hearts, Disney took the opportunity to release a fifth movie in 2005, Herbie Fully Loaded, in which the old Type 1, totally revamped, shared screen time with the New Beetle. Lindsay Lohan was the choice for the human driver, as her career was also at a high point and she was able to pull in a young audience, while nostalgia brought the older generation to see the movie.
Decline and Good-Bye?
Between 1998 and 2003, sales were fairly high for the New Beetle, but have steadily declined since then, despite all the different limited editions over the years. Since 2015, sales have been less than 20,000 per year in the U.S. While European sales, although over 20,000 during the same time frame, have been equally as lackluster from the beginning. They did not have the same passionate love affair with the cute Beetle as America did.
Volkswagen has announced it will stop production of the beloved Beetle, ’Der Kaefer’, in 2019. The last Beetles will roll out in July. The last two models will be the Final Edition SE and the Final Edition SEL, 74 years after the first one rolled off the assembly line in Wolfsburg.
The Volkswagen Beetle has had a wonderfully long run and been a part of history for 74 years. But, as with all good things, it too must come to an end. I am sure we all have fond memories of the popular Bug or Beetle, whichever you call it, and some great stories to tell as well. Hinrich J. Woebcken, President & CEO of Volkswagen Group of America said, in his announcement, “Never say never.” Volkswagen plans on rolling out some electric cars by 2020, and who knows? Maybe there will be an updated version of our beloved Beetle there as well.
Volkswagen Clubs and Their Culture
Because of its long run and huge popularity, VW clubs have sprung up all over the world, including the recent German Toyz Vdub Club, founded in 2015, that spans the world via Facebook. England has a surprisingly large number of VW clubs, as do Australia, Canada and, of course, Germany. Needless to say, the VW Beetle and its air-cooled brethren have a firm place in all our hearts and garages!
Phoenix has the Aircooled Arizona Club that highlights Beetles, Vans and Porsches. Then there’s the Arizona Bus Club (ABC) in Jerome, Arizona, that prefers the Volkswagen bus, but are happy to accept anyone that likes air-cooled VW’s (including the beloved Beetle). There is also another Facebook VW club called Wolfsburg Registry, with a chapter in Phoenix.
Many of these clubs are enthusiasts looking to build, rebuild or restore their Beetles and have, towards that end, a very strong sense of community and camaraderie. Special events, such as shows or rallies, as well as barbecues are part and parcel of the clubs’ schedules and families are always welcome to join in the festivities and the community.
So the next time you find yourself on the road and happen to see a Bug or Beetle nearby: honk, wave, and shout “slugbug” to the person sitting next to you. If they grew up in Beetle culture, they’ll know what to expect next.