- The Volkswagen Beetle sold over 23 million units in its 81-year run.
- From its dark origins in 1930s Nazi Germany to the “Summer of Love” in 1967, the VW Beetle is one of the most recognisable cars ever made.
- In 2019 the final Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico – but after eight decades, has it finally hit the end of the road? Scott Keogh, Volkswagen America CEO, says “never say never.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: From its dark origins in Nazi Germany to the “Summer of Love” and the big screen, the Volkswagen Beetle is one of the most recognisable cars ever made. In its 81-year run, the quirky car sold over 23 million units and left tread marks on 91 countries worldwide.
But in 2019, Volkswagen officially produced its last Beetle. So, how did this tiny German car take over the world, and has it really met its end?
The Volkswagen dates all the way back to the 1930s, commissioned by none other than Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator wanted a car that the general public could afford. So Hitler tapped engineer and Nazi Party member Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, that Porsche. He designed the Volkswagen, or “the people’s car.”
Jason Torchinsky: Out of all the ideas the Nazis had, it’s the one non-terrible idea because a cheap car for everybody is sort of the thing that the Model T was in America and the Mini was in the UK.
Narrator: The Volkswagen Type 1 was a two-door car with an air-cooled engine in the back. Production began in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1938. But when World War II started, manufacturing for the general public stopped. The only Volkswagens made at the time were for military officials. Hitler himself drove a convertible version.
After the war, the British took over the factory, and within the first year, they’d produced 10,000 Beetles, because it filled the demand for cheap and practical cars across war-torn Europe.
Torchinsky: Plus it was good on gas, which was still expensive and in short supply in a lot of places. Part of the reason it’s got such a curved design is to minimise the amount of sheet metal that it uses. So, it was a resource-efficient design, relatively. It took a lot of human power to build them. But that was actually a good thing at the time because they wanted to give people jobs.
Narrator: In 1949, Volkswagen took the Beetle to the United States, and it was a massive success. Unlike the big, flashy cars popular of that era, with their chrome and fins, the Beetle’s modest size and teardrop shape stood out.
Torchinsky: If you look at it head-on, the biggest thing you’ll notice compared to an average car of, like, say, the ’50s or ’60s, is there’s no big grill. It’s not intimidating in any way. It’s got big, round headlights, like big friendly eyes. It wasn’t aggressive, it wasn’t trying to hurt you. It was your pal who was your car.
Narrator: Not only was it cute, it was durable.
Announcer: At Volkswagen, we don’t worry about how our car looks; we worry about how it works.
Torchinsky: They built the hell out of Beetles. So many other carmakers coming into America had problems with their cars just not being built to take the massive scale of America. The Beetle’s engine was designed to be low-revving. You could drive it flat-out all day and it’s not gonna kill it.
Narrator: No one better catapulted the Beetle to success in the States than advertiser Bill Bernbach. His revolutionary 1959 ad campaign highlighted the Beetle’s oddball features as its strengths.
Marita Sturken: Those ads were very good at giving the car a kind of voice. It’s as if the car is honest, the car is humble. And it’s talking to you, the consumer, about these new values of conservation, of thinking small and taking into account broader kind of social issues in even in your decision of what to purchase as a car.
Narrator: The campaign was a success. Volkswagen sales jumped 52% in the United States as other European imports dropped 27%. And the misfit car was cemented as a symbol of the counterculture.
Torchinsky: If you drove a Beetle, on some level, you were saying, I’m not taken in by all the excesses of capitalism, or whatever. So, it made sense that the hippies would gravitate to it.
Narrator: The Beetle was perfect for hippies. It was the exact opposite of the cars their parents liked. Plus, it was easy to maintain, and it could last on those long California road trips.
Scott Keogh: America was changing from what did the government tell me, what is the truth, what do I believe in as a person. And the Beetle just threw a dart right into that place, and magic.
Narrator: Not to mention it was cheap. A new Volkswagen Beetle in 1967 came in at $US1,600, about 12 grand in today’s money. A Ford Mustang would have cost you about $US2,700, or about $US20,600 today.
Keogh: It was an honest, straightforward proposal. It had a great price. It didn’t over-promise anything. It promised exactly what it was capable of doing, and that’s why it caught on.
Narrator: And then Hollywood stepped in, introducing Herbie the Love Bug in 1968.
Announcer: A mind of his own makes Herbie the sole Bug of the love generation.
Narrator: The anthropomorphic Beetle with a big personality would go on to star in five movie spin-offs. That same year, VW Beetle sales in the US hit an all-time peak with 423,000 cars sold. By 1972, the 15 millionth Beetle rolled off the manufacturing line, breaking the Ford Model T’s 40-year standing record for the best-selling car in the world.
But soon, the road turned bumpy for the Beetle in America. In the 1980s, the car couldn’t keep up with competition from newly introduced Japanese vehicles. But as sales slipped in the US, the VW Beetle found success abroad.
Torchinsky: So, in America, it was pretty much dead, you know, for new cars by, like, the ’80s. But then in Mexico and Brazil and South Africa and other countries, it was still going strong. So every time you thought the Beetle was dead somewhere, it would pop up somewhere else and just kind of keep on going.
Narrator: But VW wasn’t ready to give up on America just yet. In 1998, VW did what they’d never done before. They introduced a completely new Beetle model. It was called the New Beetle, but technically it more closely resembled the VW Golf.
Torchinsky: It was a sort of a return to fun in consumer design when things had been kind of beige and rectilinear and straightforward for so long. It definitely made people give a damn about Volkswagen again.
Narrator: With fuzzy steering wheels and candy colours, the car was a nostalgic throwback. And it worked. Kind of.
Keogh: When you bring it back now, 30, 40-ish years later, obviously, a lot of competition. We were getting 100,000 units versus getting, you know, 400,000, 450,000 units back in the ’60s. So, clearly, the market had changed, but it was the right call because honestly it put a shot in the arm for the entire brand.
Narrator: And then, in 2015, Dieselgate happened. The scandal revealed Volkswagen had cheated on emission tests on their diesel models, including the Beetle. The company paid over $US30 billion to settle the case in 2018.
Keogh: Did it have an impact? Absolutely. And the reason it impact is we broke the trust. And if you look at what the singular thing the Beetle was so fantastic at: trust. It took millions and millions of families to school across America, to Woodstock, on and on. And the fact that this fiasco broke that trust is absolutely the most unsettling thing.
Narrator: And the Beetle’s final lap was not far behind. By 2018, the Beetle made up just 4% of VW sales. Even with a worldwide fandom and iconic status, the Beetle just wasn’t selling new units anymore. In 2018, Volkswagen announced it was ending production of its storied car.
Keogh: Why the decision is made to, you know, say bye-bye Beetle and to end the Beetle is frankly the market has changed dramatically. Small cars struggle. It’s an SUV marketplace.
Narrator: The final 2019 Beetle rolled off the line in Puebla, Mexico, in July 2019. After eight decades, worldwide success, and arguably legendary status, has the Volkswagen Beetle really hit the end of the road?
Torchinsky: I don’t really buy it. I kind of believe we’re going to see another version of the Beetle down the road, and it’s probably gonna be an MEB electric Beetle at some point, ’cause they’d be crazy not to. Why wouldn’t they do it?
Keogh: You know, with the Beetle, never say never. It’s not in our product portfolio. It’s not in our plans. We’re certainly gonna keep its, you know, soul alive, as I referenced, but the MEB is a phenomenal platform. We’ve shown a buggy off of that. We’ve shown a bus off of that. We’ve shown an SUV off of that. Never say never.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on September 2, 2019.