VW Beetle potted history: nazis, hippies, beardy teachers

By Phil Hanson

From Germany to beach bums, Beetle remains firm favourite

The Beetle had its boot in the front, and its design inspired the Karmann Ghia and the Type 181.
The Beetle had its boot in the front, and its design inspired the Karmann Ghia and the Type 181.

Nazis, hippies, social studies teachers, overpriced classic.

So that's the history of the original Volkswagen Beetle. All the rest is just detail.

It is generally not known that earlier Beetles helped teach their drivers of the need to drive economically.

My first experience with a Beetle was as a boy reporter on a now defunct provincial paper. Being consumers of budget rather than generators of revenue, like the sales staff, the reporters' car was an aged 1961 Beetle, the last model year without a fuel gauge.

The first Beetles had arrived in New Zealand in 1954, costing a then not-inexpensive $750. Why Volkswagen chose not to fit a gauge

The engine was in the rear of the car (above). The final Beetle was built in Mexico, on July 30, 2003.

except as an optional extra (about $12 back in the day) eludes me, but its absence made us economical drivers. In case the tank ran dry, a can of petrol was stashed in the nose boot and thus really good for adding an explosion to a head-on smash. When I inevitably ran out, on the way back from a night council meeting, the can was ... empty.

We had to tell the chief reporter how far we'd gone and he'd run a tally. When collecting the keys, you'd ask how much he thought was in the tank and hoped he was right. Still, it was a fun car to drive when you knew the tank was full.

In those days, it seemed quite "sporty", despite the basically dangerous swing-axle rear suspension and the engine mounted behind the suspension in the same manner as the American Chevrolet Corvair.

On the other hand, the engine aft-of-axle configuration was good enough for Porsche whose company was responsible for the Beetle when Hitler decided his country should have a people's car.

With all that weight at the drive wheels, the Beetle gained a reputation for traction in snow and other slushy surfaces. This was when front-wheel-drive cars were few.

Volkswagen America, whose agency created some of the world's best car advertising, seized on this and produced a memorable TV and print campaign that asked how the man who drives the snow plough gets to the plough. The answer, naturally, was in a Beetle.

Working in Calgary, deep in the Canadian prairies, I covered a story where a snow plough had gone over a bank and had to be rescued by another snow plough. The photographer's car refused to start so the rescue-plough driver towed us back to base, parked his big rig and went home. In a Beetle.

A notable Beetle spin-off was the now coveted Karmann Ghia, built from 1955 to 1974 first as a coupe, then also as a convertible. It didn't perform any better than a Beetle but looked $100,000 then, a million dollars these days.

A most interesting official Beetle spin-off became popular in the US. The Type 181 was a modern version of the World War II Kubelwagen utility vehicle, sort of a German Jeep. Built on a microbus chassis with Beetle mechanicals and meant as a Euro military light patrol vehicle, the 181 four-door soft-top provided heaps of fun in civilian guise if slightly impractical fun. Well, seriously impractical. Perhaps because its uses really were limited, the 181 didn't last long on the civilian market and examples are now sought after.

A shortened version of the Beetle's chassis provided a basis for the once popular dune buggy, or beach buggy as they were known here. With a light fibreglass body, wide tyres and rear-biased weight distribution, buggies were great performers on the beach and made useful fine-weather runabouts.

The Beetle also gave the world affordable racing with the Formula Vee, a single seater based on Beetle parts and a tube frame with a fibreglass or carbon fibre body.

Who'd have thought that, in 1933 when an emissary from Hitler told Ferdinand Porsche to develop an economical people's car that could carry two adults and three children at 100km/h he'd win the thanks of not only the masses, but beach bums, car racers and snow plough drivers around the world?

The final Beetle was built in Mexico, on July 30, 2003 - 65 years after its original launch. Named El Rey, Spanish for "the King" and the name of a Mexican song, it went directly to the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.

With more than 21 million made, more than 26,000 of them assembled at Otahuhu, the Beetle remains the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single design platform.

I figure the turning point was when they made the fuel gauge standard.

- NZ Herald

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