From a regime’s tool to glob­ally adored icon, the Bee­tle has had a sto­ried past

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Volkswagen Bee­tle

FER­DI­NAND Porsche is rightly hailed as a ge­nius en­gi­neer and a key au­to­mo­tive fig­ure. In 1898, aged just 23, he de­signed an all-wheel-drive, petrol-elec­tric hy­brid; later came the Mercedes-benz SSK, the rad­i­cal Auto Union rear-en­gined rac­ers, and, prov­ing his ver­sa­til­ity, some of Ger­many’s most fear­some WW2 tanks. Then there’s the small mat­ter of the Volkswagen ‘Bee­tle’ Type 1, whose 21.5 mil­lion units make it still the world’s big­gest sell­ing car (rather than name­plate).

In 1931, in con­junc­tion with Zun­dapp, Porsche be­gan de­vel­op­ing an eco­nom­i­cal, rear-en­gined car, the Porsche Type 12. Porsche had al­ready de­signed an air-cooled, hor­i­zon­tally op­posed four-cylin­der en­gine.

At the 1934 Ber­lin mo­tor show, Ger­man chan­cel­lor Adolf Hitler chal­lenged car mak­ers to pro­duce a car to sell at 1000 Re­ichs­marks, about half the typ­i­cal price for a car at the time. His trans­port min­istry drew up the specs: up to five pas­sen­gers, a 100km/h top speed, fuel con­sump­tion of seven litres per 100km, and easy to con­vert to mil­i­tary use and mount a ma­chine gun.

The RDA, the Ger­man car mak­ers’ in­dus­try body, ap­proached Porsche’s en­gi­neer­ing firm in 1934 (although Porsche was al­ready known to Hitler through the Auto Union rac­ing pro­gram). Over the next three years, Porsche de­vel­oped the Volkswagen (peo­ple’s car), then known as the Kdf-wa­gen ( Kraft durch Freude, ‘strength through joy’ car).

In truth, the Volkswagen had sev­eral par­ents, in­clud­ing oft-over­looked body en­gi­neer Er­win Komenda and – most con­tro­ver­sially – Hans Led­winka of Ta­tra (Cze­choslo­vakia), whose 1933 V570 might well have set the tem­plate for the Volkswagen.

Only a hand­ful of con­sumer cars were built in 1939 be­fore the out­break of WW2, when pro­duc­tion switched to mil­i­tary vari­ants.

After the war, Bri­tish Army of­fi­cer Ivan Hirst was or­dered to take com­mand of the heav­ily dam­aged Wolfs­burg fac­tory. He en­listed for­mer em­ploy­ees and slowly reignited pro­duc­tion. The min­i­mally re­vised pre-war de­sign was launched to the pub­lic at the 1947 Han­nover Fair – and the rest is history.

The pop­u­lar per­cep­tion (cul­ti­vated by a leg­endary US ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign) was that the ‘bee­tle’ never changed. In fact, among con­stant re­fine­ments, there were no­tice­able evo­lu­tions in 1949 (cabri­o­let ver­sion), 1953 (oval win­dow), 1954 (1.2-litre en­gine), 1966 (1.3-litre and ball-joint front sus­pen­sion), 1968 (1.5-litre en­gine and front disc brakes), 1972 (Macpher­son struts, near dou­bling boot ca­pac­ity), and ’73 (curved screen).

The last bee­tle was built in Mex­ico on 30 July 2003, bear­ing the chas­sis num­ber 21,529,464.

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