Volkswagen Beetles: More Than Just a 'Love Bug' Story

When you think of the VW Bug, you might imagine a cute Disney character named Herbie. But Volkswagen Beetles are more than just a “Love Bug” story.

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When you think of the VW Bug, you might imagine a cute Disney character named Herbie. But Volkswagen Beetles are more than just a “Love Bug” story.

The Volkswagen Beetle was produced as the “people’s car” in Germany in 1938, making its way to America in the fifties. The VW became a cultural phenomenon as a symbol of counterculture in the sixties. In 1972, it passed the Model T as the most mass-produced vehicle in automotive history.

Ask anyone who owns a VW Beetle, and they’ll tell you that their little compact car is much more than a “love bug.” While Disney might have made a lot of hay with its cute little movie, five sequels, and short-lived television show, there is so much more to the legacy of the VW Bug. Lasting generations, preserving through war and global conflicts, becoming a cultural symbol for peace and the counterculture, and becoming the most produced vehicle in history are just some things on VWs resume. So, what is the story of the VW Beetle history? Let’s take a moment to turn back the pages of history to find out.

Table of Contents


The People’s Car Is Born

While the VW Beetle’s birth as a concept of the Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, has been well-documented, the fact remains that at the time, there was a need for an inexpensive, simple car that could be mass-produced for the people to use to travel on the new Autobahn highway system. While the Spanish Civil War and World War Two would delay the production of that civilian vehicle, eventually, after the war, in the late 1940s, the “people’s car” would begin to roll off the assembly line in earnest.

The initial design is controversial, with both Porsche and Mercedes Benz claiming credit for developing it. (A court case in 1955 would eventually give Bela’ Berenyi credit for the initial concept of the car when he sued VW for copyright infringement). Most historians believe that Ferdinand Porsche and his design team were the main impetus for the car, although Berenyi’s efforts cannot be discounted).

The Factory Is Built

On the 26th of May, 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone for the Volkswagen factory, and after giving a speech, he declared the new vehicle to be the “Strength Through Joy” car, which happened to be a slogan for the Nazi Party. The production had just started when the war broke out, and VW found its resources being employed to produce vehicles for the Third Reich.

The factory was turned over to the British by American forces, with the components to be dismantled and shipped back to the shores of England. However, no British car company was willing to take on the expense, with the official opinion being that the “car did not suit the technical requirements for a mechanical vehicle” and was too “unattractive to the average buyer.” Volkswagen survived the post-war years by making cars for the military after a British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst convinced the military superiors to agree to a 20,000 car order.

After the order was completed, the factory transitioned to civilian production of the little compact in 1947. The production increased over the next few years as the company's leadership transitioned from military to civilian rule. The late 40s models had an 1131 cc air-cooled engine that produced 25 hp and had a top speed of 71 mph. As production increased, the company began to look for markets to export their cars to, and in 1949, the first bugs were shipped overseas to the United States.

A Rough Start

Volkswagen only sold two bugs in the first year, which was not the reception the German automaker hoped for. Many people thought the Bug’s odd shape impractical for American use. Primarily, with images of Nazi atrocities still fresh in the public mind, many people thought buying one might be seen as supporting the evil Axis powers and dishonoring the American lives lost in the war.

VW preserved through the 1950s, growing in sales each year as more international markets also presented themselves. The Volkswagen car was marketed as a low-cost alternative that was well-built, and Americans found that to be the case. How much did a VW Bug cost? $1,595 and about a hundred dollars more if you wanted a sunroof. Sales increased so much that In 1955, Volkswagen launched VW of America to help promote the brand and expand the number of dealerships.

“Think Small”

In 1959, a New York advertising firm created a series of ads promoting the Bug’s simplicity and minimalism. One ad showed a single shot of a VW bug in the distance surrounded by white space with the caption “Think Small.”  The ad was printed in black and white, rather than color, to emphasize the simplicity of the Bugs design. The campaign boosted sales of the VW Bug by depicting the car as a practical alternative to the more affluent larger cars with higher-powered V8 engines. The ad was so effective that it changed how advertising was done and was rated as the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century.

The Bug Takes Off!

By the time the 1960s dawned, over 300,000 VW bugs were driving on American roads. The VW Bug became popular with young college students interested in a low-cost, easy-to-maintain, no-frills automobile. Early models of VW did not have fuel gauges, terrible suspensions, or heaters that either didn’t work or singed your ankles in seconds, and Americans loved them.

The Bug and Microbus became a centerpiece of American counterculture, as young people painted flowers and peace symbols onto them. Driving a Volkswagen symbolized resistance against the materialistic establishment that sought to enslave and disenfranchise the common man. A Woodstock generation continued to buy the little compact in ever-increasing numbers, and it wasn’t long before the rear-wheel drive car was a common sight in American driveways.

The Beetle Grows Up

Several significant improvements occurred to keep the Beetle compliant with new vehicle regulations in 1968. Some of the applied updates were high-back bucket seats, safety belts, a padded dash, and a collapsible steering wheel. In addition, a new semi-automatic 3-speed transmission with a torque converter and vacuum clutch was made available. (Many owners opted for this feature). The “Select-stick” allowed the driver to shift between gears by simply lifting their foot off the gas pedal. (There was no clutch pedal).

The Beetle Goes To Hollywood

In 1968, Disney released The Love Bug, to the delight of American families everywhere. The movie starred a 1963 VW Bug who is reconditioned and entered in racing contests. The Bug had a mind of its own by driving by itself, spitting oil on the faces of people he disliked, and playing matchmaker between Michelle Lee and Dean Jones, who starred in the film. The movie became the second highest-grossing film in 1969, spawning five sequels and a five-episode television series.

A New Beetle?

VW teased the introduction of a brand new Beetle in the months leading up to the release of the “Super Beetle.” The new ‘71 Super Beetle was unveiled in the spring of 1970, and while it was a few inches larger, many Americans felt cheated because it looked almost identical to the base model. Nevertheless, 1972 would be the VW Beetles' best sales year, selling over 432,000 units in the US alone.

VW Makes History

In February 1972, VW celebrated a milestone in automotive history by producing the 15 millionth Bug off the assembly line. The accomplishment that VW Beetle became the most mass-production vehicle ever, surpassing the Ford Model T. To commemorate the occasion, VW released a special edition Baja Bug. Two years later, two more special editions named “Love Bugs” were offered in red or green paint only.

VW Sales Slow

During the 70s, Americans became tired of the superficial body style of the Volkswagen that had remained unchanged for most of its production. Despite VW trying to refresh the Volkswagen with larger elephant foot tail lights or replace the car's ventilation system, buyers began to drift away, turning to Japanese imports. VW’s domination of the American market slipped away as, in 1973, more consumers bought Japanese imports than they did from the German automaker.

The Beetle would continue to be made until 1979 (although Mexico had a plant that produced them until 2003). The Beetle was replaced by the VW Golf (marketed as the Rabbit in North America).

VW Rises Again

In 1997, VW brought out a “New Beetle” as a front-wheel drive vehicle. While it retained much of its predecessor's “ladybug” styling and was much better equipped than older models, the car had just average sales for the next 21 years. VW would eventually pull the plug on the new Beetle in 2019, 70 years after the first one landed on American shores.