(WHTM) — On July 30th, 2003, one of the most amazing success stories in automotive history comes to an end. The very last of the original Volkswagens rolls off an assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. Known affectionately as “The Beetle”, over 21,529,464 are built and sold. It is a success story born of German engineering, American advertising and a Major in the British Army.
The story of the Beetle starts shortly before World War II with, of all people, Adolf Hitler. He wants a “peoples’ car” for German workers, a cheap and simple mass-produced car to ride the Autobahns. He taps engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who had dreams of creating a cheap car for the masses himself, to come up with the design. A factory is built to produce the new cars.
Then World War II starts. Production of Volkswagens stops before it really has a chance to start. The factory is turned to war production, before being severely damaged by Allied bombs.
When the war ends in 1945, the factory is turned over to the British military. Major Ivan Hirst, of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, is placed in charge. His first major task? Removing an unexploded bomb that could have destroyed a lot of vital machinery. He got production restarted, making Volkswagens (in appropriate army khaki) for the British military.
In 1947, the factory transitions back to civilian production. The first VW arrives in America in 1949. Acceptance is slow at first; it’s an import, and worse yet to many with fresh memories of the war, it’s “the Hitler car.” But others are charmed by its quirky design and appreciate its reliability, excellent gas mileage and easy-to-maintain mechanical simplicity (most notably a rear-mounted air-cooled engine). The Volkswagen begins to develop a following but is still a minor player in the U.S. car market.
Then in 1959, Volkwagen hires the firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) to do their U.S. advertising. Bill Bernbach is a genuine maverick in the advertising industry. The campaign he and his associates put together is revolutionary at the time and still influences advertising to this day. (They’re also still fun to read.)
At a time when most car ads featured splashy bright colors, and beat people over the head with the message that you had to buy a massive gas-guzzling “land yacht” to find true happiness in life, the first VW ad is a simple black and white photo, with the car tucked up in the corner, and the slogan, “Think Small.”
Beetle sales explode.
DDB continues producing ads in that vein: simple black and white photos, with elegantly simple messages, and most importantly, a sense of humor that embraces the funny, ugly little car’s funny, ugly littleness. One ad lists a bunch of unflattering nicknames for the bug, before quoting a major auto magazine report about how good the Beetle was. Another shows a Volkswagen hanging from the back of a tow truck, with the caption “Rare Photo.” One of the most famous ads doesn’t even show a Volkswagen at all, right after the first moon landing in 1969. Instead, DDB puts up a photo of a lunar lander, with the caption “It’s ugly, but it gets you there.”
Full disclosure: My family owned one of the original Beetles back in the early 1960s. The thing I remember most about it (aside from the light blue color) was the fuel gauge. It didn’t have one. Instead, it had a little lever. If you were driving along, and the motor began to cough and sputter, you would flip the lever, and the engine would start pulling fuel from the “reserve tank.” This would give you time to get to a gas station and fill ‘er up. It was not until I was researching this story, many years later, that I learned the “reserve tank” didn’t really exist. There was just one tank, with two intake pipes. The “main tank” pipe was set higher than the “reserve tank” pipe. Brilliantly simple, in its way; you just had to remember to set the lever back to “main tank” after you gassed up.
By the mid-sixties, Volkswagen Beetles are rolling off assembly lines in over a dozen countries, including one in West Virginia. In 1968, Beetle sales in the United States topped 400,000. On February 17th, 1972, Beetle No. 15,007,034, built in the original German factory, breaks the production record held by the Ford Model T.
But by then, sales are starting to drop. Other car manufacturers are starting to compete for the the market niche the Beetle occupies, with vehicles more modern, more comfortable and with more features. Even worse, the air-cooled engine is a pollution nightmare. Production lines start to close, or get converted to build other VW cars.
The last VW Beetle rolls off the German production line in 1974. Taking its place is the Golf, which uses a water-cooled engine mounted in front. It’s sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit.
Beetles continue to be produced in Mexico. But finally on July 30th, 2003, the last Beetle production line closes down.
By this time, though, Volkswagen is selling the “New Beetle.” It’s styled to resemble the original Beetle but is built on the Golf chassis. It goes on sale in 1997. Initial sales are brisk, but never come close to matching that of the original, and from 2000 on, slowly decrease. Production of the New Beetle ceases in 2019.