The Volkswagen Beetle has finally completed its road trip.
After 80 years of production in Germany, Belgium, Venezuela, South Africa, and about a dozen other countries, the last ‘Bug’ rolled off the factory line in Puebla, Mexico this week.
The car’s journey to the Puebla Automotive Museum marked the final pit-stop for a vehicle that’s been a symbol of freedom, fun, and counter-cultural cool since it first rolled onto U.S. shores in 1949—despite its Nazi Germany roots.
When Adolf Hitler commissioned auto legend Ferdinand Porsche to create a cheap, reliable "people's car" (or "Volks Wagen") in 1933, the Austrian engineer responded by designing a streamlined, yet flat-windowed car, with an air-cooled engine in the rear trunk and storage space under the hood.
Production of the distinctive "KdF-Wagen" came to an abrupt end shortly afterward, as the giant Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg was re-purposed to manufacture military vehicles for World War II. It was only after the war ended that the British military took ownership of the factory and re-started production of the Bug in the hope that it could help stimulate the shattered German economy.
But in what would prove to be an ill-conceived move, executives from the major British automakers ultimately decided the Beetle wouldn’t be a hit with post-war car owners and returned the factory to Volkswagen's ownership in 1949.
"They evaluated the car and the factory and basically said 'We can't sell that’,” says Patrick Collins, research officer at from the British National Motor Museum. “It's like [record label] EMI turning down the Beatles.”
Volkswagen started production almost immediately, and by 1951 it was producing close to 100,000 Beetles a year. By 1965, that figure would grow to over a million.
In 1960s California, the Beetle came to have an entirely different history.
“In the United States, the Beetle's characteristics lent it a profoundly unconventional air in a car culture dominated by size and showmanship," wrote Bernhard Rieger in his 2013 history, The People's Car. At this stage of its history, the Beetle was primarily rolling into the country from Puebla. In 1968, U.S. buyers snapped up 563,522 Beetles—or 40% of worldwide production—partly fueled by a marketing campaign that was just as quirky as the car itself, with agency Doyle Dane Bernbach urging consumers to "Think Small."
Hollywood also played a key role. Record sales in 1968 coincided with the release of "The Love Bug," featuring "Herbie" the plucky race car with a mind of its own. Meanwhile, movie star owners like Paul Newman added their own touch of stardust—in Newman’s case by adding a faster Porsche engine to his own Beetle.
"Suddenly everyone had a white Beetle with the number 53 on the side,” says Patrick Collins from the British National Motor Museum. “It put the Beetle into the popular psyche. Kids loved it and for anyone growing up in the '70s it wasn't a Beetle, it was 'a Herbie'.”
At the same time, the car also cornered the customized market, with the Beetle "dune buggy" or beach buggy—a convertible, with large wheels, wide tires and distinctive 'bug eye" headlamps designed for use on sand dunes, beaches, or the desert. This opened up a different—yet still alternative—audience, particularly in California, though the influence soon had global reach.
"It kept the counter culture of it,” says Collins. “You know, a bit quirky, a bit hippy, a bit 'way out'—not establishment. Whatever period of its history you look at from the 1930s onwards, the Beetle was always quirky,” he adds. “It never followed the automotive theme of the period.”
A Bug's second—then third—life
Production of the car at the original German factory in Wolfsburg stopped in 1978, when VW decided to turn the page on its past and focus on creating modern, front-drive hatchbacks such as the all-conquering Golf model.
But Bug production continued elsewhere, with the Mexican-made Beetle (nicknamed the "Vochito") hitting the road from 1967 until 2003–a span that was longer, in fact, than the car's production run in Germany.
In all, over 21 million "original" Beetles were produced from 1938 to 2003.
The car then discovered a third life in 1998, when VW chief executive Ferdinand Piech—grandson of Ferdinand Porsche—decided the time was ripe for a new Beetle. A modern version of the Bug was born, albeit with an engine in the front and the same chassis andengineas a Golf. The styling, however, was pure Beetle and went on to sell 1.7 million models worldwide.
"In an era where cars are designed in wind tunnels and the trick is to go for a sleek, smooth shape that's completely aerodynamic, with a few folds in the doors to provide a bit of strength, here you had a car that looked completely different,” Charles Oldroyd, chairman of the Historic Volkswagen Club, said about the newer Beetle.
"The original Beetle was counter-culture and I think the new car kind of hooked onto that: dare to be different,” he adds. "It was a second car. It was a hobby car. It was a fun car.”
But that appeal wasn't enough to save the Bug. U.S. sales averaged around 1,500 a month in 2018; SUVsnow dominate the U.S. car market, accounting for more than 70% of overall sales. The VW plant in Puebla was the last to produce the Beetle, and it made the inevitable, if painful, decision to manufacture SUVs instead.
"[The Beetle] conquered the hearts of the people with its special design and quality," Steffen Reiche, CEO of VW Mexico said Wednesday in a farewell ceremony to the Bug, complete with mariachi band and confetti.
"Today is the last day. It has been very emotional."
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