As Volkswagen Ends Beetle Production, a Final Photo Farewell to the Beloved ‘Bug’

After 80 years, the Volkswagen Beetle has finally completed its road trip.
July 13, 2019, 1:00 PM UTC
Production of the Volkswagen Beetle at the VW plant in Wolfsburg in 1952 Picture: Wolff & Tritschler (Photo by Wolff & Tritschler/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Wolff & Tritschler/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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.

Wartime beginnings

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.

Adolf Hitler with Volkswagen Beetle
Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, admires a model of the Volkswagen car and is amused to find the engine in the trunk.
Hoffmann/Getty Images
Left: Finished Volkswagen Beetles fill a storage yard at the VW factory near Brunswich, West Germany, circa early 1950s. Corbis via Getty Images Right: Women stare out the back of Volkswagen Beetle in 1953.
Corbis via Getty Images; Courtesy of VW
Volkswagen Beetle 1 Million
Volkswagen celebrates its 1 millionth car produced at a production plant in 1955.
Herold—picture alliance via Getty Images

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.

California cool

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.”

Volkswagen Beetle
Beetle production in Puebla, Mexico.
Courtesy of VW
Volkswagen Beetle
Teenagers attending the Los Angeles Teenage Fair line up five-deep to get a chance to sign their autographs on a Volkswagen Beetle, which was then sent to the British singing group The Beatles in 1965.
Bettmann/Getty Images

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.”

Volkswagen Beetle
A man driving a Volkswagen Beatle on the way to the Woodstock Music Festival in August 1969.
Ralph Ackerman—Getty Images
Volkswagen Beetle Gas Shortage
A sign at a gas station during the gasoline shortage and energy crisis in 1974.
Owen Franken—Corbis via Getty Images

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.

Volkswagen Beetle
Prospective Volkswagen Beetle buyers view the “new” 1998 model of the famous German vehicle in Norwalk, California.
Mike Nelson—AFP/Getty Images
Volkswagen Beetle
Lindsay Lohan in the 2005 film ‘Herbie: Fully Loaded,’ featuring a Volkswagen Beetle.
Walt Disney/Everett Collection

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.

Volkswagen Beetle
The Volkswagen New Beetle sits on display during the world premiere of the 21st Century Beetle on April 18, 2011 in Berlin, Germany.
Andreas Rentz—Getty Images
Volkswagen Beetle
Mariachi musicians play songs with workers and managers of Volkswagen during a ceremony to announce the cease of the production of the VW Beetle after 21 years in the market, at the Volkswagen plant in Cuautlancingo, Mexico on July 10, 2019.
Hector Vivas—Getty Images

“[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.” 

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—A Brexit architect sees opportunities in resignation of U.K.’s Trump-bashing ambassador

Fashion retailers sidestepping Trump’s trade war with China

Ford’s new plan for Europe: Fewer jobs, more SUVs

—The U.S. threatened France with China-style tariffs. The French didn’t blink

—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily

Catch up with Data Sheet, Fortune‘s daily digest on the business of tech.