The VW Beetle was invented by Ferdinand Porsche in Stuttgart, Germany in 1931. Dr. Porsche was already famous for designing racing cars and his new small car design went through a number of permutations before he informed Adolf Hitler that this new vehicle would be perfect for the new roads being built in Germany. Hitler ordered test cars to be made ready for the 1938 car exhibition in Berlin. The specifications called for a vehicle that was small, inexpensive, and fast. Porsche built three prototypes, the V1, V2 and V3. The V3 had a round body, 4 cylinders, a rear-mounted 1.5 liter engine and a split-screen rear window. In 1938 the Volkswagen ("People's Car") GmbH factory was built and a town, populated by factory workers and built with state money, grew up around it. It was called Kraft Durch Freude Stadt which was Hitler's motto, "Joy through Strength". The car was named the KDF-Wagen and a mass production was planned, but the onset of war converted all factories to military use.
The factory was bombed during the war, but it was rebuilt in 1946. The town was renamed Wolfsburg after the man who forcibly lost his land for the state's new factory. Ferdinand Porsche was a prisoner of war in France, though he was never a member of the Nazi party. He was allowed to return to Germany in 1949. Production resumed on the Beetle, under the ownership of Great Britain, beginning with a thriving export market in Holland around 1947. In 1948, the factory was given back to the Germans and the Beetle continued its popularity in the European market with nearly 20,000 units exported by 1949.
Assembly of the Beetle began overseas with a wave of cars being sold in Brazil. In 1953 Volkswagen of America opened and did well in its first year with nearly 30,000 sold. The first significant design change occurred that year with the split screen rear window replaced with a single oval. The Wolfsburg family crest had also been added to the hood. The engine size was increased from the original 938cc to 1200cc. In 1955 Volkswagen produced its one millionth Beetle. By the early 1960's the car that was considered a good second car by American families achieved a cult following. Designs by Ford and Chevy were large and aggressive, the Vietnam War was heating up and the Beetle became iconic to passive resistance to right-wing America. Other modifications helped spur sales, such as room on the dash for a radio and speakers, larger windows, disc brakes, automatic transmission, hazard and parking lights, improved rear tail-lights and the addition of a fuel gauge. Previously, the car had a fuel reserve tank. When you switched over to reserve, that was how you knew it was time to fill up. The Beetle even became the star of Herbie the Love Bug Disney movies.
The 60's also saw the introduction of the 1300cc and 1500cc engine. The car's previous top speed was 78mph. The 1500 could get up to 85mph, maybe even 90mph if it was worn in. The 1500 series was acknowledged as Beetle's best design to date, however, competition in the small car market was getting too intense to support production on too many models, so the 1500 only ran for one year.
In 1972 Volkswagen produced the 15,007,034th Beetle, beating the previous record of production held by the Model T Ford by one car. The Marathon Beetle and the Super Beetle were introduced to commemorate the achievement. They featured a new panoramic windscreen and were offered in the 1300cc engine and a new 1600cc model.
Confidence in the Beetle was at an all-time high with cute novelty models being produced such as the Love Bug, the Sun Sport and the "Jeans Beetle" equipped with denim interior. However, an oil crisis was brewing in the mid-East and the Beetles own siblings, the Passat and Golf were starting to draw better numbers. Sales slipped in 1974 and it was apparent that the love affair with the Beetle was coming to an end. By 1977 production of the Beetle ceased everywhere except in Mexico. The Beetle stayed on virtual hiatus until 1994 when the New Beetle was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show.
The nostalgia and longevity of the Beetle has earned it an esteemed place in the history of transportation. Few other vehicles have enjoyed so much popular appeal as well as becoming symbols of their time. Even fewer can be said to come from a genre that isn't high-performance. If the Beetle engine continues to last as long as its German engineers originally intended, there's a chance it will be around until the giant robots come to take over the planet.