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The Volkswagen Beetle Says Auf Wiedersehen

The iconic car with a history stretching from Nazi Germany to the Summer of Love stops production

The VW Beetle is retiring (Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0 DE)
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The last ever Volkswagen Beetle is rolling off the production line in Puebla, Mexico, today, before heading to go on display at a nearby Volkswagen museum, David McHugh at the Associated Press reports.

While car models arrive and disappear each year (take, for instance, the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Cruze and Daimler’s all-electric Smart Car, all of which are also ending production in 2019), few vehicles traveled the long, strange road of the Beetle—often lovingly known as the Bug—which originated out of Nazi Germany and later came to personify the peace-and-love ethos of the 1960s.

When Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he wanted to create a rugged, affordable automobile that would spread car ownership “to the people” throughout the German Reich. In 1938, he was poised to do so, as the Nazis geared up for the mass production of what was then known as the KdF-Wagen—an abbreviation of Kraft durch Freude, literally making it the "Strength Through Joy" car (the name was associated with a larger state-run leisure initiative). But as the Nazi war machine ramped up, the project was tabled as the factory intended for car production was converted to make military vehicles instead.

After the war, however, the factory outside Hanover was relaunched under civilian leadership in 1949 and the production of the car, rebranded as the Beetle, began. It became a hit in postwar Germany, and by 1955, 1 million Type-1 Beetles were on the road.

In the 1960s, the car hit its stride in the U.S. as well, in no small part thanks to the attention-grabbing Doyle Dane Bernbach ad campaign which labeled the car a “Lemon” and told people to “Think Small” in an era of boat-like automobiles.

By the end of the decade, the cheap, reliable, ugly-cute automobile (and its big sibling, the VW Bus), had become the cars of choice for the counter-culture and youth movement. In 1968, 40 percent of all VW Beetles were sold in the U.S.

“Unlike in West Germany, where its low price, quality and durability stood for a new postwar normality, in the United States the Beetle’s characteristics lent it a profoundly unconventional air in a car culture dominated by size and showmanship,” Bernhard Rieger wrote in his 2013 history of the Beetle The People’s Car, reports McHugh.

It even spawned the character “Herbie,” a VW Beetle that made its debut 1968 and more recently was seen in the 2005 Lindsay Lohan vehicle, Herbie: Fully Loaded.

In 1978, production of the car in Germany ceased, though the factory in Mexico, where the car remained popular, continued production until 2003. In total, 21 million original Beetles were produced.

Laurel Wamsley at NPR reports that in 1998, the company relaunched a new version of the Beetle, capitalizing on its cult-like following and whimsical reputation, including a built-in flower vase. While the New Beetle was popular, it didn’t reach the height of its predecessor, peaking at 380,000 units sold in 1999. In 2011, the brand underwent another revision, selling 600,000 over the following years.

In a farewell letter to the iconic car, the company explained changing tastes made VW decide to finally pull the plug, stating, “cult is not necessarily synonymous with sales.”

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, tells Jackie Wattles at CNN Business that dropping the brand makes sense. “In this environment the business case for cars in general, and small cars in particular, becomes increasingly difficult to justify,” he says. “Anyone surprised or disappointed by this announcement better prepare themselves. In the months to come more automakers will be announcing more iconic model cancellations.”

Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, tells Wamsley of NPR that though the Beetle is no more, the company still owes the car for its success. “It’s impossible to imagine where Volkswagen would be without the Beetle,” he says. “While its time has come, the role it has played in the evolution of our brand will be forever cherished.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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