Volkswagen Beetle
A Brief History

In 1934, Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned to build a small, inexpensive car. His masterpiece, a beetle-shaped sedan, was called a Volkswagen (German for "people's car"). It is unfortunate that what years later would become the world's top selling car (21,529,464 units) would have its origins with one of the world's most evil men, Adolf Hitler.

Volkswagen website / Barényi, Ganz, and Porsche / Email me

1933 - Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) draws first sketches of a simple little car that even the most common of citizens could own and enjoy on the autobahns.
1933 1932 1933 1933

1934 - Adolf Hitler commissions Porsche to develop the KdF-Wagen ("Kraft durch Freude" or "Strength through joy"), forerunner of what we know today as the Beetle.
1935 1935

1936 - At Berlin Auto Show, Hitler announces that Porsche will design "the People's Car;" Porsche promises Hitler he will produce three prototypes by year's end.

1937 - First road test on prototypes
1937 1937

1938 - Thirty prototypes (called Series 30) completed
1938 1938 1938 1938 1938

1939 - May 28: Ceremony commemorates laying of cornerstone of VW factory at Wolfsburg (would later become largest auto factory under one roof)
1939 1939

1940 - KdF-Wagen appears at Berlin Auto Show. Germany goes to war.

1942 - German army vehicles Kubelwagens built; German amphibious army vehicles Schwimmwagens built
1941 1942

1944 - Allied bombs destroy more than 2/3 of Wolfsburg factory

1945 - May: World War II ends. British forces take control of Wolfsburg area. Porsche interrogated by Allied Forces for his alleged connections to Nazis. Porsche is cleared, but then imprisoned in France with son Ferry for two years.

1946 - 1,785 cars constructed, mostly by hand; used as army light transport
1946 1946 1946

1947 - Wolfsburg produces 19,000 cars; exported to Holland. Two hand-made convertibles constructed.

1948 - 20,000th Beetle produced. Beetle modified into convertible.
Henry Ford considers buying VW, but then declines; 24 years later, Beetle would out-sell Ford Model T.

1949 - January 17: First Beetle bought in USA by Ben Pon. Max Hoffman becomes first importer.
1949 1949 1949 1949 1949

1950 - 100,000th Beetle produced. 1,000 convertibles produced. Porsche celebrates 75th birthday; finally visits Wolfsburg plant; cries when he sees Beetles on Autobahn... his dream becomes reality.

1951 - January 10: Ferdinand Porsche dies.

1952 - First official gathering of Beetle owners. Canada imports its first Beetle.

1953 - 500,000th Beetle produced. VW plant opens in Sao Paulo, Brasil.

1955 - April: VW of America formed. 1,000,000th Beetle produced.

1957 - 2,000,000th Beetle produced
1954 1955 1956 1956

1959 - 3,000,000th Beetle produced

1960 - 4,000,000th Beetle produced
1960 1960 1960

1961 - 5,000,000th Beetle produced

1962 - VW of America headquarters at Englewood Cliffs, NJ, dedicated. 6,000,000th Beetle produced.

1963 - 7,000,000th Beetle produced

1964 - 8,000,000th and 9,000,000th Beetles produced

1965 - 10,000,000th Beetles produced
1965 1965 1965

1966 - 11,000,000th and 12,000,000th Beetles produced

1970 - Last year convertible Beetle in standard format is available (only convertible Beetles in Super Beetle format are available). Super Beetle produced.

1972 - February 12: 15,007,034th Beetle rolls off assembly line, breaks Ford Model T record for total production.
1971 1972

1974 - June: 11,916,519th Beetle produced at Wolfsburg rolls off assembly line, signaling the end of Beetle production at Wolfsburg plant.
1973 1974

1975 - Last year for Super Beetle production

1977 - Last year for standard Beetle in USA; only Super Beetle convertibles remain.

1978 - At Emden VW plant in Germany, last official German-built Beetle rolls off assembly line

1981 - 20,000,000th Beetle produced (in Puebla, Mexico)

1998 - Production model of New Beetle unveiled at Detroit International Auto Show

1999 - New Beetle turbo available to US dealerships

2003 - July 30: Last Beetle (21,529,464th) rolls off assembly line (in Puebla, Mexico)
2003 (Mexico)

The LAST Beetle, July 2003 JULY 30, 2003 - The last original VW Beetle rolls off the line at the last remaining production facility in the world: Puebla, Mexico... some 65 years since its public launch in Nazi Germany, and an unprecedented 58-year production run since 1945.

The last car was immediately shipped off to the company's museum in Wolfsburg, Germany. In true Mexican fashion, a mariachi band serenaded the last car.

The last Beetle:

  • Length: 13.32 ft (4 m)
  • Width: 5.08 ft (1.6 m)
  • Height: 4.92 ft (1.5 m)
  • Length between axles: 7.87 ft (2.4 m)
  • Weight: 1,786 pounds (810 kg)
  • Engine: 4 cylinders, 1.6 L
  • Transmission: Manual
  • Brakes: front disc, back drum
  • Passengers: Five
  • Tank: 10.57 gallons (40 L)
  • Color: Aquarius blue

KdF-Wagen Barényi, Ganz, and Porsche

Depending on whose account you read, the idea behind the Volkswagen Beetle can be attributed to three different people... Béla Barényi, Josef Ganz, or Ferdinand Porsche. Regardless of who actually came up with it, there is no doubting the role Nazi leader Adolf Hitler played in moving the little car from prototype to production.

Béla Barényi is credited by some as having conceived the basic design for the Volkswagen Beetle in 1925. Barényi was a Hungarian-Austrian engineer, regarded as the "father of passive safety in automobiles." He was born near Vienna, Austria in 1907. After mechanical and electrical engineering studies at the Vienna college, he was employed by Austria-Fiat, Steyr, and Adler (predecessor of Audi) automobile companies before joining Daimler-Benz in 1939. He is credited with developing the concept of the "crumple zone," the non-deformable passenger cell, the collapsible steering column, safer detachable hardtops, and more. After he died in 1997, Mercedes stated, "No one in the world has given more thought to car safety than this man."

Dutch journalist Paul Schilperoord reports in his book "The True Story of the Beetle" (in Dutch) that the Volkswagen Beetle was actually the brainchild of Jewish engineer Josef Ganz. According to Schilperoord, "In 1929, Josef Ganz started contacting German motorcycle manufacturers for collaboration to build a Volkswagen prototype. This resulted in a first prototype built at Ardie in 1930 and a second one completed at Adler [predecessor of Audi] in May 1931, which was nicknamed the Maikäfer ('May-Beetle')." Schilperoord says Ganz was a student and wanted to design an inexpensive car. "He often crashed with his motorbike... What he really wanted was a car which was a lot safer, but just as affordable as a motorbike." Schilperoord says Ganz' first production model was called the Standard Superior. It appeared in Spring 1933 ("in May when the May beetles fly") at the Berlin Motor Show. Adolf Hitler, appointed German Chancellor in January 1933, opened the show and saw the Standard Superior. Hitler showed interest in the prototype. Such a car fit his plans to "motorize" Germany. Instead of ordering the Standard car factory to develop and produce the Jewish-designed car, Hitler looked for another German developer to take over. A sketch from the 1930s, allegedly made by Hitler himself, shows the outlines of a car resembling what we know today as the VW Beetle. The drawing is said to have been given to carmaker Daimler-Benz which apparently turned down the opportunity before it was given to Ferdinand Porsche. According to Schilperoord, Ganz later left Germany for Switzerland where he tried in vain to reclaim intellectual ownership of the Beetle. His name carefully erased from the history books by Hitler, Ganz moved to Australia in 1951 where he died in 1967.

It is also said that long before he seized power in 1933, Adolf Hitler envisioned an inexpensive car that the typical German family could own and enjoy. The car could be driven along the sweeping highways that he wanted to build throughout Germany. Once in power, Hitler assigned the task of designing the car to famed automaker Ferdinand Porsche who shared a similar vision for such a car. By 1938, designs were completed, and a factory site was selected in the town later to be known as Wolfsburg. Hitler announced the car's name: The KdF-Wagen ("Kraft durch Freude" or "Strength through joy"). The name never became widely used by the German public. It was more commonly called the "Volkswagen," or "people's car." As it turned out, no common German citizen ever owned a Volkswagen while the Nazis were in power. By the outbreak of war in 1939, only about 630 cars had been built, and nearly all those went to Hitler and his military officers. So much for "the people's car."

In 1945, the factory at Wolfsburg was located in the British occupation zone. It was placed under the control of British Army Major Ivan Hirst. There was no longer a need for military vehicles, so Hirst resuscitated the Volkswagen project and started filling an order from the British Army for 20,000 cars. The factory was later offered to major US car manufacturers but no interest was shown. Even Henry Ford turned it down. In 1949, Heinrich Nordhoff, a former senior manager with Opel, took over the project from Major Hirst. The little car would eventually become the largest selling automobile of all time, surpassing 21,000,000 units.

◁ Béla Barényi is credited by some as having conceived the basic design for the Volkswagen Beetle in 1925.
◁ Josef Ganz riding atop an early Beetle in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1933.
◁ A sketch reportedly drawn by Adolf Hitler and given to Ferdinand Porsche in 1934.
◁ In 1934, Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned to build a small, inexpensive car at the request of Adolph Hitler. His masterpiece, a beetle-shaped sedan that was called a Volkswagen (German for "people's car") debuted two years later. The war delayed production of the vehicle until 1949 however. During the 1950s, the car became known as the VW Beetle, later earning the distinction of the best-selling car of all time. Wolfsburg-based Volkswagen has since gone on to manufacture more contemporary cars, though the world's fondness for the Beetle, or "Bug," still runs strong, strong enough to justify a 1998 "New Beetle" debut that was initially a huge hit in North America. Though New Beetle sales have leveled off, consumer interest in the company's more practical (but still fun-to-drive) cars, specifically the Jetta and Passat, has steadily increased.
◁ A 1936 Nazi prototype of the KdF-Wagen ("Kraft durch Freude" or "Strength through joy").

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My thanks to those whose photos appear here, and to all whose writings helped build this summary of the Volkswagen Beetle.