This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle. At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.
The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever. It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime. Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany. Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.
The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set. It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America. In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars. But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs. A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers. Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.
With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle? I can’t think of any. Peace, love, Beetle!