From Nazis to hippies: End of the road for Volkswagen Beetle

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The Volkswagen Beetle has reached the end of the road (Oded Balilty/AP)

Volkswagen is halting production of the last version of its Beetle model this week at its plant in Puebla, Mexico.

It is the end of the road for a vehicle that has symbolised many things over a history spanning the eight decades since 1938.

The car has been a part of Germany’s darkest hours as a never-realised Nazi prestige project, and a symbol of Germany’s postwar economic renaissance and rising middle-class prosperity.

VW Beetles are assembled in lines at the Volkswagen auto works plant in 1954
VW Beetles are assembled in lines at the Volkswagen car works plant in 1954 (Albert Riethausen/AP)

It was also an example of globalisation, sold and recognised all over the world, and an emblem of the 1960s counterculture in the United States.

Above all, the car remains a landmark in design, as recognisable as the Coca-Cola bottle.

The original design – a rounded silhouette with seating for four or five, nearly vertical windscreen and the air-cooled engine in the rear – can be traced back to Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who was hired to fulfil German dictator Adolf Hitler’s project for a “people’s car” that would spread car ownership the way the Ford Model T had in the US.

German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler speaks at the opening ceremony of the Volkswagen car factory in Fallersleben, Lower Saxony, Germany, in 1938
Adolf Hitler speaks at the opening ceremony of the Volkswagen car factory in Fallersleben, Lower Saxony, Germany, in 1938 (AP)

Aspects of the car bore similarities to the Tatra T97, made in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and to sketches by Hungarian engineer Bela Barenyi published in 1934.

Mass production of what was called the KdF-Wagen, based on the acronym of the Nazi labour organisation under whose auspices it was to be sold, was cancelled due to the Second World War.

Instead, the massive new plant in what was then countryside east of Hanover turned out military vehicles, using forced labourers from all over Europe under miserable conditions.

Volkswagen workers drive their Beetle cars from the car park on their way home at the end of a day's work at the world’s largest single auto plant, the Volkswagen factory (seen in background) in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1966
Workers drive their Beetle cars from the car park on their way home from the Volkswagen factory, seen in the background, in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1966 (AP)

Relaunched as a civilian carmaker under supervision of the British occupation authorities, the Volkswagen factory was transferred in 1949 to the Germany government and the state of Lower Saxony, which still owns part of the company.

By 1955, the one millionth Beetle – officially called the Type 1 – had rolled off the assembly line in what was now the town of Wolfsburg.

The United States became Volkswagen’s most important single foreign market, peaking at 563,522 cars in 1968, or 40% of production.

The company organised a Beetle roulette, with 10 red and green beetles in the Volkswagen stadium in Wolfsburg, to celebrate the 500,000 produced Volkswagen Beetle after the Second World War
The company organised a Beetle roulette, with 10 red and green beetles in the Volkswagen stadium in Wolfsburg, to celebrate the 500,000th Beetle produced after the Second World War (Henry Brueggemann/AP)

Unconventional, sometimes humorous advertising from agency Doyle Dane Bernbach urged car buyers to “Think small.”

“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,” wrote Bernhard Rieger in his 2013 history The People’s Car.

Production at Wolfsburg ended in 1978 as newer front-drive models such as the Golf took over.

Four female employees tend to a Volkswagen at a petrol station in Deidesheim, near Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 1954
Four female employees tend to a Volkswagen at a petrol station in Deidesheim, near Kaiserslautern, Germany, in 1954 (Albert Riethausen/AP)

But the Beetle was not dead yet.

Production went on in Mexico from 1967 until 2003 – longer than the car had been made in Germany.

A Volkswagen Beetle is unloaded at Emden harbour, Germany, as the first shipment of 1,600 Beetles made in Mexico arrives in 1977
A Volkswagen Beetle is unloaded at Emden harbour, Germany, as the first shipment of 1,600 Beetles made in Mexico arrives in 1977 (Heinz Ducklau/AP)

Nicknamed the “vochito”, the car made itself at home as a rugged, Mexican-made “carro del pueblo”.

The New Beetle – a completely new retro version build on a modified Golf platform – resurrected some of the old Beetle’s cute, unconventional aura in 1998 under chief executive Ferdinand Piech, Ferdinand Porsche’s grandson.

In 2012, the Beetle’s design was made a bit sleeker.

A model poses next to a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle covered in tiles made of a blend of 18 karat gold and glass at the annual Luxury Show in Bucharest, Romania
A model poses next to a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle covered in tiles made of a blend of 18 karat gold and glass at the annual Luxury Show in Bucharest, Romania (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

The last of 5,961 Final Edition versions is heading to a museum after ceremonies in Puebla on July 10 to mark the end of production.

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