When it was conceptualised, the KdF-Wagen – now better known as the Beetle – was set to sell for 990 Reich Marks. While this was little more than what a motorcycle sold for in those days, it was still pretty serious change for the average German wage-earner. To further complicate matters, one could not simply hand over 990 Reich Marks and drive away with a new KdF-Wagen. One was required to join a savings scheme involving stamps run by Kraft durch Freude, the Nazi leisure/propaganda organisation from which the car took its name. Still, with the new Autobahns beckoning, people signed up for the scheme, eagerly awaiting for the day they could take their shiny new KdF-Wagen home.
And then came the invasion of Poland.
Everything had been set for the new car’s production. A factory had been built along with an accompanying village to house all the workers, and KdF was tasked to manage the whole endeavour. By 1938, Erwin Komenda’s design was frozen, prototypes and show cars had completed their tour of duty, and the stamp-collecting saving scheme was well underway. But when politics – war – got in the way, every stamp-collecting family’s hope of getting their car was dashed. The factory was turned over to wartime production and eventually bombed by the Allied Forces, leaving the whole affair in tatters.
Obviously though, everything was rebuilt and soon enough Beetles were rolling off the production line. Strangely enough, it was an Englishman who helped bring Volkswagen back to life. It was Major Ivan Hirst, army officer and engineer, who saw the potential the Beetle had in a post-war world.
He knew how good the Volkswagens were, having faced off against them in the war, and figured that the world needed a tough, cheap car. Sir William Rootes, then head of a commission of British auto manufacturers, turned up his nose at the idea, considering the little saloon ugly, noisy and generally unpleasant.
Oh how wrong Sir Rootes was. As an aside, while Volkswagen gained a reputation for building robust cars, the Rootes group’s brands were fraught with poor quality – no doubt assisted by poor labour relations – and were eventually swallowed whole by Chrysler. Today, the Volkswagen Auto Group is parent to brands like Porsche, Audi, Seat and Lamborghini, while the Rootes Group lives only in memory.
Volkswagen really flourished after the war, the Beetle presenting the perfect mix of reliability and low cost to people who were recovering from the war. More than that though, it was the “happy” nature of the car that made it stand out among the other immediate post-war choices. Consumers loved the tough little car, and Volkswagen loved the money it made, which it poured into new models and higher-end markets, such as those the Type 3 was built to chase.
Here we have a Type 3 coupe in period style. Owing to the sheer breadth of people who took on these VWs, the factory cars became blank canvasses for their owners. Sure, specific methods and styles of donning up your VW have been established over the years, but there is still room for individual touches.
Like this vintage Pepsi Cola bottle opener on the fender of this Type 3. It’s the “single dot” Pepsi logo, so you know it’s right in keeping with the period look. This car is so cool, I’m not sure you even need ice for your Pepsi.
The Type 3 has always been my favourite Volkswagen, hitting the right notes of rounded squarishness.
Same basic car, but with a vastly different feel, aided in large part by those Cibie lamps. The evolution of the Type 3 isn’t quite as well documented as that of the Beetle, but judging from the huge orange blinkers I’d guess this is a later model than the silver one above.
It is again another coupe – I’m partial to the squareback Type 3s – but the lamps and wheels give it a far more modern feel compared to the silver one beside it. Where the previous car tries for the 1950s, this one looks a lot like something a teenager of the 1970s would have driven.
Of course, said teenager would have to be somewhere in the upper crust of society, because if you were an average teenager of the 70s and drove a VW, it would most likely have either been the eternal Beetle or one of these Kombis.
A Westfalia kit turns your Kombi into even more of a mobile home, complete with pop-out sleeping quarters and an awning, which anchors to the lug nuts.
When the economy picked up after the war, people wanted to buy everything. For three long years they were all too busy with the war to worry about material things, but after the war new things were all the rage. Customisation has been around as long as cars have been made, but in this era people took off with it, creating new styles and putting new twists on old styles. Being extremely popular in the United States, the Beetle was put under the hot rod knife.
If you were bent on standing out from the millions of other VWs on the road, there was really no other brand to approach other than Empi. For over forty years Empi have been the place to go to make your VW truly yours, stocking everything from the wheels you see here, to interior fitments, to mechanical upgrades.
That being said, there’s always been little stopping one from making their own way with their VW, like this Mexican-themed Kombi.
Another Kombi, this time done up in California surfer style, complete with whitewalls and chrome 5-spokes. It does take you back to when saying “dude” was still cool, doesn’t it?
Here’s the cute period Beetle from earlier, driving up to take part in the logo formation.
And this is proof that you don’t need a bright colour to make the Beetle look good…
…and of how the right set of wheels can become the highlight of your car.
“Isn’t that supposed to be an “A”?” Jokingly said one man as he walked by. No, sir, in this case the “E” is 100% correct.
An interesting fact about the design of the Beetle is that it was far slipperier a shape than basically any other car of the era, save the rear-engined Tatras and NSU prototypes. (There is contentious history between the three parties regarding the design, but that’s beside the point here.) The rounded shape meant low drag, which meant lower fuel consumption. I’m not sure how this clear plastic spoiler of sorts affects the aerodynamics, but it does provide a mounting point for stickers and badges without having to put them on the body.
I’ve not seen this spoiler on any other Beetle before, so this is probably a one-off job. It looks to be easily detachable, so I think this isn’t something that’s normally on the car.
And what a pretty car it is, with a very well-considered brown-and-orange two-tone. What I’m not sure I agree with are the colour-matched wheels. Then again it may be down to the design of the wheel itself, as I’ve seen far too many pick-ups rolling on similar wheels.
The wicker basket, though, I will agree on all year long. Just check out how shiny the paint is, almost perfectly reflecting the clouds above.
“Love Bug”. Does that seem like a familiar reference? For a certain group of readers, it very much is. We’ll come back to that later.
Has it been said how difficult it is to get these cars into the logo formation? At times it was much easier to push them into the formation, to ensure that each vehicle was perfectly aligned.
And here is where “Love Bug” takes on all of its meaning. In 1968, the Beetle took on a starring role in six Hollywood movies as Herbie the Love Bug. This car faithfully recreates Herbie, down to the stripes and “53” on the doors. The movie plots are thin, but for a generation of young children, the Herbie was the most lovable car there was out there, anthropomorphised and given a loving, if slightly irreverent character.
I have fond memories of watching the original movies into the night with my father, who also grew up on them. My favourite opening sequence is the one where Herbie is shown in a rally, effortlessly overtaking Shelby Cobras, Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes and the occasional Healy. I also have slightly bitter memories of watching the Lindsay Lohan reboot, the less said of which the better.
Remember the pretty clouds? Well eventually they decided to show us why they were so pretty. No matter, such enthusiasm is rarely dampened by such trivialities as precipitation.
Rain? Orange convertible Karmann-Ghia says “so what?” By the way, that’s the same Type 34 we saw from TSS 2014, and it looks even prettier out in the open.
Here’s another shot of the Type 34, so you can appreciate how much of a departure it was from the earlier Karmann-Ghia.
You want green cars? Here’s your green car. I’m being serious too; by keeping this car running, you’re prolonging the life of the materials which were used to make this car, amortizing the original carbon cost of producing the car to an even greater degree. Or something like that.
And just because it’s such a ray of sunshine, here’s more of the convertible orange Karmann-Ghia.
From this angle the car’s nose looks incredibly snobbish, as if it knows it’s so much more stylish than you can ever hope to be. I’ve not yet seen one of these with the small grilles filled in with metal, so I’m not sure what the aesthetic benefit of such work will be.
Here’s another Karmann-Ghia in a very-NSX black-over-red two-tone. This is such a desperately pretty design, perhaps lagging only to the Miura for sensual appeal.
Slowly the rain let up, and slowly the logo took shape, with the test drive units from the VW dealer pitching in.
Meanwhile, the cars were still in near-constant flux, trading parking spots and driving up and down the grounds as more cars came in.
And then these two came along.
Kits, obviously, but for style there was no beating these two. This one was the louder of the two, with the red, white and blue colour scheme and roadster/buggy hybrid body. No roof? No problem, since the interior is mostly hard-wearing waterproof material.
It sounded all sorts of right too, the signature mechanical clatter of the air-cooled flat-four joined by the slight bass thrum from the mufflers.
The wheels are a little much for my tastes, but the oceanic flavour of the paint if well-judged. With a slightly less extreme body and a roof of sorts, this one looked like it was more livable on a daily basis, but only just, as you still don’t get doors or windows or generally any method to secure the interior.
The roller pedal for the accelerator is cool though. Does it have any ergonomic advantages over a regular pedal? I’m inclined to think so, as the factory floor-mounted pedal feels a little strange to those used to pedals hung from the top.
From a cheap, sturdy car designed to a price point and meant to be basic transportation, to a Hollywood star, and on to a genuine icon, the humble little Beetle has done so much for the automotive landscape. It has carried an entire brand of cars like no other car has done before, and has with its fundamentally good engineering, filled almost every role that could be found for it, even taking different forms to fill them. Whatever the factory couldn’t make, the owners built themselves. Now as the Beetle enters its third generation, it leaves behind the original layout for something more in keeping with the times. Does that detract from its charm though? Judging by the response from the VW faithful, it looks like the answer is no.
Never has there been such a car like the Beetle, and chances are there won’t be ever one like it again: transcends classes, robust and unashamedly cheerful. Here’s to 77 years of the Beetle, and many more to come.
Now, where did I put those stamps?
– Words by Kristoff Franco, pictures by Eugene Calimag.