Volkswagen Beetle History (1938-1979)

Article by Mark Trotta

Not only is the air-cooled, rear-engine VW Beetle one of the most iconic cars in classic car history, it is the fourth highest-selling automobile of all time. During the original Beetle's 65-year production run, more than 21 million were built world-wide.

Volkswagen Beetle history

Volkswagen Beetle History

In the 1930s, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche started with a steel platform chassis and added all wheel independent torsion-bar suspension. The rear-engine platform gave excellent traction, as well as effortless steering.

Styled by Austrian designer Erwin Komenda, the shape of the Beetle was for strength, not looks; a curved piece of metal simply has more strength than a flat one does. The body attaches with eighteen bolts to the chassis which featured a central structural tunnel. The small two-door car could accommodate four passengers while providing storage under the front hood and behind the rear seat.

Mass production of the VW Beetle began in 1946. Although popular early-on in Europe, sales in the U.S. were dismal. Volkswagen sold just two Beetles in the U.S. in 1949-50, 551 cars in 1951, and 601 cars in 1952.

Air-Cooled Advantages

Although less powerful than other cars in its class, the VW Bug engine was simple, economical, and easy to repair. Air-cooled engines do not have water pumps, thermostats, hoses, or a radiator, and the dry weight of an air-cooled engine is much lighter than a comparable water-cooled engine.

1960 VW Beetle Sales

The total import car share of the U.S. market in 1960 was just 7.58 percent. With 159,995 sold, the VW Bug was most popular - more than twice that of second-place Renault.

Innovative Advertising

The VW Beetle owes much of its success not only to innovative engineering, but to innovative advertising as well. After World-War-Two, there was still animosity against Germany. The company needed to "reinvent" itself if it was to be successful in the U.S. market.

vintage VW Beetle ad

Volkswagen searched and found an advertising agency that would create ads focused on building brand advocates. Conceived by the New York agency Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach, the advertising campaign began in 1959 and was one of the best in the world during the sixties. Unlike glamorous, over-the-top American car ads, VW Beetle ads were usually in black and white and were witty and funny. It helped the Beetle to become the biggest selling foreign-made car in America.

Volkswagen Beetle 1960-1969

The decade of the sixties saw many changes to the Beetle. In 1960, pull-type outside door handles replaced the push-button type. Engine size increased to 1200cc in 1961. The fuel pump was relocated to right of distributor and the generator was now separate from the block.

Volkswagen Beetle history

For 1962, a fuel gauge replaced the original reserve tap. Glass tail-light lenses were changed to plastic. The electrical system would remain 6-volts until 1967.

Read: Convert 6-Volt Car to 12-Volts

Early Beetle parts were easily interchangeable from year to year. So much that, a Los Angeles Volkswagen dealer was caught installing 1963 taillights on 1959 Beetles and selling them as new cars.

vintage Volkswagen Beetle ad

The 1300cc engine was introduced in the 1966 model year. Outer door handles changed from square pushbutton to round pushbutton. Locking front seat backs were introduced.

1967 Beetle

In 1967, the Beetle's engine was enlarged again to 1493cc, now producing 53 horsepower. The 1200cc and 1300cc engines continued to be used outside the U.S. A new dual brake cylinder system was adopted. Other improvements included back-up lights, door lock buttons, and a 12-volt electrical system.

Foreign car sales were 10.2% of the U.S. market in 1968. The VW Bug was still the most popular imported car. To comply with U.S. regulations, emission controls started appearing on engines.

1968 Beetle

An external fuel filler was a welcome addition in 1968, as drivers no longer had to lift the trunk-lid to gain access to the gas cap. Larger taillights incorporated the tail, brake, and backup lights into a single unit. Crash safety was improved with a collapsible steering column.

Volkswagen AutoStick

Throughout its production, VW produced the Beetle with a four-speed manual transmission. Beginning in 1967 in Europe and 1968 in the United States, a semi-automatic transmission was offered. Marketed as Automatic Stick Shift (also called AutoStick) there was no clutch pedal, but the driver still had to move the shift lever to choose between the three forward gears.

Volkswagen Beetle

The 1969 Volkswagen Beetle drivetrain was upgraded with double-jointed rear axles which improved handling and stability. A locking steering wheel and fuel door were added, and the trunk release was moved to the glove box. Rear windows on sedans now had a defroster, and a day/night rearview mirror was added.

Herbie The Love Bug

In 1969, movie-goers were introduced to Herbie The Love Bug, a 1963 VW Beetle who was able to think and drive on his own. Neither Herbie nor driver Jim Douglas ever revealed their secret that #53 was no ordinary car. Herbie starred in six Disney movies.

Herbie the Love Bug VW Beetle

Super Beetle

Produced from 1971 to 1979, the Super Beetle had new rounder fenders, a larger hood, and a redesigned front valance. Changes were also made to the body and inner fenders to accommodate the mounting of MacPherson front struts. The new instrument panel was padded. A 1600cc engine with dual port cylinder heads provided more power.

Read: Best Oil For Classic Cars

An 86% increase of trunk storage space included mounting the spare tire horizontally in a recessed wheel well under the cargo area in the front trunk floor. The jack was moved to under the rear seat and the air pressure powered windshield washer bottle was relocated to the right inner fender. This was the most costly and extensive revision of the Beetle since it was first launched.

Starting in 1973, Super Beetles were fitted with a curved windshield, which gave a 42% increase in visibility and improved the aerodynamics of the car. In 1974, the old-style generator was finally replaced with a modern alternator.

Beetle Convertible

Easy to fold up and down, the "topless" version of the Beetle was built at the Karmann of Osnabruck facility. Production of the convertible Beetle began in 1953 and continued to be imported to the U.S. until 1979. In total, 330,281 convertible Beetles were built.

Declining Sales

During the seventies, competition from both American and Japanese economy cars hit VW Beetle sales hard. The new Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto offered U.S. car buyers room and fuel economy at a low price. Beetle sales dropped by almost half in 1975, from 791,023 the previous year to only 441,116 this year.

Most Produced Car In History

When the 15,007,034th car rolled off the line at Wolfsburg in 1972, the Volkswagen Beetle surpassed the Ford Model T as the longest-running and most-manufactured car in history. Since then, it's fallen a few notches to number four, with 21 million plus sold around the world.

The last VW Beetle rolled off the Wolfsburg production line in 1974, allowing production of the new water-cooled, front-engine, front-drive Golf (sold in the U.S. as the Rabbit). Beetle production continued in smaller numbers at other German facilities.

When the cancellation of the original Beetle was finally announced, production was slated to end July 31st 1979, but continued until January of 1980 to fill the thousands of orders received from all over the world.

Volkswagen Beetle history

Mainstream production of the Beetle soon shifted to Brazil and Mexico. The last model was produced in Puebla, Mexico, in 2003. In all, over 21 million Volkswagen Beetles were produced from 1938 to 2003.

Volkswagen Beetle history

Parts Interchangeability

Automotive restorers love old Beetles, because they're easy to work on and everything is available. Engines and related components are interchangeable between all air-cooled VW models. If an engine block is cracked or damaged, replacement cases are readily available in both cast (original) and aluminum (performance).

Read: Restore An Old Beetle


Dune Buggies And Kit Cars

The Beetle chassis was the chosen platform for countless kit cars, including the Bradley GT, Sterling, Sebring, Speedster (Porsche 356), and of course, the dune buggy.

history of the kit car

Read: Kit Car History

The Kubelwagen

Based on the Beetle frame and drivetrain, the Volkswagen Kubelwagen was produced during the Second World War, and is often compared to the American Army Jeep.


Read: Kubelwagen History