It was Iberian Red – as in our featured image – it had a “J” registration (GWW 665J to be precise) – when the letters came at the end of the numbers indicating the year – so it was a 1971 car and it was a 1302s. I call it my first car, and I treasure its memory as though it was, but our Volkswagen Beetle was, in fact, my Mother’s.
There was something so sturdy about four wheels square on the floor, a slight pressure on your ears when you closed her doors – due to her airtightness – a heavy weave of plastic seating that became troublesomly sticky in the summer and a sturdy slightly domed gear lever that – once mastered – sung through the changes.
If you can drive a VW Beetle, I have been told, then virtually any car could be mastered in minutes. There was something reassuring for the young driver when your instructor told you to listen for the change in the sound of the engine to indicate when a gear change was necessary; this the VW Beetle delivered, massively. The sound of the engine – which for those who don’t know was situated in the rear – with its curious ticking, was phenomenally helpful in providing a very clear signal as to when each gear change was required.
The iconic VW Beetle was made and marketed by Volkeswagen from a faltering start in 1938 until 2003 selling over 21.5m vehicles. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (yes, the very same) was commissioned in 1934 by the leader of Nazi Germany to design and build a sturdy, cheap and simple car. The design brief was very specific as it needed to carry two adults and three children at 100km per hour consuming no more than 7 liters of fuel.
Dr Porsche’s team, based in Stuttgart delivered a series of prototypes over several years which culminated in 1938 in a car with an air-cooled – primarily because of the lack of reliable anti-freeze.
Given the intervening war year mass production started – initially under the control of the Americans and then the British – and in late 1945 the Beetle was launched with the name “Volkswagen” – literally “People’s Car”. In 1945 over 1700 vehicles were produced, primarily for the British Army use. Production increased dramatically in line with European distribution arrangements and over one million vehicles were built between 1945 and 1955. By 1973 over 16m Beetles had been produced in a variety of configurations including the stylish Cabriolet and Karmann Ghia Volkswagen Karmann Ghia versions.
Originally available as a modest 25 hp technical developments allowed a 40 hp to be developed which lasted until 1966 as the classic Beetle engine.
The early 1970’s, in the face of strong competition from Japan and the US, sales started to fall. In 1974, following the receipt of German government support, the ailing VW launched the front-wheel drive Golf model effectively superseding the Beetle.
VW had entered into a variety of overseas manufacturing agreements in countries including Australia, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico. The last Beetle was produced in Puebla (Mexico) in July 2003 and the final 3000 Beetles were sold as 2004 models and badged the “Última Edition” with contemporary colours and white-wall tyres.
In 1994, VW premiered at the North American International Auto Show – a retro concept being a re-imagining of the Beetle – designed by J Mays and Freeman Thomas from VW’s Californian design studio – it was, initially, based on a Polo chassis. In 1998, in response to a strong reaction from the buying public, VW launched the “New Beetle”, built on the then contemporary Golf platform, which itself was succeeded in 2011 by an even more contemporary re-imagining of the original Beetle.