A beloved “cult” car.
For a car that had a rather odious beginning as a “people’s car,” the Beetle came to be loved by multiple generations of basic transportation seekers on every continent with the possible exception of Antarctica.
Originally promised to pre-war Germans who saved the requisite amount of Reichsmarks, it wasn’t until after the war that a Beetle was delivered to the private consumer. Beetles of the 1950s and 1960s were marked by evolutionary rather than wholesale changes. A minor increase in horsepower and displacement and several different rear window designs (a small split window, a small oval window and a larger window) was about it through 1967.
The 1960 “Think Small” advertising campaign is still studied in marketing classes around the world. Throughout most of its life in the US, the Beetle was offered in sedan and cabriolet body styles. Pre-1968 Beetles were inexpensive but never cheap.
Ferdinand Porsche developed the Type 12, or “Auto für Jedermann” (car for everybody) for Zündapp in 1931. Porsche already preferred the flat-four engine, and selected a swing axle rear suspension. In 1932, three prototypes were running. All of those cars were lost during World War II, the last in a bombing raid in Stuttgart in 1945.
A batch of 30 development models, produced for Porsche by Daimler-Benz, underwent 1,800,000 mi (2,900,000 km) of further testing in 1937. All cars already had the distinctive round shape and the air-cooled, rear-mounted engine. Included in this batch was a rollback soft top called the Cabrio Limousine. A further batch of 44 preproduction cars produced in 1938 introduced split rear windows; both the split window and the dash were retained on production Type 1s until 1953.
The car was designed to be as simple as possible mechanically, so that there was less to go wrong; the air-cooled 25 hp (19 kW) 995 cc (60.7 cu in) motors proved especially effective in actions of the German Afrika Korps in Africa’s desert heat. This was due to the built-in oil cooler and the superior performance of the flat-four engine configuration. The suspension design used compact torsion bars instead of coil or leaf springs. The Beetle is nearly airtight and will float for a few minutes on water.
Like its contemporaries, the Mini, the Citroën 2CV, the Renault 4, and the Fiat 500, the Beetle has long outlasted predictions of its lifespan. It has been regarded as a “cult” car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement and surf culture; and the obvious attributes of its unique and quirky design along with its low price.