Q: Hello, Greg! I enjoy your columns very much, as I am an older woman who owned several Volkswagen Beetles, along with a Renault Dauphine, in my lifetime. A friend tells me that the Volkswagen was the result of Adolf Hitler in Germany during the war years. Is this true? Thank you in advance. Beatrice L., retired in Illinois.
A: Beatrice, your friend is correct that the Volkswagen Beetle was developed during Hitler’s reign. Specifically, Ferdinand Porsche, of Porsche motorcar fame, was instructed in 1933 by Hitler to develop Germany’s “People’s Car.” In the German language, Volkswagen (pronounced “folksvagen”) means “Volks” for “peoples,” and “vagen” for wagon. Hitler felt that a reliable, cheap and well-built car could be available to his masses, especially families with two or three kids that could sit in the back. In that sense, he was correct.
Porsche wasted little time moving on his orders, and produced several prototypes to Hitler’s liking. He settled on a rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder for power, which could reach a top speed of 62 mph and operate in extremely hot weather.
After the demise of Hitler and the end of WWII, the Beetle caught on and was exported to other countries, including the United States in 1949. That first U.S. Beetle featured a split rear window, but consumers weren’t impressed. Most felt it was funny looking, too small and underpowered compared to a powerful 1949 Olds Rocket or Hudson Hornet. Here in the U.S., big was the word.
During the 1950s, VWs gained a little in U.S. popularity. The Beetle stayed the same in design, although in March 1953 the two-piece rear window was replaced by a single-piece window. Then in 1957, a full-width rear window replaced the oval one. For VW, these were big style changes.
In the 1960s, the Beetle and sibling Microbus found a home in America, fueling the “flower child” psychedelic era, especially in the Haight-Asbury area of San Francisco. Back then, if you weren’t driving a VW Beetle or Micro, you were in the minority. Thus, sales boomed, and by 1972, the 15th million Beetle was built, surpassing the total production of the Ford Model T. In 1977, Volkswagen Beetles were no longer available in the U.S., but other countries still welcomed them. By 1985, all Beetle production moved to Mexico (which actually started building them in 1955), and the final Porsche-style Beetle rolled off the assembly line in 2003.
I, too, owned a VW Beetle, a 1964 model back in 1969. But I traded it in on a 1968 Camaro SS, and never owned another Beetle. However, I have a friend who has a beautiful VW Beetle convertible (a red one), and I would definitely consider owning a nice Microbus or Camper, as I test drove a camper in 1969 but opted for the Camaro SS.
Thanks for your letter and nice words, Beatrice, and one day we’ll touch on the French-built Renault Dauphine!
Greg Zyla writes weekly for GateHouse Media and welcomes reader questions on collector cars, auto nostalgia or old time motorsports at email@example.com or at 303 Roosevelt St., Sayre, PA 18840.