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The Germany is Wunderbar guide

Germany Holidays: the story of the VW Beetle

The car that became a symbol of Germany’s post-war economic resurgence, and the inspiration of a series of Hollywood movies, didn’t have an easy birth.

For a certain generation the Volkswagen Beetle, or Käfer, as it’s known in Germany, is epitomised by the plucky, endearing Herbie in the 1968 Disney movie The Love Bug. Astonishing, then, to discover that the Beetle was conceptualised by no less a person than Adolf Hitler who, while in prison during the 1920s for his unsuccessful putsch, dreamt of a way to solve Germany’s unemployment problem by building a series of straight roads (autobahns) for motor vehicles, and mass producing a car which the average man in the street would be able to buy.

By 1933, the Nazis having taken power, work began on those roads, while the following year, a Stuttgart-based design company, owned and run by eccentric engineer Ferdinand Porsche, was given the prestigious task of designing the ‘People’s Car’.

Hitler’s criteria for this vehicle of the future were that the car must be able to reach 62mph, run at 42 miles per gallon of fuel, and must be able to readily transport a family of four. The maximum acceptable price for such a vehicle was £86.

The design which matched these requirements had a rear engine, a backbone chassis and torsion bar front suspension, and it was based on a model Porsche had already built for Zundapp in 1931, though legend also tells that it was Hitler himself that suggested it should look like a beetle, due to the natural streamlining of the insect.

By 1938, with war looming in Europe, the long awaited factory was opened in the Saxon city of Fallersleben. Low level production continued during WWII but didn’t pick up until the Americans handed over the factory to British control in 1945. What happened next has entered the annals of automotive history because, when the British offered the production line to a range of existing manufacturers, they found themselves unanimously refused. An official report famously found that “the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car … it is quite unattractive to the average buyer … To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.”

It very nearly didn’t get built

It might have all ended there, and that would have been the end of the Volkswagen. Instead, Yorkshire born Ivan Hirst, a major in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers sent to dismantle the entire production line and ship out the machinery and tooling as reparations, became a great champion of the little car. Over the next few years Hirst re-commissioned machine tools, body presses and assembly jigs, even setting up a sales and service network. By 1952, the Beetle was being sold in 46 countries: its success a symbol of hope for the young republic edging out from the rubble of war.

There was a kind of synthesis between the story of the Beetle and how the post-war German people imagined themselves, as resilient, reliable and without pretension. By the late 1950s, the car had so endeared itself to the emerging American middle classes that auto magazines were using the phrase ‘Beetlemania’ to describe the phenomenon by which this quirky German import had captured the hearts of the most passionate car-loving nation in the world.

The last Beetle was produced in Mexico in 2003, by which time more than 21 million of these vehicles had come off the production line, over a period of 64 years.  Not only was it the first car ever to have outsold Ford’s Model T, but the fact that it did so with its roots in such a difficult period of German history just says a tremendous amount about the integrity of its design.

The Beetle is, of course, one of the key iconic designs in the Zeithaus collection at VW’s Autostadt, in Wolfsburg.

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