A trip down memory lane in Volkswagen’s iconic Beetle

German auto giant Volkswagen (VW) pulled the plug and ended the production of the iconic Beetle only recently, with the last car rolling of a factory in Puebla, Mexico.

The car that was called the ‘Bug’, and a few other names, fondly over the years across the globe, was nothing short of extraordinary when it came in the 1930s. It took the automotive world by storm and even today, the cars that run on the road stay true to their origins.

But before all that, a quick lesson in history. The Model T from Ford had been making Americans a joyful lot. It had been on sale from the 20s of the 20th century and Hitler wanted the Germans to have some fun.

In April 1934, he gave the order to Porsche to develop a Volkswagen as in ‘people’s car’. Not stopping there, a month later at a meeting at Berlin’s Kaiserhof Hotel, Hitler insisted on a basic vehicle that could transport two adults and three children at 100 kph, while not using more than seven litres of fuel per 100 kilometres.

Now Adolf may have been a mass murderer, but he did have good foresight into the matter and he did think things through. For instance, Hitler wanted the car to be powerful so that it can cruise happily on Germany’s then new Autobahns (highway system). But crucially, he wanted the engine to be air-cooled because he reckoned (and rightly so) that not every doctor who could afford one would have his own garage to change the liquid cooling, which at that time was not developed and would freeze during winter, breaking the engine. He also insisted that the car be simple for parts can be quickly and inexpensively changed. The result was that a Beetle had only 14 bolts connecting the car’s floor and the body together.

The car eventually went on to become a big hit in the USA, where people, despite the enmity between the two nations during the second of the world wars, adopted the car as their own. To give an example as to how much they loved the Bug, one must look at beach buggies of today. While they might not have any resemblance to the Beetle, it was in fact the genesis.

When the American economy started booming, people had spare cash to buy new cars and the old Beetle’s, well they weren’t as fancy when they came after the war. A few started modifying the car, as it had very basic architecture.

After separating the floor and the running gear from the car, the blokes went on to put a new fibreglass body, high riding suspension and a couple of seats so that they could take the car to the beach and then drive about in it, in the beach. The blokes who created the beach buggy had specific criteria as to how the car should be designed. For example, the fenders were designed wide so that they could hold a beer crate without a problem. How brilliant was that!

With modern times, changes came in people’s preferences. Sales plummeted and VW had to come up with new ideas to keep the car shifting from showrooms. Having based it on the Golf platform, the second generation car simply became one that was preferred by the ladies, with the males not buying one for themselves. Something about the design did not attract a universal audience to the car. In India, it was more apparent.

The first generation however, still remains an icon, with over 21.5 million cars sold during its long…very long tenure. The Beetle changed automotive scenario in many different ways, but the most important one, according to me was that it kept things simple. When it came, cars were toys for rich lads and were expensive to maintain. The Beetle trashed that thought and every person with the know-how of how a car works could work on it, service it and maintain it.

I think the original Beetle is one where every aspiring mechanic should learn their trade. Not that it will help them of course, for future full of electric cars will make mechanics obsolete and put electricians to the fore. Nevertheless, it is good to learn the basics. If at all one wants to see the last Beetle ever produced, they should head to the Volkswagen museum in Puebla, Mexico and take a glimpse of the last remnant of the car that made history.

Praveen Kumar S