“It runs, and runs, and runs, and runs,” proclaimed a famous 1960s German advert for the Volkswagen Beetle. While the slogan was both a nod to the car’s reliability and its runaway global success, the ad-men behind it could not have guessed that some 50 years later, the scarab–shaped vehicle would still be rolling off production lines.
Although the new Beetle has been reworked from the ground up, it still draws heavily on the design of the original, a vehicle that is now as much a cultural icon as a mode of transport.
But suppose for a moment that the VW Beetle had never existed – would the world have missed this vehicle with the impish grin formed by the bonnet and bug-eyed headlights?
The scenario is not as unlikely as it might first seem. The VW Beetle could easily have never risen from the ashes of World War Two in the way it did.
The original designs for the Beetle can be traced back to the dark days of Nazi rule in Germany. In 1934, Adolf Hitler instructed the German automobile manufacturers to produce an inexpensive family car that could be afforded by ordinary working citizens. The job of designing this Volkswagen – meaning “people’s car” – was given to the racing car engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who later went on to found his own company.
At the Berlin Motor Show in 1935, Hitler announced the completion of the initial designs for the car that he named the Kraftdurch Freude Wagen, or ‘Strength Through Joy Car’. The Nazi leader’s interest in the vehicle was such that he even contributed his own sketch of what he felt the vehicle should look like, although it only has a passing resemblance to the final designs.
A factory was built in the city of Fallersleben in Lower Saxony, which would later become known as Wolfsburg, but only a handful of vehicles were finished. The outbreak of war in 1939 halted production and the factory was instead used to churn out military vehicles.
Allied bombing heavily damaged the factory and at the end of the war it passed into the hands of the British Occupation Forces, who sent a Yorkshire-born British Army Officer called Major Ivan Hirst to reopen it. Under his direction, production of the KdF-Wagen restarted, although it was given a new name – the Volkswagen Type 1.
“Hirst initially wanted to bring the KubelWagen, which the factory had been producing during the war, back into production,” says Richard Copping, a car historian who met Hirst shortly before he died in 2000. “The bodies for those vehicles were constructed by another company in Berlin called Ambi Budd which was in the Soviet zone [of occupied Germany]. So Hirst saw parts of these other funny-looking cars around the factory and decided to get it going producing them instead.”
It was not until 1948, with the appointment of a new director, Heinz Nordhoff, that production of what was to become known as the Beetle really took off. By 1955, one million of the cars had rolled off the production line and German roads buzzed with the little VWs. Within 17 years production had soared to more than 15 million, making it the world’s best-selling car at the time. Over the decades that followed, that would climb to reach more than 21 million.
The VW Beetle took a considerable chunk of the market away from others who may still be around today – Richard Copping, historian
“If it hadn’t been for the British, the Beetle may never have been produced in the first place,” says Copping, who has written a number of books about the Beetle and Volkswagen. “But if it hadn’t been for Heinz Nordhoff, the Beetle wouldn’t have conquered the world.”
And if it hadn’t, there were other vehicles waiting in the wings to takes its place as a quirky, affordable family car.
Before the war, the Czechoslovakian car-maker Tatra had been producing a mid-class saloon car called the Type 97 that shared many characteristics with the Beetle. Its designer Hans Ledwika is widely credited with having inspired many of the early designs produced by Porsche and in 1965 Volkswagen paid Tatra more than 1 million Deutsche Marks (about £85,000 at the time) in damages over the issue.
Following the war Tatra was nationalised and began producing a new rear–engined family car called the Tatra 600, which although larger than the Beetle, still shared some of its style. It would continue to be produced until 1952, but never found much of an export market.
French car manufacturer Citroen was also working on its own austere, snail–shaped family car in the aftermath of World War Two – the Deux Chevaux, or 2CV. It was a car so stripped back initially, that early models came with only one headline and tail light, yet the 2CV cost only two-thirds the price of the VW Beetle. Cash-strapped Citroen was never able to put enough investment behind the vehicle and only 3.8 million were produced during its 40 years of manufacture.
The British also had their own Beetle competitors – the Morris Minor, which debuted in 1948. Although dismissed by the company’s owner as resembling a “poached egg”, it became the first British car to sell more than a million units in 1959. The Minor’s designer Alec Issignois had originally wanted to put the engine in the rear, like the Beetle, but the company accountants objected.
“The VW Beetle took a considerable chunk of the market away from others who may still be around today,” says Copping.
Yet, while each of these vehicles could have filled some of the gap left by the Beetle if it had not been produced, they lacked an important quality – the Beetle’s build quality itself.
The rear–mounted engine was cooled by air rather than water, meaning it did not freeze in cold weather and so could be kept outside
The VW Beetle’s reputation for reliability, sturdiness and workmanship were instrumental in turning it into a run-away success. Porsche’s design meant the car could be easily serviced but also did not need a garage to keep it in. The rear-mounted engine was cooled by air rather than water, meaning it did not freeze in cold weather and so could be kept outside.
“Requiring little maintenance and few repairs, the Volkswagen was deemed ‘the best car on the market’ because it proved cheap to operate in the long term,” says Bernhard Reiger, a professor of European industrial history at University College London.
In his book The People’s Car, Reiger describes how these qualities came to symbolise the wider German “economic miracle” that saw the country transform from a ruined state into a prosperous society in just 20 years.
Thanks to the Beetle, VW went from employing a workforce of 8,719 in 1948 to more than 78,000 by 1962. It also helped to restore confidence in the Made in Germany label, something that still carries the hallmarks of quality and reliability to this day.
“After 1945, the Beetle more than any other automobile pushed ahead mass motorisation in the Federal Republic (of Germany), turning the dream of individual car ownership into a reality for millions during the 1950s and 1960s,” says Reiger. “With more than 21 million sales worldwide, VW's export success helped restore West Germany on the global economic stage.”
Certainly, it is not hard to imagine that without the Beetle, Germany could have become a very different place to the one it is today. But the “Love Bug’s” reach extends far further than its home country.
“If there had been no Beetle, there would have been no Volkswagen,” says Copping. “While the company might have a tarnished reputation at the moment as a result of the diesel scandal, since the 1960s it has been a key world player.”
The Beetle was instrumental to bringing VW to the world stage. By 1952 it was being sold in 46 countries and over the years it has been produced on assembly lines in 14 countries outside Germany. Today Volkswagen is the biggest car manufacturer in the world, producing 10.3 million cars last year.
It was a car that appeared to be authentic because it wasn’t trying – Deyan Sudjic, Design Museum
Much of its success can be attributed to a clever advertising campaign by the New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, which coined the slogan “Think Small”, helped to sell the car in the United States and turn it into the biggest selling foreign–made car in America in the 1960s. The effect was seismic on the US car industry, which until then had been dominated by big, flashy, gas-guzzlers being churned out by the big Detroit–based automobile manufacturers like Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. These cars sported lashings of chrome and tailfins of ridiculous proportions.
“Then along comes this little car that starts eating into their market, so the big US car producers began producing their own small cars,” says Copping. This was to change the course of the American car market, leading to a new generation of compact cars and remains one of the most competitive areas of the modern global automobile.
But the Beetle also had a wider impact on America. Due to its eccentric looks but simple design, it became a favourite among those in the US counterculture. It was affordable but also unconventional.
“It was a car that appeared to be authentic because it wasn’t trying,” says Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. “It was the absolute opposite of the high–rise tail fins coming out of Detroit. Instead, the Beetle was a bit like wearing a beret – you could show you were a serious kind of person by not being seduced by the mainstream.”
What would California’s hippies have used to express their individualism without the Beetle and its cousin the VW Microbus? And what car would Walt Disney have chosen to anthropomorphise in the star role of Herbie in its 1968 hit film The Love Bug – and the five sequels – if it hadn’t had the choice of the Beetle’s bug eyes and goofy grin?
But it is possible the Beetle’s influence on our modern lives may be deeper than we think.
“There is a continuity that runs through German design that can be seen in the Beetle,” says Sudjic. “It is one of simple lines and with decoration stripped away. Dieter Rams, the influential product designer for Braun, was one of those who strongly believed in this.”
While there is little to suggest Rams was influenced directly by the design of the Beetle, he appeared to have shared the idea of form following function typified in VW’s Beetle. Sudjic points to another leading designer who has employed a similar approach to the products he works on – Apple’s chief design office Sir Jonathan Ive, the man responsible for the iPod and iPhone.
It is probably too much of a leap to suggest that without the Beetle the world may also have missed out on Apple’s must-have products. But Sudjic thinks something more fundamental would have been missing from our world if the Love Bug – so named for its ability to bring couple’s together – had not existed.
“There probably would be far fewer babies conceived in the back seat of one," he chuckles.
To comment on and see more stories from BBC Designed, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can also see more stories from BBC Future on Facebook and Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.