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Birth of the Beetle - Part Two

The evolution of what was the world's most popular car.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • Final of two part series
  • The evolution of the Volkswagen Beetle
  • One of the world's most significant cars
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This article was first published in 2008.

When the Volkswagen factory was handed back to the German people following the Second World War, the people's car was back on track to fulfil its original purpose - to bring motorised transport to a huge population.

As discussed in Part One of this series, the late 1940s saw little production of the Volkswagen due to limited parts supply and assembly capacity but by 1950, the car was on the crest of a wave; it was to cause a sensation in almost every world market.

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The basic layout and design of the Beetle remained virtually unchanged. The early '50s brought Bosch headlights, dual brake/taillights, exterior trim changes, wider tyres, improved suspension and brakes (now with hydraulic operation instead of cable) and minor engine tweaks. A mechanical and vacuum advance distributor was the biggest engine improvement. In 1953 a very noticeable styling change was implemented - the early split rear window was replaced by a single oval window (see pic).

A big power increase came in 1954 when engine capacity was increased to 1.2 litres and the cylinder heads, valves and carburettor improved. This lifted power to 36hp (27kW).

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By 1955 the one-millionth Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the production line; finally, it had achieved Hitler's original goal. Production remained solely in West Germany in the early years but as demand increased, manufacturing plants were built in Brazil, Mexico, Australia and America.

The late 1950s saw more detail changes to the original design. A hydraulic steering dampener (to reduce steering kick-back and vibration), a thermostatically controlled oil cooler and automatic choke were some of the most significant improvements. Semaphores (swing-out indicators) were replaced by flashing indicators for the US models in 1955 but other countries didn't make the switch until around 1960. The popular bumper bar over-riders appeared on the '56 model and the oval rear window was dismissed when a rectangular window arrived in 1958. Note that tubeless tyres also appeared on the Beetle by 1957 - a long way ahead of many other manufacturers.

The early 1960s saw the Beetle further improved in the area of power, emissions, comfort and safety.

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A safety recessed steering wheel, padded sun visors and improved seats were the biggest changes for the 1960 model. The next year, the engine compression ratio was increased to 7.0:1 which helped reach 40hp (30kW). Safety was massively improved approach in the mid '60s. Plastic taillights replaced the previous glass items, larger indicators were installed, seatbelt anchorages were fitted and the brakes were further improved. Visibility was enhanced thanks to a slightly larger windscreen and reduced thickness A pillars. The mechanicals were updated to include a positive crankcase ventilation system, full synchro gearbox and a pumped windscreen washer. Note that a 1.3 litre engine arrived in around 1966 bringing up to 50hp (37kW). This came together with further enhanced torsion bar suspension; still, the Beetle was widely criticised for its poor at-the-limit handling.

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The biggest design change for the Beetle came in 1967. The headlights were mounted vertically, the taillights were enlarged, bumper bars were revised and a 12 volt electrical system replaced the previous 6 volt arrangement. The engine was also available in a 1.5 litre capacity for an output of 53hp (40kW). A 'Z bar' was also fitted to the rear suspension and the track was widened in an attempt to improve handling.

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Later came new bumpers, a plastic dashboard, bigger brakes, larger taillights and the fuel filler was relocated from under the front hood to the front right guard. Front seat head restraints and an energy absorbing steering column were also introduced. Interestingly, the handling of all US-spec Beetles was massively improved in 1969 when the old swing-arm independent rear suspension was swapped for an across-the-range double joint axle system. Other countries had to wait for the new rear suspension.

Sales during the '60s were running at an all-time high. The '60s was also a decade that saw the little car become a symbol of hippie revolution - its unique appearance and quirky design were a major attraction for those wanting to 'rebel'. The Beetle was also immortalised thanks to the Disney series of 'Herbie' films.

But the '70s weren't so kind. The Volkswagen struggled with small updates which were no match for the new models arriving from Japan (such as the Datsun 1600).

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In 1970, two sets of air intake slots were added to the engine hood and a 57hp (43kW) 1.6 litre single port engine was made available to the US. The rest of the world continued with the existing 1.2, 1.3 and 1.5 litre engines. In 1971, the 1.5 was replaced by the 1.6 which was also made available in dual port guise – the highest output being 60hp (45kW). The '71 model was identified by its 'eyebrow' vents fitted behind the rear passenger window (which aid cabin ventilation).

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Also in 1971, the 'Superbug' was introduced with its MacPherson front struts. Standard Beetles carried on with old torsion bar front suspension. In Australia the Superbug came with a 1.6 engine and the standard Beetle came with a 1.3. In the US the Superbug and standard Beetle could be bought with the big 1.6.

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For 1972, the emission control system was improved in certain models. The theme continued in 1973 when US-spec 1.6 litre models went backward in power by a couple of horsepower. An alternator also replaced the generator. A curved windscreen and a smaller front hood, new seats, inertia reel seatbelts and the 'elephant foot' taillights (see pic) became standard. Safety was further addressed in 1974 with energy absorbing bumpers, smaller front head restraints (for better visibility) and a softer steering wheel.

Note that during the early '70s the Beetle overtook the Ford Model T as the most popular car ever manufactured; by far the Beetle's biggest achievement.

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Interestingly, an L-Jetronic fuel injected version of the big 1.6 litre engine was offered on certain Beetles in the US and Japan during 1975. Note that fuel injection was essential for the air-cooled engine to meet US emission standards. Fuel injected Beetles were identified by their 'fuel injection' badge on the engine cover - but they were nothing special with just 48hp (36kW)... By this time the steering had also been upgraded to a rack and pinion arrangement. But by the mid '70s it was obvious the popularity of the Beetle had passed its peak; a slump in sales meant 1975 was the last year for the Superbug in the US.

Only minor detail changes were executed over the next two years and the Beetle was axed in America during 1977. German production ended one year later (as the company focused its efforts on the Golf) and there was only one Beetle production facility remaining - the Mexico plant. Amazingly, the Beetle continued production in Mexico - where it served as the standard vehicle for taxi drivers - until 2003. The plant now produces the 'new age' Beetle, which had already been released globally by 1998.

In total, around 22 million of the original Volkswagen Beetles were sold - you could say that it surpassed everyone's expectations...

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