Saturday, August 12, 2006

Der VolksWagen Beetle Turns 60

Sitting at a restaurant table in Munich in the summer of 1932, Adolf Hitler designed the prototype for what would become the immensely successful Beetle design for Volkswagen (literally, the "car of the people"). In an era where only the most economic elite possessed cars, Hitler believed that all people should be able to own a car and additionally thought that a smart design could allow for reliability, enjoyment, and vacation travel.

Hitler gave his design to the head of Daimler-Benz, Jakob Werlin, and stressed its importance. "Take it with you and speak with people who understand more about it than I do. But don't forget it. I want to hear from you soon, about the technical details. You know what will happen to you if you don't."

The F├╝hrer in a KdF-Wagen in 1944, near the Wolfsschanze, East Prussia.

A handful of civilian-specific cars were produced, primarily for the Nazi elite, in the years 1940–1945, but production figures were small. A total of 669 wartime Kommandeurwagens were produced until 1945, when all production was halted due to heavy damage sustained in Allied air raids on the factory.

After the war, British army officer Major Ivan Hirst was ordered to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. His first task was to remove the unexploded bomb which had fallen through the roof and lodged itself between some pieces of irreplaceable production equipment; if the bomb had exploded, the VolksWagen's fate would have been sealed. Hirst persuaded the British military to order 20,000 of the cars, and in August 1946 the factory began producing 1,000 cars, now dubbed 'Beetles', a month.

Production of the beetle grew dramatically over the years, with the one-millionth car coming off the assembly line by 1954. The Beetle had superior performance in its category with a top speed of 72mph and 0-60mph in 27.5 seconds. The engine fired up immediately without a choke and could only be heard in the car when idling. It had excellent road-handling for a small car. It was economical to maintain and, for many, a joy to drive.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, innovative advertising campaigns and a glowing reputation for reliability and sturdiness helped production figures to surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T, when Beetle No. 15,007,034 was produced on September 18, 1971. By 2002 there had been over 21 million produced.

The Beetle has been regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement; and the obvious attributes of its unique and quirky design. From 1968 to 2005, a pearl white 1963 fabric sunroof Beetle with racing number "53" and red, white, and blue stripes named "Herbie" played a starring role in Disney's The Love Bug series.

To this day, in it's 60th year, the Beetle is regarded as one of the world's most beloved and respected automobiles. Very few 60 year-olds have had such a rich history and endured to the level of the beetle without losing their broad appeal. 60 year-olds around the world dream of inspiring in the youth of today with whimsy, caring and good old-fashioned reliability like the classic beetle. It is a rare 60 year-old who can give so much joy to so many people, remaining tough in the face of difficult times and taking little back in return.

If that 60 year old exists, I'd like to meet him.

Happy Birthday Dad.