The fascinating history of the Volkswagen Beetle could take up far more than a 30-minute podcast. It’s one of the most-built, best-selling, most-modified, loved and nicknamed cars on the planet.
What other vehicle has a childhood game named after it? I can’t think of one… if you can please let me know!
All incredible things must come to an end. Yes, 2019 marks the end of the road for the Slugbug, the Bug, the original Volkswagen, the Type 1 – the Beetle. The last of the new Volkswagen Beetles are already hard to come by but if you can get your hands on one my bet is they are worth way more than whatever you pay for one in just a handful of years.
Click play below and check out the massive number of Beetle pics while you listen to the long storied history of the Beetle. Originals, restores, modifies, off-road, racers… even a see-through wrought iron Beetle for weddings!
And if you want to buy one of the last of the new Beetles just contact our friends at Ontario Volkswagen. This special podcast is brought to you – commercial free as always – by them!
Recorded November 27, 2018, @ the LA Auto Show Press Days
The People’s Car – Type 1 – History of Volkswagen’s Beetle
Mark Gillies: Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned by the German government in the 30s to build a vehicle that would be usable by families on the new network of Autobahn.
The government actually took deposits for these cars and built very, very few of them before the war. The first actual Volkswagens themselves were made in 1946. Volkswagen stands for “people’s car”.
Originally it wasn’t called the Beetle, it was the Type 1.
An Introduction – History of Volkswagen Beetle
Tom Smith: Welcome to iDriveSoCal, the podcast all about mobility from the automotive capital of the United States, southern California. Tom Smith here and I am excited to be joined by Mark Gillies.
Am I getting the name right?
Mark: You are indeed, yes.
Tom: As you can hear by the accent, he’s not from southern California. Mark is D.C. based now but from England. We are at Automobility LA, which is the press days of the LA Automotive Show. Mark is the Senior Manager of Product Communications for Volkswagen of America. I got that right as well, right?
Mark: You did, yes you did.
“The topic that we’re talking about here is the history of the Volkswagen’s Beetle, the iconic, the legendary, the special place in everybody’s heart whether slug bug, Beetle bug, what have you.”
Tom: Fantastic. The topic that we’re talking about here is the history of the Volkswagen Beetle, the iconic, the legendary, the special place in everybody’s heart whether slug bug, Beetle bug, what have you.
Mark, thanks for joining me. I know you got a very busy schedule. We’re on the LA Auto Show floor and it’s being set up right now, so we’re literally in Volkswagen’s inner sanctum thing of their booth and there’s construction all around us getting ready for the LA Auto Show. It’s an exciting place to be right now.
VW’s Beetle Readies to Drive Into History
Mark: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s always fun when you’re doing the setup. Although, you’re a bit worried you’re going to get run over by a forklift truck or trip over a piece of wood and break your neck.
Tom: Well thanks again for joining me. Let’s talk about the history of the Volkswagen Beetle… By the way, I like to bring you behind the scenes with all things media as it pertains to mobility as well automotive, and tomorrow for the press Volkswagen is putting on breakfast with the Beetle.
Is that something that you’re coordinating Mark, by chance, or you’re going to be participating in I’m sure?
Breakfast with The Beetle
Mark: I’ve been involved in a bit of it. Every year they do a kickoff for the automotive media and people are actually at the show. It’s a bunch of food trucks and a themed display.
This year we took it over and we’ve got about 40 vintage and modern Beetles with some owners coming along. We’ve got some pretty cool cars of our own dating back to 1946. We’ll have those on the show.
Tom: That is going to be something… that’s something just for the press or will the public be able to see that at any point during the show?
Mark: No, the public won’t be able to see that. All they’ll be able to see on the stand is we’ll have a couple of old vehicles on the show stand.
Tom: Well if you’re listening to this iDriveSoCal podcast, as always, be sure to go to iDriveSoCal.com, check out the post on the podcast.
We will be sure to post pictures of all those awesome Beetles that are going to be on display for the press exclusively tomorrow. History of the Volkswagen Beetle from the drawing board.
Porsche Behind the Historic VW Beetle
Mark: The drawing board, basically Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned by the German government in the 30s to build a vehicle that would be usable by families on the new network of Autobahn, which were the high-speed autoroutes that they were building at the time. It was originally called the KdF-Wagen.
KDF stands for Kraft durch Freude or strength through joy. The government actually took deposits for these cars and built very, very few of them before the war. Essentially, the factory was in place in a town called KdF Stadt. The allies basically bombed it pretty heavily in World War II because it’s in northern Germany in the industrial heartland.
After the war, one of the great ironies is that after the war the British army led by a Major Hirst rebuild the factory because it has been bombed. There were holes in the ceiling and all that kind of stuff.
The first actual Volkswagens themselves were made in 1946. Volkswagen stands for “people’s car”. Actually, the town of Volksberg was actually only called Volksberg after World War II. It’s named after a castle in the town. The car was only called Volkswagen after World War II.
“The People’s Car” Began the History of VW’s Beetle
Tom: So, the car is named after a town and a castle or…
Mark: No, no.
Tom: …which came first?
Mark: The town is named after the castle, which is Volksberg and the car is just named Volkswagen, the “people’s car”.
Tom: Okay, but when looking at the history of Volkswagen Beetle, one could draw the name of the car all the way back to the castle…
Mark: Not really, no.
Tom: …the Volks part. No?
Mark: No. The thing is when you look at Volksberg addition or even early Beetles you’ll see the Volksberg crest on the steering wheel…
Tom: I’ve seen that.
Mark: …for instance.
Tom: Yeah, very cool. Sorry to interrupt, carry on.
Mark: That was the basic genesis behind the Beetle as it’s now called. Originally it wasn’t called the Beetle, it was the Type 1.
History of Volkswagen Beetle’s Simple Design
Mark: The Type 1 that Ferdinand Porsche designed was relatively simple. It’s got like a backbone chassis or semi-backbone chassis with a flat-four air-cooled engine.
It’s got a swing axle rear suspension and a semi-trailing arm front suspension. Actually, if you look at the front suspension it’s the same as we used on the Auto Union Grand Prix. It’s like Ferdinand Porsche Type IFS.
Mark: The car was very, very simple. It was designed to be cheap to maintain, cheap to build, cheap to run. Bulletproof liability was part of the deal.
Tom: ’46 was the first production but it was on plan before that, right?
Mark: Correct, yeah.
Tom: Then how long was it produced in Europe before it maybe even made its way to the U.K. before it made its way to North America and the United States specifically?
Mark: Well the first two made their way to the States in 1949. A Dutch guy called Ben Pon brought the cars over. Allegedly, he sold them to pay his bills basically. Ben Pon’s very interesting because he’s the guy who supposedly sketched the first microbus. The first microbus basically took Beetle running gear and, as we all know, you’ve got that lovable van on wheels.
The Original Platform Design
Mark: One of the funny things that we’ve discovered with the history of the Volkswagen Beetle is that basically if you think about it everybody talks about platform design nowadays, Volkswagen was doing that back in the ’50s with the Beetle, which was the Type 1. Then you had the Type 2, which is a microbus.
You had the Type 3, which is the 1500, the notchback, and the coupe, and the fastback. You also had the common gear and they’re all based on the same running gear basically. That’s one interesting aspect.
The first ones came to the States in ’49 and then Max Hoffman who’s a…
You Can Thank Ben Pon and Max Hoffman for Volkswagen’s Historic Beetle
Tom: Sorry, real quick. You said literally what was his name again? Pon?
Mark: Pon, P-O-N, Ben Pon.
Tom: Ben Pon, he brought two to the United States?
Mark: Yes he did.
Tom: How does one just bring two vehicles to the… Was he just a guy that went to Europe, bought a couple of cars, brought them here and sold them?
Mark: No, he was a Dutch importer, but he was actually, funnily enough, before this show I did a little bit of research with our history department…
Tom: Thank you.
Mark: Well no, it transpires that he was actually if not in the pay of Volkswagen AG in Germany, but they definitely knew what he was up to and they were helping him with some of the costs of bringing the cars to the States.
He kind of failed, but then Max Hoffman who was a very well-known business, an importer in New York, started bringing them in. Then Volkswagen looked at this whole scheme in 1955 and decided well actually we’ll set up a national sales company. Volkswagen, the national sales company, has been around for more than 60 years now.
History of The Beetle: Coming to America
Tom: So that’s VW of…
Mark: Of America.
Tom: …of America who you work for currently?
Mark: Exactly, yeah.
Tom: Ben and then Max, that was clearly a business scheme, business plan in the works. They were trying to penetrate the United States market, right? Or was it more organic and kind of accidental?
Mark: No, no, they were trying to see if there was demand there. Obviously, by 1955 the parent company had seen there was demand there.
One of the amazing things with the history of the Volkswagen Beetle is I can’t remember off the top of my head how many countries it was built in, but it was one of the most assembled vehicles everywhere in the world.
Even if they didn’t have a factory building them in places there were these CKD or knockdown kits that were put together in places like Ireland. I think even in places like Iran.
Viva La Mexico
Tom: I work very closely with one particular Volkswagen dealer, Ontario Volkswagen here in Los Angeles suburb of Ontario, California, they have some super hardcore Volkswagen guys that work both on the sales and service side of things that have multiple VWs.
The service guy, Jimmy Willhide, was telling me that for a short… because Volkswagen has been available as a new production car here in the United States on and off for many, many years.
Jimmy was telling me a bit about the history of the Beetle, and that for a while when Volkswagen Beetles weren’t here, and Beetle specifically, I don’t know if I just clarified that, but Beetles specifically while they weren’t available in the United States for some time you could just cross the border into Mexico and go buy a Beetle that was that current year. Can you speak to that at all?
Volkswagen Beetle Availability in Mexico
Mark: Yeah, sure. One of the things about the final addition we’re showing here is that a couple of the colors are based on the Ultima Edicion Beetle that was built in 2003, which was the last year they were built in Mexico.
Actually, they were building Beetles in Mexico in the ’60s until 2003, which is why you could, if you wanted to, if you really wanted to give yourself a hard time you could go to Mexico and buy one.
Tom: That’s how hardcore these guys are.
Mark: Those Beetles, we’ve got one in our collection, and they’re really cool because they’re a lot less spartan than the Beetles that came to the States. They’ve got more amenities than even the last editions that came to the U.S.
History of VW Beetle’s American Invasion
Tom: Quick sidebar with the history of the Beetle- the Beetle came to the United States in ’49 with Ben and then Max started bringing them in more official regular quantity or velocity.
Tom: What year was that again?
Mark: From memory, I think it was-
Mark: …about ’52, somewhere around there.
Tom: Do you know when the first Volkswagen dealership came about in the United States?
Mark: I don’t, to be honest. But once VW is set up in 1955 then most of the dealers would have starting popping up around then.
Tom: Now another quick sidebar, when Volkswagen started coming was it just the Beetle or was the Type 2, as we know the Bus, also part of that equation or when did that become…
Mark: The Type 2 came around the same time because the first transporters were built in I think 1950. The one we’ve got on the stand I think is a ’53.
VW Type 1 & Type 2
Tom: By transporter you mean?
Mark: Type 2.
Mark: That’s the panel van version of the microbus.
Tom: Got it, okay.
Mark: Typically, the microbus was never really called the microbus anywhere except the States. If you look at catalogs dating from the first days of the official importing, Type 1 and Type 2 were offered at the same time.
Tom: Now, the Beetle here in the States was what did we say ’49 was when it Ben brought it-
Tom: …and then Max started to do it in ’52-ish. When was the first time that it wasn’t… because that was a long stretch that it was available?
History of the Volkswagen Beetle: A Brief Timeline
Then there was a little pocket that it wasn’t and then another spurt of sales. Do you know when it was on and off sale here in the United States specifically?
Mark: From when Hoffman was selling it, it was basically on sale from ’49 until the late ’70s. Then obviously, there was a hiatus until you get to the new Beetle in 1998, which obviously is the retro-inspired front-wheel drive, front-engine car that we remember. Actually, that car was on sale until we were selling the last ones in 2010.
Tom: Oh wow.
Mark: The current generation went on sale in 2011. Officially it’s gone out of production by 2010 but there was still some vehicles on lots.
Tom: It was back in the day original it was rear-wheel drive, rear engine.
Tom: Then when it went away in the late-70s, came back in early-80s as front-wheel drive, front engine until 2010. Then it came back and that’s what’s available on the road right now, right?
Final Edition Volkswagen Beetle
Tom: In dealerships right now. That is actually, correct me if I’m wrong, is that a Golf platform?
Mark: It’s not the current Golf platform, but it’s the previous Golf platform. There are two designations of platform for our compact cars in the states.
One is the so-called PQ platform. PQ underpins the Beetle. The more modern platform which came in on the Golf in 2012 is the MEB platform. It’s a slightly older platform, but it’s essentially the same as Golf. It was also a shared platform with SEATS, Skodas, and some Audis as well.
The Historic Beetle is Going Extinct
Tom: Now we’re rounding the third base here on 2018 going into 2019, the Beetle is going to be available in the United States while supplies last.
Do we have an estimated time because by the time we’re this time next year there’s not going to be any more Beetles in dealerships, right?
Mark: No, well there shouldn’t be because basically, the end of production is some point I think at the moment around July 2019. The 2019 model year is the final Beetle.
That’s one of the reasons we brought out the final edition to commemorate the fact that the car’s on its way out.
Tom: The 2019s are they available in dealerships right now?
Mark: They are, yeah.
Tom: Let’s talk about, I think there’s just a couple of trims available and they’re special, as you just mentioned. Could you talk a little about that?
Mark: Yeah, sure. There are two trim lines of Final Edition. There’s the SE and the SEL. Both are available as convertible and coupe. Basically, the hark back again to the past. We’ve got a couple of special colors, there’s a blue and a beige.
History of the Beetle: The Retro VW Bug
Tom: That are the retro kind of feeling colors.
Mark: Yeah, but they also mimic the Mexican final editions of the original Beetle. There’s a lot of chrome on them. There’s cool wheels.
We’ve got quilted leather in the SEL and quilted cloth. Which is an interesting one because the product planner for Beetle way back when… when the car was around in 2012. He always wanted to put Bentley-type seats in. Unfortunately, he’s not around but he’s got his wish eventually.
Tom: Not around at the company or not around on the planet anymore?
Mark: Not around in the company actually.
Tom: Oh okay, but he’s still alive to know that it’s happening?
Mark: Yeah, yeah, he’s a big VW fan. He actually runs a website that does car reviews and pricing basically.
The ’18 Dune
Tom: Oh okay, there you go. The trims, was the Dune a 2018 or was that at 2019?
Mark: That was a ’17 I think.
Tom: A ’17?
Tom: Okay, I just saw my first one on the road not too long ago.
Mark: Hang on, I get confused sometimes, but-
Tom: It’s got a special interior and exterior. It-
Mark: No, it was two years ago, so it would have been… No, you’re right, it’s ’18, it would have been ’18, yeah.
Tom: I want to say I just saw one of those at my friends out at Ontario Volkswagen and that car was really cool because it is retro and it’s kind of interesting because that is retro of the dune buggy, but the dune buggy was never something that Volkswagen actually made.
VW Dune Buggy
It was just something that the hardcore enthusiasts of the vehicle did with it, right, here in southern California.
Mark: Absolutely. The idea behind the Dune was to try and capture a little bit of the vibe of the Baja Bugs. Of course, VW had nothing to do with Baja Bugs back in the 60s or to do with Meyers Manx either, of course, which was Bruce Meyers’ dune buggy built off a VW floor pan.
Historic Special Edition Volkswagen Beetles
Mark: One of the cool things about this vehicle that the current third-generation Beetle all the way along is we wanted to do some special additions to try and keep the interest in the vehicle alive.
The Dune was one. We did the pink Beetle. We also did a GSR version, which stands for Gelb Schwarzer Renner… yellow racer. That was an invocation of a classic 70s limited edition, I would say really sporty Beetle, but more of a boy racer that was available in Germany.
But it’s very highly prized now because they’ve made very few them and it’s got this very distinctive yellow and black paint scheme and really cool Porsche style wheels.
Tom: This is a total history of the Beetle trivia question you couldn’t have prepared for, but maybe you now. What is the most valuable Beetle, market value, that you’ve ever heard of? I know obviously the market fluctuates with all the various factors that impact the market, but there is some pretty… Do you know?
Mark: It’s difficult to know. I’ve seen some really big numbers quoted for really, really early cars, i.e. pre-war vehicles, so anything pre-war or anything built during the war because they were used as military staff cars in the war.
Most Valuable VW Beetles in History
Tom: We talking hundreds of thousands, are we talking…
Mark: You’re talking multiple hundreds-of-thousands is what people…
Tom: Are we getting to seven figures, are we getting into a million, or not quite?
“…really early ’40s cars they’re getting into the $100,000 plus range, maybe up to $200,000.”
Mark: I’ve seen people asking half a million-plus for those. Some of the really early cars, really early ’40s cars they’re getting into the $100,000 plus range, maybe up to $200,000.
Some of the more special things like we own a… convertible, which is a special bodied Beetle, like a Speedster. We also have a 1952 Carmen convertible that was a Berlin show car. Those cars they’re very, very rare, the early cars. Anything super early in good condition is six figures these days.
Tom: By “we” do you mean Volkswagen of America or you and your wife?
Mark: No, no, “we” as in the company.
Tom: Okay, gotcha, gotcha.
History of VW Beetle: A Cult-Like Following
Mark: You look at the history of the Beetle, and Volkswagen has a cult-like following and then the niche vehicles within Volkswagen, i.e. the Beetle, has that as well. The fact that Volkswagen came out with a Dune. I think really illustrates that; because here’s the company over here putting out a product that gets so well received that it gets a fan base that does this crazy stuff with it. And then a few decades later the company says, hey, you know what?
What our crazy fan base did, not crazy in a bad way, crazy in a good way, we’re going to actually add to that and put it out as something new. With that in mind, it illustrates the popularity of the Beetle.
Will the Volkswagen Beetle Return?
Obviously, it’s going away right now because maybe it’s not selling so good, whatever, but my bet, and we talked about this off-mic just a minute, and I told you I was going to bring it back because you’re going to get this a lot.
When is the Beetle coming back because there’s too much there?
Mark: Well we’ve been basically saying all the way along this is the end of the Beetle. We would never say never.
I think if you look at the ID Buzz that we showed in Detroit last year, which is a full-electric vehicle, that’s a reincarnation of the microbus. There’s nothing in the plans for sure and I see the cycle plans, but I’d never say never. That’s as far as you can go.
Is the Historic VW Beetle Going Electric?
Tom: That’s what some other such as myself that are kind of in this space like okay, the Bus is going to come out all-electric, that means the Beetle’s getting to come out all-electric as well.
But even if that’s … Perhaps, would you tell me because it’s just me and you talking here Mark, that’s it.
Mark: If I knew I might, but I don’t know.
Tom: All right, I believe you. I believe you. Well hey, Mark, thank you so much. Mark Gillies, right?
Tom: Senior Manager Product Communications, Volkswagen of America here at Automobility LA. Before I completely wrap it up officially is there anything else that you’d like to add about the Beetle that we didn’t touch on?
Most Built Single Platform Ever – History of Volkswagen Beetle
Mark: The one thing that we didn’t touch on while talking about the history of the Beetle is it’s actually the most built single platform car ever if you think about it.
The Model T was the most manufactured car until the Beetle came along and Ford built 15 million of those. Volkswagen has built more than 20 million Beetles in the lifetime of the car.
Other manufacturers will say, “We built more Corollas” and I think we say, “We built more Golfs” but nobody’s built more of one actual iteration of a car if you get…
Tom: The Beetle.
Tom: When you put the rear-engine, rear-wheel drive, plus the front-engine, front-wheel drive, plus the Golf version…
Mark: No, no, I’m talking-
Tom: …and globally.
Mark: No, I’m just talking about the first edition is the…
Tom: Oh, really?
Mark: …single most cars built off a single platform basically. When you look at the new Beetle we made about 1.2 million of those and to date we’ve made somewhere around half a million of the third generation.
When it comes to single most built car in its own iteration… because all other manufacturers say, “We’ve built 23 million” I don’t know Civics or whatever. But that’s seven or eight different cars, whereas the Beetle was always essentially one car.
Tom: When you say “we” are you speaking in those numbers the half-million number that you just put out, was that just Volkswagen of America or is that global?
Mark: That’s global, yeah.
Tom: All in, globally, the Beetle has sold how many units?
Mark: Just from memory it’s around 22.5-23 million. And it’s not coming back, come on, come on Mark. All right, well cool.
VW Beetle While Supplies Last!
Tom: Now is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Mark: That was it I think.
Tom: All right, because I’m certain that there’s plenty of people that want to hear anything else that you have to share about the iconic history of Volkswagen Beetle?
History of Volkswagen Beetle: An Iconic Car
Mark: I think we always talk about it, its iconic, people love the shape, and there have been so many things done with it over the years like contests to see how many people you can get in a Beetle.
People have floated them across seas, like the Irish Sea. I don’t think there’s much that hasn’t been attempted in a Beetle. It’s one of those cars it’s a great, great car. It’s just fair to say it’s a complete automotive icon.
I work for a company and I’m paid to say things like that, but again, I’m also a real car nut. I have lots of cars of my own and that’s one of the great things about the car is anybody around the world can recognize it.
It’s actually funny because I was in South Africa at the weekend just on a whim to race an old car. You still see Beetles there, but what’s more interesting is I’ve never seen as many Golfs in one town in my life as there were in East London and South Africa.
A car enthusiast is a car enthusiast everywhere and we’re rolling out the circuits and there’s all these young kids, multi-cultural kids rolling in with their slammed Golfs with wide tires and whatever. I think the Golf, to a certain the spirit of the Beetle lives on a little bit in the Golf with the… generation.
VW Beetles Make People Happy
Tom: Sure. As you were just explaining that, the Beetle just, especially the older ones, when people see them, and especially one that’s well maintained it makes people smile.
They have a yellow one out here near the entrance the auto show. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. It’s not even a Volkswagen promotion, it’s a rental company, Turo, the rental company where I own a car, I can put it on their platform, peer-to-peer car rental.
It’s a Turo add but it’s just a yellow Beetle. I saw three different people, younger people, probably 20s, run up and taking selfies with the Beetle. I guarantee they’re not taking selfies because it has the Toro banner in the windshield.
Senior Manager Product Communications. I always want to get that turned around. Senior Manager Product Communications, Volkswagen America. Thank you so much, I really appreciate you joining me. Beetle, literally, get them while supplies last, right?
VW Beetle – Coming To a Theater Near You
Mark: Pretty much. There’s a movie coming out as well soon, December the ninth, where the Beetle is the main character but I can’t tell you more than that.
Tom: Come to the LA Auto Show and you’ll be greeted by the main character, I think. All right, well fantastic. Mark, thank you. Very much appreciated. For iDriveSoCal I am Tom Smith. Thank you as always for tuning in.