1938 – 2003 (abridged)
The story of the Beetle has been told many times before, but let’s race through the salient points once again as a reminder of the lineage of the Last Edition cars.
KdF Wagen brochure
Ferdinand Porsche designed the Beetle as a ‘people’s car’ – a cheap, light and dependable utility vehicle affordable by all. Much of the early funding for the project was provided by Kraft durch Freude (KdF), a wing of Germany’s Nazi party. The KdF name translates into English as Strength through Joy, and the organization sought to motivate the German workforce through the provision of recreational activities and entertainment. With considerable encouragement from Nazi leader Adolph Hitler, KdF took over the Volkswagen project completely in 1938, with the intention of producing a car affordable by every working German. The price was set at an astonishingly low 990 Reichsmarks (about the cost of a small motorcycle), and a special savings scheme was set up to help workers put aside the money for their KdF-Wagens.
Major Ivan Hirst
The commencement of World War II put a halt to KdF’s scheme (along with the savings plan to which 336,668 people had entrusted their hopes of owning a car), and the factory was turned over to the production of munitions. By the end of the war, much of the factory had been destroyed, and demolition of the remainder was prevented largely by the vision and tenacity of British army major Ivan Hirst, who was assigned the task of controlling the area. Rather than merely guarding the bombed-out remains, Hirst got the factory back into vehicle production. Although Hirst initially intended to build military vehicles for the British forces, he decided instead to make use of the surviving tooling and parts for the KdF car. A prototype was built in military green, and the British army subsequently placed an order for the first 20,000 of these very basic Beetles.
In 1948, Heinz Nordhoff was appointed director of the Volkswagen factory. Nordhoff established a sales and service network, and the lifting of post-war export restrictions provided an essential influx of foreign exchange. Under Nordhoff’s leadership, VW grew rapidly, and by the end of the 1950s was the fourth largest motor manufacturer in the world.
Through its many years of production, the Beetle evolved in appearance and performance, but retained the same basic shape, and its unusual rear-mounted, aircooled engine design throughout. The vehicles were built in many locations around the world, and production peaked at over a million cars per year.
Beetle production in Mexico
Mexico was one of VW’s biggest markets for the Beetle in the latter years of production, and the cars were produced there from 1954, their simplicity and reliability being much appreciated by the local populace. However, as worldwide sales declined, Beetle factories facilities gradually closed down until by 2003, Puebla, Mexico was the only location where they were still being built. Sadly, all things must pass, and despite widespread fondness for the vocho (‘little kid’), even Mexico no longer provided sufficient sales to sustain production. Altogether, some 1.7 million Mexican Beetles were produced, but annual sales dwindled to under 30,000 in 2002. This was largely due to the North American Free Trade Agreement allowing competitors to flood the Mexican market with cheap, compact and arguably more modern cars. The final nail in the coffin came with a by-law passed in Mexico City in 2002, requiring all new taxis to be fitted with four doors. The Beetle was widely used in this capacity (usually with the front passenger’s seat removed for ease of access), but is effectively banned by the new edict.
In early 2003, Volkswagen confirmed the widely circulating rumour that Beetle production at Puebla would cease on the 30th of July.
The Last Edition Beetle
Volkswagen produced many ‘Special Edition’ Beetles over the years. Intended to boost sales, the Special Editions were limited production runs of cars distinguished by special cosmetic or performance features. A comprehensive list of editions, along with photos and model descriptions can be found at Colin Shinkin’s excellent SE Beetles website.
In this tradition, the very last batch of 3000 Beetles was designated the Última Edición (‘Last Edition’). Full details of the model’s defining characteristics can be found on the Specification page of this website.
The very last Last Edition Beetle
If you’re wondering what became of the very last Beetle to leave the production line (number 21,529,464 according to an article on the BBC News website), it was despatched to Volkswagen’s Automuseum, where it is to be displayed in a manner befitting its place in history.