Punch buggy red! No punch backs!
What road trip with children would be complete without a competition to spot the increasingly rare Volkswagen Beetle out the window before anyone else does? The game could become a lot more challenging in the future as the last of this iconic car model rolled off the assembly line in July of 2019.
A Brief History in New Models
The Beetle has a remarkable and slightly sinister origin story. The first Beetle was commissioned by Adolf Hitler as a people’s car — which is volks wagen in German. Although there are rough sketches in existence said to have been drawn by Hitler himself, the first Beetle was designed by Ferdinand Porsche — yes, that Porsche.
The much-loved original Type 1 model had many minor technical improvements but stayed virtually unchanged style-wise for almost six decades. With the air-cooled engine located in the rear of the car, the Volkswagen was intended to be an economical vehicle for ordinary German families. The start of World War II halted prototyping and production except for military personnel use, and following the war Americans and then the British took control of the Volkswagen factory.
It was then that large-scale production began in Europe. By 1956, over a million of the compact, rounded cars — nicknamed the Bug — had been sold for export. Factories in Mexico, Brazil and Australia also began producing the car in the 1950s, including the popular convertible variant.
In 1959, the award-winning advertising campaign Think Small was created to promote the Beetle to the masses. It ran counter to the prevailing idea that bigger was better when it came to automobiles in the post-war era — and it was incredibly successful. By the time production ceased on the Type 1 in 1979 — or more accurately by then the Type 30 — millions of people around the world were driving a VW Bug, which was more than had purchased the previously best-selling Model T Ford.
Production of the Beetle was mostly moved to Puebla, Mexico, in the 80s, and it was from here that the fully redesigned New Beetle was launched in 1997. Cosmetically it resembled the original, but the mechanical platform was closer to that of the hatchback VW Golf — known in North America as the Rabbit —unveiled in 1974. In a reference to the car’s association with the sixties, a flower vase was built into the dashboard. But the engine was located more conventionally in the front, and a number of up-to-date safety features were added.
Despite yet another grand return and restyle in 2011 of a Mexico-produced second-generation New Beetle, sales of the VW Bug continued to decline under stiff competition in the compact car market from Toyota and Honda. It didn’t help that the company was plagued by scandals throughout the 2000s, most notably dieselgate, during which Volkswagen company officials admitted to cheating on North American emissions tests. The scandal led to huge penalties and a world-wide loss of trust in the brand.
The Beetle in Popular Culture
With its charming profile and modest size, the VW Beetle has starred in its fair share of Hollywood movies and television series. Entertainment types discovered early on that the Beetle had a natural appeal for young children.
In 1968, Disney released the first of a series of movies featuring a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle called Herbie. Complete with racing stripes, the number 53 and an attitude, the anthropomorphized character raised the profile of the brand even further across North America. In addition to the theatrical releases of The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie Goes Bananas and Herbie: Fully Loaded, a five-part television series called Herbie, the Love Bug aired on CBS in 1982. Spinoffs in merchandising, comic books and animated shorts helped introduce the VW brand and the Beetle model to a new generation.
In 1998, comedian Mike Myers drove a 60s-inspired, multicolored version of the New Beetle in the movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It was known as The Shag Mobile.
This periodic pop culture referencing combined with a fan base that exhibits cult-like loyalty in classic car clubs and automobile associations has kept the VW Beetle in the public consciousness like no other vehicle.
The End Is At Hand
The last new VW Beetle was assembled at the Puebla production facility in July of 2019. The stonewashed-blue model — painted as an homage to the Blue Jeans Beetle from the 70s — is destined for the Volkswagen Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany, where it will join other classic models on display including the equally iconic VW camper van and various prototypes from the early 20th century.
Though that final Beetle marks the end of an extended 81-year era and a multitude of changes in the social, economic and car-technology landscapes, VW Group of America president and CEO, Hinrich J. Woebcken, was quoted as saying “Never say never” when asked if the Beetle would return in some shape or form. Diehard fans can continue to hope.