Volkswagen bug celebrates its golden anniversary

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

You'll recognize it with your eyes closed. Back in the 1960s and '70s it seemed to be everywhere. Indeed, it became one of the most recognizable shapes in the postwar world. And yes, you can still see a lot of them around when you drive down the road in your shiny-new '86-model automobile.

What are we talking about? The old Volkswagen beetle, the car that Hitler ordered built, designed to put the German people on wheels. In World War II it was even used as the German Army ``Jeep,'' which, in adapted form, was sold in the United States in the late 1960s as The Thing.

Ugly to some, a cuddly comfort to more, the once-ubiquitous Volkswagen beetle has just turned 50.

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The VW bug, or people's car, born in the depths of the Great Depression in 1935, was the creation of Prof. Ferdinand Porsche, who also gave his name to one of the world's great performance automobiles.

Often attacked as an unsafe car because of its size and rear-engine placement, the simplistic bug -- the early ones didn't even have a gas gauge -- went on to become the most-produced vehicle in automotive history and by 1972 took over the most-built title from Henry Ford's plain-jane Model T. (A mere 15 million Model T's were built in 20 years between 1907 and 1927.)

Ironically, Henry Ford's grandson, as head of the Ford Motor Company at the time, snubbed the bug when the war-razed factory was offered to him at the close of World War II. Instead, a prewar General Motors executive, Heinz Nordhoff, rebuilt the factory and put the beetle on the road.

In 1968 more than 400,000 of them were sold in the US alone. Some 20.6 million beetles have been produced since the first postwar model rolled off the assembly line in Wolfsburg, a skip and a jump from the East German border. The car is still being built in Mexico, Nigeria, and Brazil, although it was last sold in the US in 1977.

The VW beetle was good news and, in effect, bad news for its company.

Volkswagen, the corporation, has never completely moved away from the beetle image. That image, in fact, kept getting in the way of the bug's successor car, the Golf. The bug had an image of simple, high-quality German engineering and execution, while the early Golfs were fraught with problems. Although sold in the US as the Rabbit until a year ago, the beetle successor has never established the same rapport with its owners as did the bug.

For one thing, the beetle simply looked as if it needed a friend. You wanted to take care of it. It had its own ``personality,'' if you will. But the Golf? It's a car.

Also, the beetle was a simple machine on which almost any Saturday-morning mechanic could work. It didn't have all the sophisticated electronic equipment of today.

But times changed, drastically, and the VW bug had to go -- at least in the United States. For one thing, the rear-engine, air-cooled bug would have had a hard time meeting the emissions levels of today's governmental regulations. Also, it didn't have too much performance in comparison with today's VW Golf, let alone the Golf GTI. Even the gas mileage is far less than the Golf.

And then there's the bottom line. Would people buy the car if it were once again brought into the country by the Volkswagen management team? (That idea has been suggested more than once.) It might only be a curiosity for a time. As sure as the seasons, tastes change. In the 1950s and '60s, however, the car was ``just right'' for millions of buyers around the world.

The tortoise-shaped bug was a natural for the ad writers and some books were written about the wisdom of ``thinking small.'' The longtime VW ad agency won almost every award in the book. Even many non-beetle owners can still remember them. How does the snowplow driver get to work? In a VW beetle, naturally.

Next year the automobile marks its first hundred years. Few will deny that the VW beetle, having been around for half that time, was an ``automotive event.''

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