Volkswagen Beetle hits 65 years in America

Volkswagen's ubiquitous Beetle first came to US shores 65 years ago. In the decades since, the car has taken a unique place in American pop culture with its distinctive looks and association with "flower power."

Volkswagen
Volkswagen began selling the Beetle on American shores starting in 1949. In this photo, an original blue Beetle is pictured with the most recent model from VW.

There are few shapes more recognizable than the profile of Volkswagen's most famous vehicle. If you were to ask a hundred people who knew nothing about cars to pick one out in a lineup, few would get it wrong. Aside from its charm and unique shape, one of the factors in the Beetle's impact is its longevity--and this month, Volkswagen is celebrating 65 years since the Beetle hit U.S. shores, all the way back in January 1949.

That first car was imported by Ben Pon Sr., a Dutch businessman who shipped the car to New York City. From that first car, sales built rapidly. By the mid-1950s more than 35,000 had been sold, and given another five years that figure was up to 300,000.

Sales really took off in the 1960s, a decade which has defined the vehicle for subsequent generations due to its popularity among young, counter-culture Americans. Frugal, small, distinctive and practical, the Beetle resonated with young buyers in a way few small cars have since--and by the end of the decade the model was selling as many as 400,000 units each year. That's ten times more than the current Beetle, which moved 43,000 units in the U.S. in 2013. The market is very different these days of course and the Beetle itself is a far cry from its humble ancestor, but still remains one of Volkswagen's highest-selling lines.

Volkswagen produced its last German-built Beetle in 1977 and U.S. imports also stopped around that time. While Type 1 Beetle production continued in Mexico until 2003--where the model is still abundant--U.S. buyers had to wait until 1998 for the car to return, under the 'New Beetle' name. This was replaced in 2011 by the current model, once again returning to the simple Beetle moniker. With turbocharged gasoline and diesel engines it's quicker and more frugal than the original--and a whole lot safer and better-equipped too. Importantly though, the styling is as recognizable as ever.

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