With Hitler, Nazis and Ferdinand Porsche the Beetle’s back-story reads like the screenplay of a great thriller movie. Skipping the esoteric details, Volkswagen means “people’s car,” and from its inception it was meant to put a new generation on wheels, just like the Ford Model T had done two decades before.
Conceived of and constructed by Porsche under der Führer’s watchful eye, the first prototype debuted in February 1936. Despite its strange looks the littler car featured a number of innovations. It was rear-wheel drive, but the engine was mounted in the back as well, ostensibly to maximize interior space. The little horizontally opposed four-cylinder was also air cooled, which further simplified things. Additionally, passengers benefitted from a smoother ride courtesy of four-wheel independent suspension.
All of this was very impressive for the mid ‘30s, but the car’s true potential wasn’t realized for years to come. A little something called World War II got in the way.
Throughout the Beetle’s long lifespan it remained largely the same. Sure, more powerful engines and other improvements were added along the way but the basic structure was unchanged.
While the rest of the automotive world moved forward time sees to have forgotten the Beetle. Defying logic the original version of the car was produced in Mexico until 2003. All told more than 21 million were built, making it the most produced single version of a car in history. Not a bad run for a design conceived of in the 1930s.