In the early twentieth century, Ferdinand Porsche created an industrial product that became an icon, largely because of its unique shape — the Volkswagen Beetle. A worldwide phenomenon, the Type I first-generation model outsold Henry Ford’s Model T. Now more than three-quarters of a century later, if you want to own a new Beetle, move quickly. Beetle production ends with the 2019 model.
First exhibited in the U.S. in 1949, the Beetle was both loved and maligned. In an ironic twist, the star of Disney’s “Love Bug” movies would probably have been stillborn without the support of one of history’s most evil tyrants, Adolf Hitler. Hitler and his National Sociologist (Nazi) party provided support for production of a “people’s car” — a universally affordable car with space for a family of two adults up front and three children in the rear seat that could maintain a 60 miles per hour highway speed with good gas mileage.
In its early years the Beetle was not taken seriously by the American public, in love with its monstrous highway tanks. The Beetle was the subject of much ill humor. Then, in the 1960s, VW made a concerted effort to market the cars with a sophisticated advertising blitz and establishment of reputable dealers. VW advertised a selling price for a new Beetle, remarkable even back then, of only $1,500.
Our high school journalism teacher was the proud owner of a Beetle. He extolled the virtues of his VW at every opportunity, Thinking back, I wonder if he was really that enamored with the car (he constantly tinkered with it), or was trying to justify a questionable decision (what we sociologists call reducing cognitive dissonance). Those early Beetles fell short of what most domestic cars provided; they were cramped, rough riding, under-powered, poorly heated and lacked window defrosting and adequate trunk space.
In 1986, our old Pinto station wagon that I used to drive to work died. I replaced it with a 1975 bright orange VW Beetle in decent shape from Ron Willey Ford. It was a Super Beetle; an upgraded version VW began producing in 1971. The Super Beetle had slightly more interior space, improved suspension and steering, a curved windshield, more powerful motor and an adequate heater and window defroster.
My Beetle was fun to drive, and I had no lack of eager passengers. I assisted Harv Bainter coaching soccer at the time. When playing out-of-town games, some kids always wanted to ride with me. The car was equipped with a worn-out, crackly AM radio. I wanted music while driving so I bought and installed a cassette player with stereo speakers. I was on top of the world when out on the road, grooving to Elton John or the Temptations. While driving I had to judge the car’s speed because the speedometer never worked. I became adept at gauging my speed, and only once was I stopped by the law. It was by a sheriff as I was rolling over the hills in Nebraska, but he was coming from the opposite direction and had no idea of my actual speed. He gave me a lecture but no ticket.
The car’s forgiving drive train allowed poor clutching without immediately killing the engine, so I used it to teach our daughter how to drive a stick shift. Unlike most cars today, the Beetle was rear wheel drive, but with the engine weight over the wheels it had excellent traction on snow or ice. On the other hand, the light front would sometimes slip when turning on snow or ice. A few cement blocks in the trunk helped.
Although the Beetle was over 10 years old and I knew little of its history, I had no qualms about taking it out on the road, including several trips to Nebraska and Illinois. It broke down only once. One day about two blocks from home, I noticed smoke in the rear-view mirror. I stopped, got out and saw the smoke was coming from the engine compartment. Lifting the engine cover, I was horrified to see flames coming from the engine. Considering the potential of an explosion I probably should have stepped away and run to someone’s house to call the fire department (this was pre-cell phone days). But I had a blanket in the car that I pulled out and threw over the engine. Luckily, the blanket smothered the fire. The Beetle lived up to its reputation as an economical vehicle. I fixed it myself for less than $75, with parts I obtained from a salvage dealer.
Much as I liked my fun pumpkin-on-wheels, it had one major drawback — it had 4 X 60 air conditioning (4 open windows at 60 mph). My position with Iowa State University at the time required considerable travel. Although I did not use it on business trips, I often flew, which meant a trip to the Des Moines airport. On hot, sticky summer days I arrived at the airport soggy from sweating. Approaching the second summer with the no-AC car, I traded it for an air-conditioned Mazda RX-7.
This is the last production year of the third generation Beetle, but Beetle lovers should not despair. Rumors abound of another reincarnation in an electric version. Such a car should provide economic benefits like the earlier Beetles, and, also, be more environmentally friendly. A final thought: Do kids still play the “slug bug” game?
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.