Friday, December 9, 2011

Beetles and Busses. The story behind Volkswagen's air-cooled icons

The unmistakable smells of ether and gasoline fill the air. A turn of the key. A crank of a wrench. Another turn of the key; then a sputter. Followed by silence. Once more—a plume of smoke, and that distinct, air-cooled rasp wheezes to life. And if the driver is lucky enough to get out of his parking space without the engine dying again, the reward is a white-knuckled drive at a maximum speed of 42-mph.

Such is the life of a vintage VW owner. And you know what? They love every bit of it.

Volkswagens may be associated with peace-lovin' hippies, but their existence was actually hatched by one of the most un-peaceful people ever to walk the face of the earth. It was none other than Adolf Hitler himself who came up with the idea of the happy, little Beetle. Volkswagens were to be the "People's Car," and they were originally made available to the folks of Nazi Germany.

The first prototypes were little dome-shaped things designed by Ferdinand Porsche in 1932, known as the Porsche Type 12. It wasn't exactly the Beetle that we know and love today, but a lot of the basic layout and concept was similar.

Hitler then put a few more parameters on the design of the car, and Porsche came up with the Type 60 prototype in 1935, which led to a few more development cars, and ultimately, the production version in 1938.

At that point, the simple, tough, air-cooled cars didn't have a cute name like "Beetle." Hitler named it the KdF-Wagen, which referred to "Kraft durch Freude", sort of a Socialism fan club for Third Reich.

Of course, after World War II, Germany was pretty messed up. Even the factory where they were building Volkswagens had been severely damaged in bombing raids. But by 1945, they had rebuilt the place enough that they could start cranking out some cars. Known at this point as the Volkswagen "Type 1," it didn't take long for business to pick up.

Year after year, and decade after decade, the primitive little car, now affectionately known as the Beetle, became more and more popular. Changes were never really all that dramatic--different taillights this year, a little more engine displacement that year--but somehow the Beetle won over people all over the world. It didn't hurt that some of the greatest print advertising in history was directed at the Beetle in the 1960s.

But as times change, so do vehicle preferences, safety requirements, and competitive offerings, The last Beetle Type 1 was sold as a new U.S. model in 1980. But the story does not even come close to stopping there.

Beetles continued to be sold in other countries, although less and less from each passing year. Mexico was the final resting place of the Beetle Type 1, when production ended in--are you ready for this?--2004! The last 3,000 cars were known as the "Última Edición," and could be bought in either baby blue or beige with some great retro wide whitewall tires.

Ultimitely, Volkswagen produced well over 22-million Type 1 Beetles, making it the fourth biggest selling vehicle of all time. That's pretty impressive, especially when you consider the car's inauspicious origins.

The Volkswagen Bus was first introduced in 1949. Originally, it was known as the Volkswagen “Type 2." Like Beetle, the Bus was air-cooled and simple to maintain. But while the Beetle was primitive and anemic, putting the same engines and mechanicals in a large van produced an even more grossly underpowered vehicle.

Despite the safety and comfort issues the Bus presented, it still has a strong and loyal following today. There has always been a market for the Bus with campers, as they enjoy the size and versatility the vehicle offers. It was also a favorite among the Woodstock/hippie generation, because in the late ‘60s, a Bus could be purchased for very little money, and it placed more of an emphasis on sacrifice and the environment than on power and excess. Plus, you could live in one for several days or even permanently.

Certainly, the VW Bus was not state-of-the-art technologically, but in concept, it was ahead of its time. Chrysler claims they invented the minivan in the 1980s, but the Bus was out some 35 years earlier. Ironically, after several updates over the years, including the Microbus and the Vanagon, Volkswagen’s current entry in the minivan segment is a re-badged Chrysler Grand Caravan known as the Routan.

Of course, the raspy, air-cooled platform of the Beetle and Bus spawned other variations, including the sporty looking Karmann Ghia, the homely Squareback Wagon (aka, "Type 3"), and the gangly "Thing" (aka, "Type 181"). But our two feature vehicles are what most people think of when they remember these cars.

The photos below are from the Bug Blitz/Bus Blast gathering in Riverside last year. Most of them have never been seen before, so I thought they might be of interest to some of you. They seemed like a pretty fun group of people, and really relished everything VW--both the good, and the bad. I thought some of the earlier, restored Beetles were the most interesting to look at. I especially liked some of the accessories with which many of the cars had been fitted. Take a look!


  1. Love that you included the 911/930 photo...cause lets face it, a Porsche is really a Vw on steroids... in fact, years ago the personalised plate for my 911 was 'NUCLRVW'.
    Most Porsche folks didnt appreciate it...
    Also years ago, there was an engineer that worked with my dad who had no sense of humour and was very defensive about people comparing his 911 to a Beetle. So much so that he got a personalised plate that said 'NOT A VW'. there was another engineer there who had a great sense of humour and drove a SuperBeetle convertible. HE got a plate saying 'NOT A 911' and parked next to the aforementioned Porsche every chance he got!

  2. Art Bunker died this past week! See his KC Star obit

  3. Craig:
    I always loved the old VW the one where they drive a beetle into a lake...AND IT FLOATS!
    Good stuff...very nice Karman Ghia!

    Roll safe.

  4. Nice piece on the history of the air-cooled VWs. I recently had a chance to see first hand a couple of "Ultima Edicion" Beetles (Beige and Baby Blue) and a number of early car as well as buses (my favorites) at a private VW collection in Puerto Rico ( Quite a sight.

  5. Nice piece on the history of the air-cooled VWs.