The answer to ‘what makes a car iconic?’ is hard to pin down. Design is surely a key factor, perhaps the gateway to iconic status. Take the Triumph TR2 or the Aston Martin DB5, both rich in design, both icons of automobile history.
But, as the VW proves, to be an icon you need far more under the chassis than just a striking look. Along with its unique design, the car has rich a history, with sales galore and a global legacy that secured its iconic status.
The origins of the VW Beetle come from a surprisingly dark place; 1930s Nazi Germany. For context, the project behind the VW Beetle was established in 1935, the same year that the Swastika became the German flag.
Drawn up by Adolf Hitler, the plan was to create a family-friendly, affordable vehicle that was fit for the autobahn. It would be known as the Volkswagen or ‘the people’s car.’
The first name of the vehicle was KfD-Wagen, a reference to the Nazi state organisation Kraft Durch Freude – translated as Stength Through Joy – set up as a tool to promote Nazism.
The car was first shown to the public in 1938, but “as World War II broke out, the plan was abolished,” explains the VW Beetle edition of the Classic Dinky Toys Collection Magazine. “Production continued during the war, but only military versions would leave the factory.”
Now called the Volkswagen, the car went on general sale during the tough post-war recovery period. The Volkswagen’s popularity grew fast, on 3 July 1953 unit 500,000 came off the assembly line. Two years later, it was 1 million.
The car would go on to reach 21 million units – production stopped in 2003 – outselling the Fort T, the mini and the Fiat 500, reaching a popularity that none could match.
Robust and reliable, in a way that few cars were at that time the Beetle could drive the distance. This, combined with its quirky design, meant quite simply, there was nothing like a VW Beetle.
The design of the vehicle was, according to the Classic Dinky Toys Collection Magazine, “inspired by the most innovative trends of the time, boasting a successful blend of concepts already put into practice by talented designer Hans Ledwinka, working for Tatra.”
Small and practical, the car rolled from one end to the next and was available in various forms from soft-top to sports car… it had variation, flair and curves.
Looking back over the legacy of the VW Beetle, one big word comes to mind: global. Factories in Canada, Brazil and Mexico ensured the Beetle’s tire print went across the world, it was even the biggest selling foreign-made car in the US throughout the 1960s.
With sales over 21 million it is, still to this day, the world’s most sold car and while its origins were dark, it’s future was bright. Today, the car is far more likely to be remembered as the driving companion to hippies, surfers, and the peace movement rather than the Nazis.