Nothing like it in the automotive world has occurred since May 1927, when Henry Ford and his son Edsel drove the final production Model T off the River Rouge assembly line, ending production after more than 15 million were sold. That was an astonishing total, but it would eventually be eclipsed by the Volkswagen Type 1, the iconic Beetle, whose production came to an end last week in Puebla, Mexico, after more than 21.5 million copies were sold worldwide in three different model generations.
It was a new-generation, front-engine, front-drive New Beetle that became the very last of the cars to be produced, ending a nearly uninterrupted lifespan that dated back to 1938, when Dr. Ing. Ferdinand Porsche created the first production People’s Car at the behest of the Third Reich, with its new national network of autobahns. The Volkswagen headquarters and main plant at Wolfsburg, Germany, was battered by heavy Allied bombing during World War II, and Wolfsburg came under the postwar control of Great Britain, which expressed scant interest in resurrecting the rear-engine, air-cooled oddity for its own rebuilding automotive market. A British Army major named Ivan Hirst ended up in control of the Volkswagen works, which resumed civilian car production first for Germany, then for greater Europe and ultimately to the United States, with all three regions starved for new cars after the war. Type 1 production continued unabated through 1974, when the front-engine, front-drive, water-cooled Golf subcompact – known on these shores as the Rabbit – became Volkswagen’s sales volume leader. The Beetle was then largely relegated to Third World markets, especially Brazil and Mexico, as Porsche’s design aged. Then in 1998, Volkswagen introduced the retro New Beetle, riding on the same PQ34 front-drive platform as the fourth-generation Golf. More than 500,000 of these cars were built, mostly at Puebla, across two generations. The New Beetle line will be retooled to produce a new Volkswagen compact SUV slotted below the Tiguan. We should note that despite beating the Model T, the Beetle no longer is the world’s highest-volume car. That distinction belongs to the Toyota Corolla, first introduced in 1966, now at 44 million units globally and counting.