Possibly the best-known car of the Fifties and Sixties and among the best -selling of all time, the Volkswagen Beetle started as the people's car" the direct translation of Volkswagen, brought low-cost motoring to millions of postwar West Germany and the rest of Western Europe.

Much as the Beetle changed the face of motoring in the Twentieth century, there is no escaping the uncomfortable fact that the Beetle was developed primarily under the auspices of the Nazi party during the Thirties.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler had just risen to power and in of his first speeches in front of a captivated audiences laid out his plans for the future of the German road system that would be dominated by a high-speed highway network known as "Autobahnen," where the "people's car" would be able to travel.

To make his dream a reality, Hitler called in Frederick Porsche, one of Germany's most talented car designers and handed him a simple brief.

Porsche, an experienced and talented engineer, was handed the project to design a car for the German people that could comfortably reach speeds of up to 100-kph (62-mph), even when carrying five passengers.

Despite its massive workload, the Beetle had a fuel capacity of no more than 33 mpg, ( 8.6 kilometres per 100 litres) and required minimal maintenance.

To make Porsche's task just that little more difficult, the Volkswagen needed an air-cooled engine to stand up to the freezing temperatures, particularly in the North of the country.

After several years of feverish activity, by late 1936, the final prototypes were ready, and by the following year, a few Volkswagens were produced, with most of them distributed to mid-level officials of the Nazi party.

At the end of the war, passenger-car, and production began almost immediately with most of the first models produced going to British forces.

It was only in 1950 after control of the company was handed back to West German management did domestic sales begin to pick up.

Early VW models had a split-oval rear window, with a slightly thicker pillar between the tiny panes.

American cars had abandoned running boards before World War II, but VWs kept them—though they weren't the kind that anyone could stand on.

Early post-war examples of the VW were pretty rudimentary in design, with some anomalies, which added to the car's charm but not necessarily its safety levels.

The most outstanding was that the “Beetle’s” gas tank was positioned under the hood, which had to be raised with each refueling.

Fuel gauges were not installed until 1962, making long journeys a tense affair. Drivers had to guess how much fuel was in the tank, although the Beetle was fitted with a small reserve tank, which held an extra gallon or so.

Lack of body insulation contributed to noisy running, which, according to folklore, many VW owners reportedly appreciated, as it provided some character to what basically was a characterless vehicle.

Despite its shortcomings, demand for the VW Beetle never waned during the Fifties.

To maintain its impetus VW embarked on an almost never ending a succession of improvements to the Beetle.

These included some significant exterior changes through the Fifties and Sixties, meaning that Beetle enthusiasts could readily trace the car's evolution.

Mchanically, a synchronised gearbox (except for first gear) began to be fitted, from 1952 models onwards, while the original split back window was replaced by a single oval pane the next year.

A larger (1192-cc) engine replaced the original 1131-cc unit for 1954, boosting output from 30 to 36 horsepower, levels that would not be increased until 1961. For the first time that year, the Beetle could be started by a key, instead of the earlier pushbutton starter which was notoriously problematic.

Until the late Fifties, the Beetle was Volkswagen's only product, which is why it received so much internal development.

In 1965, a 1285cc (78 cu in) powerplant was installed, and the arrival of the 1500 Beetle the following year meant that the car was finally able to compete on equal terms with many of its competitors — especially as disc brakes were also now part of the package.

By 1968, the Beetle was beginning to lose its original character, as the bumpers grew in size topped by much more prominent rear light clusters.

Some of the more significant advances included the launch of a convertible version in 1949, produced for Volkswagen by the Karmann coachbuilding firm who would later design the Karmann Ghia coupe and convertible.

All Beetles are highly sought-after, but one derivative is particularly highly coveted — the Karmann-built Cabriolet.

Having built theirs first drop head Beetle prototypes way back in 1946, Karmann unveiled the production version of its Beetle Cabriolet in 1949.

During a lifespan of more than three decades, changes to the Karmann Beetle mirrored those of the standard car, with engine, brake and suspension upgrades, as well as improvements to the interior and electrical systems — essential as prices were much higher than the standard model.

The Karmann's roof was also upgraded along the way, as initially, it offered almost no rear visibility when raised, thanks to a back window the size of a letterbox.

The most valuable of the regular production Beetles, Karmann's Cabriolet was exceptionally well built but had a price tag to match.

Despite the possible price barrier, the Beetle soft top was successfully produced for more than three decades and is still a desirable car today.

Although visibility was never as good as that in the saloon, however, the multi-layered hood made the car incredibly refined.

Production of the Beetle in Western Europe from Volkswagen's Wolfsburg factory was phased out in 1977, although, with demand was still high for this hard-working “people’s car” in South America, where production continued for a few more years.

The Volkswagen Beetle, despite its troubled start, when on to become a symbol of low cost, no frills motoring during the second half of the Twentieth century, with more than twenty million sold.

Back to the homepage- and don't spare the horsepower.