The basic design of the 1960-1961 Volkswagen Beetle may have dated to Germany in the 1930s, but its attitude was just right for a new decade that would prove tumultuous.
The world often seemed out of control in the 1960s. The Berlin Wall; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the escalating agony of Vietnam; the assassination of a young U.S. president, his brother, and two black civil-rights leaders; protest marches and fiery riots in U.S. cities; "hippies" and the "Generation Gap."
Amid this tumult, however, the Volkswagen Beetle cheerfully scuttled along year after year, ever-changing like the times, yet somehow changeless too -- as faithful as sunrise.
And that, frankly, was a problem. Through 1960, the Volkswagen Beetle alone had been mainly responsible for Volkswagen's amazing success. Now, European critics started warning that such an old-fashioned design couldn't last much longer in the face of growing demand for larger, more refined cars with better performance. Like the aging athlete who didn't know when to quit, the Beetle was in danger of becoming another Ford Model T.
For a time, Heinz Nordhoff and his colleagues dismissed such talk as just so much alarmist ranting. After all, Volkswagen Beetle sales were still going nowhere but up, especially in the U.S.
Proving the point, Volkswagen built its 5-millionth vehicle in 1961, the year it made the important, long-sought transition from state-owned enterprise to joint stock company, Volkswagenwerk AG. Nordhoff liked to point out that it was mainly the Beetle making all the new shareholders rich, including the Bonn government and the State of Lower Saxony, each of which retained a 20-percent holding.
Another longstanding issue was resolved in 1961 when a West German court ordered Volkswagen to issue vehicle purchase credits to nearly 121,000 claimants of the prewar KdF savings-book scheme, thus ending an embarrassing legacy of the past at an ultimate cost of some $12 million.
But Volkswagen could well afford that, just as it could afford in 1964 to take over Audi/Auto-Union, a company whose vast experience with front-wheel drive would prove crucial to Volkswagen's ultimate future. Five years later, Volkswagen acquired another struggling German automaker, NSU.
Despite such rosy happenings, Nordhoff heeded the critics and began cautiously expanding Volkswagen's wares. The first addition appeared in 1961 as the Type 3 (the Beetle was officially Volkswagen Type 1, the Microbus/Transporter the Type 2).
Badged "1500" and designed with much help from Porsche, this new two-door sedan sported conventional, boxy notchback styling and a roomier, more deluxe interior, but was still very Beetle-like: same 94.5-inch wheelbase, platform-style chassis and all-independent suspension; an air-cooled flat-four in the tail.
At least the engine was larger than the Beetle's (near 1500 cc), and a redesigned fan trimmed 16 inches from its height to allow a compact underfloor mounting and a trunk at each end of the car. Improvements came quickly: a Variant station wagon (late 1961), twin-carburetor S models (1963), a TL fastback coupe and upsized 1600 engine (1965).
Unfortunately, the Volkswagen Type 3s were little quicker than a Volkswagen Beetle, yet suffered all the deficits of its air-cooled rear-engine design and cost considerably more. Worse, they couldn't match the performance or refinement of most rivals, and early models needed lots of unscheduled maintenance, outrageous for the company that built the ultra-reliable Beetle.
With all this, the Volkswagen Type 3 never lived up to sales expectations, even in the U.S., where the coupe and wagon sold as the Fastback and Squareback, respectively -- but not until 1966. The series ended in 1973.
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