1945-1959 Volkswagen Beetle


The 1945-1959 Volkswagen Beetle got off to a slow start, but steadily developed an audience devoted to its economy, simplicity, and character. See more Volkswagen Beetle pictures.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The 1945-1959 Volkswagen Beetle rose from the ashes of World War II to become popular worldwide. In America, it gained acceptance because it was remarkably well built for its low price, it was reliable and fuel-efficient, and, to some, it bucked the concept of planned obsolescence.

Volkswagen Beetle Image Gallery

As a humble relic of the Nazi nightmare, Adolf Hitler's Wagen fur das Volk seemed stillborn as war-shattered Germany began to rebuild. But thanks to an enthusiastic cadre of British troops and one visionary auto executive, the Beetle quickly improved to become a people's car for the whole world.

In the process, it spurred an "economic miracle" for Germany, made Volkswagen a household name, and set new standards for customer satisfaction.

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1945-1947 Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen held a celebration when its Wolfsburg factory managed its first 1,000-unit month in 1946. Shown here is a 1946 Volkswagen Beetle.
Volkswagen held a celebration when its Wolfsburg factory managed its first 1,000-unit month in 1946. Shown here is a 1946 Volkswagen Beetle.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The future seemed bleak for the 1945-1947 Volkswagen Beetle. As it crawled out from the rubble of World War II, the Beetle seemed headed for an early death, not lasting greatness.

Indeed, the car was defined more by its vices than virtues. Volkswagen Beetles that crawled forth from the Wolfsburg factory in 1946 were decidedly spartan conveyances: outmoded cable brakes and non-synchronized transmission, a measly 25 horsepower, waywardness in gusty crosswinds, little luggage space, a crude heater, not even a fuel gauge (drivers just ran the engine dry, then tapped a one-gallon reserve).

Gauges were limited to a just a speedometer and warning lights, and the glovebox doors that graced earlier models were apparently deemed superfluous and left off. Semaphores extended from the center roof pillars at the twist of a dashboard knob (located above and to the right of the speedom­eter) to signal turns.

Exteriors were completely devoid of chrome trim, a directive that would soon have to change in order to maintain marketability, but the styling would otherwise remain remarkably constant for the next three decades.

Yet the Volkswagen Beetle became the most successful car of all time (a title it eventually lost to Toyota's Corolla) while leading postwar West Germany to unheard-of prosperity. How? Because despite its undeniable faults, the Beetle charmed most everyone who touched it -- starting with Ivan Hirst and his British Army cohorts, in all likelihood the first non-Germans afflicted with "Beetlemania."

And why not? The Beetle's air-cooled engine couldn't freeze up or overheat, and it was in the rear, giving traction to conquer icy hills and sandy bogs that defeated other cars. Though the ride was choppy, the all-independent suspension stood up to the pounding of war-ravaged European roads, and wide-ratio gears combined with an engine that was deliberately understressed to allow flat-out running all day -- and on the worst fuel. The Beetle was also engineered for tight assembly and easy repair.

VW built nearly 8,000 1946 Volkswagen Beetles, though they were not yet for sale to civilians. Note the absence of chrome trim on this 1946 Beetle. VW built nearly 8,000 1946 Volkswagen Beetles, though they were not yet for sale to civilians. Note the absence of chrome trim on this 1946 Beetle.
VW built nearly 8,000 1946 Volkswagen Beetles, though they were not yet for sale to civilians. Note the absence of chrome trim on this 1946 Beetle.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

And then, of course, there was the sheer cuteness of the thing. Even in 1945, a Beetle looked, sounded and drove like no other car. With its functional simplicity and let's-go friskiness, it was nothing so much as a four-wheeled Fido -- and who could resist that?

Certainly not Major Hirst and his chums, who continued to help rebuild Wolfsburg and the Volkswagen plant during the early postwar years. Thanks to their efforts, Volkswagen managed nearly 8,000 vehicles in 1946, including its last military models.

The first true civilian Beetles -- almost 9,000 -- chugged forth in 1947. These were not only the first Volkswagens sold to civilians, they were also the first to sport chrome trim, including bumpers, hubcaps, and running-board moldings. The understressed 1131-cc engine put out a meager 25 horsepower, yet could tirelessly hold the car at its 60-mph top speed all day long. Production for 1948 was 19,244, amazing given the still-difficult conditions.

But who would buy all those cars? Demand among Allied occupation forces was satisfied, and most Germans still couldn't afford even a motorbike. That left exports, but prospects seemed dim for a relic of the hated Third Reich. Besides, there was no company to handle sales, service, or anything else.

Then too, Hirst's superiors weren't nearly so enthusiastic about Volkswagen. Though Hirst had shown the factory was still viable, a British commission concluded that the Beetle itself would be "quite unattractive to the average motor-car buyer. It is too ugly and too noisy . . . To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise . . . . "

Finally on sale to the public, the 1947 Volkswagen Beetle sported chrome trim and available two-tone paint. The 1947 Beetle had 25 horsepower. Finally on sale to the public, the 1947 Volkswagen Beetle sported chrome trim and available two-tone paint. The 1947 Beetle had 25 horsepower.
Finally on sale to the public, the 1947 Volkswagen Beetle sported chrome trim and available two-tone paint. The 1947 Beetle had 25 horsepower.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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1948-1949 Volkswagen Beetle

The 1949 Volkswagen Beetle came in Standard and fancier DeLuxe models. This is the Standard version, which lacked some of the DeLuxe's chrome trim.
The 1949 Volkswagen Beetle came in Standard and fancier DeLuxe models. This is the Standard version, which lacked some of the DeLuxe's chrome trim.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The economics of small-car production on a large scale began to fall into place with the 1948-1949 Volkswagen Beetle.

In June 1948 the Allies restored West Germany to a free-market economy based on a new deutsche mark, and gave every citizen DM40 -- about $10. Meanwhile, Ivan Hirst decided to call in a motor-industry professional, and he struck gold in Heinrich "Heinz" Nordhoff, a former executive at General Motors' Opel subsidiary.

Though no less impoverished than the people of Wolfsburg, Nordhoff worked tirelessly to secure their future as general manager of the newly formed Volkswagenwerk GmbH, starting in 1948. One of his first acts was to reestablish ties with the Porsche Bureau through Ferdinand Porsche's son Ferry.

This produced an agreement giving Porsche a royalty of DM5 (about $1.25) on each Volkswagen built; in return, Porsche promised not to compete with its own small car.

Nordhoff then mapped a bold long-term plan: Volkswagen would concentrate on the Beetle, improving it where needed but never for the sake of mere change. The firm would also emphasize customer service and export sales, particularly in the United States.

To that end, Volkswagen established a chain of service centers in Europe, offered auto insurance through dealers, and touted the low cost and high reliability of its products with snappy, often humorous advertising.

Efficient use of space: The 1949 Volkswagen Beetle housed a toolkit in the wheel center of its spare tire. The spare was in the front luggage compartment Efficient use of space: The 1949 Volkswagen Beetle housed a toolkit in the wheel center of its spare tire. The spare was in the front luggage compartment
Efficient use of space: The 1949 Volkswagen Beetle housed a toolkit in the wheel center of its spare tire. The spare was in the front luggage compartment
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The first Volkswagen Beetles finally arrived in the United States in 1949, the initial shipments being orchestrated by Dutch importer Ben Pon.

Volkswagen offered both Standard and DeLuxe versions for the model year. Spartan accommodations greeted buyers of the 1949 Volkswagen Beetle Standard sedan. Dashboards were done in a monotone scheme, with black Bakelite being used for knobs and the speedometer surround. Some relief was provided by contrasting seat and door-panel materials, but the Standard Volkswagen Beetle left no doubt about its utilitarian mission.

Foot pedals sprouted from the floor rather than hanging down from beneath the dash as they did in most cars. To the right of the speedometer was a panel that could be removed if the optional radio was ordered. New was a Solex carburetor, double-action shock absorbers, and the Volkswagen logo imprinted on the hubcaps.

The 1949 DeLuxe Volkswagen (export) sedan had better trim, equipment, and sound-deadening. Convertibles were also added in 1949 (mostly Karmann-built four-seaters, but also 750 two-seaters by the Karosserie Hebmuller).

Nordhoff had a simple plan for a simple car, and he made sure that both worked to perfection. That they did. People fell in love with the Volkswagen Beetle and orders poured in, prompting vast expansion in facilities and workers.

A spartan interior greeted buyers of the 1949 Volkswagen Beetle Standard model. The dashboard held two door-less gloveboxes. A spartan interior greeted buyers of the 1949 Volkswagen Beetle Standard model. The dashboard held two door-less gloveboxes.
A spartan interior greeted buyers of the 1949 Volkswagen Beetle Standard model. The dashboard held two door-less gloveboxes.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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1950-1954 Volkswagen Beetle

The license plate on this U.S.-spec 1951 Volkswagen Beetle refers to its "split," two-section rear window, an endearing feature of early Bugs.
The license plate on this U.S.-spec 1951 Volkswagen Beetle refers to its "split," two-section rear window, an endearing feature of early Bugs.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The 1950-1954 Volkswagen Beetle rolled out refinements at a regular place, but established the notion that advancements would take place with very little change to exterior styling.

By 1950, the Volkswagen complex included four mile-long assembly halls, several other large buildings, a rail siding, test track, and even a power station. With that, Volkswagenwerk was West Germany's largest single employer, and thus the engine for a national economic recovery few would have thought possible.

Consider that in May 1949, less than a year after building its 25,000th postwar vehicle, Volkswagen sailed past 50,000, then 100,000 in 1950. By 1952 it was turning out over 100,000 units annually, then broke 200,000 just two years later. By 1959, yearly output was over half a million, ironically fulfilling prewar promises.

By that time, general manager Heinrich "Heinz" Nordhoff had broadened Volkswagen's reach with two cleverly conceived spinoff models: the Transporter or Microbus, the original "minivan," introduced in 1950; and the Karmann-Ghia of 1955, a Beetle in Italian sports togs crafted by the Karmann coachworks of Osnabruck.

But it was always the winsome Volkswagen Beetle that brought in the vast majority of sales and profits, which kept improving each year right along with the car. And how it improved! The 1950 Volkswagen Beetle adopted hydraulic brakes (export) and an engine heat-riser; a sunroof sedan was added; and a thermostatic throttle ring was adopted for automatic air cooling.

New for the 1951 Volkswagen Beetle were the Wolfsburg crest on the trunklid as well as vent flaps in the front fenders. The flaps would be replaced with vent windows on the 1952 Volkswagen Beetle.

That year also saw the 5.60 x 15 tires replaced with 5.00 x 16s and synchromesh on all gears but the first. The dash was redesigned with a glovebox door, ashtray, central radio grille, and speedometer ahead of the driver. There were now two brake/taillamps (vs. one stoplamp).

The 1953 Volkswagen Beetle saw the replacement of the oval rear window's original split ("pretzel") design with one-piece glass. And in 1954, bore went from 75 to 77 mm, displacement from 1131 to 1192 cc, and compression from 5.8 to 6.6:1, upping horsepower from 30 to 36.

­The 1951 Volkswagen Beetle DeLuxe model had an upgraded interior, with glovebox doors, revised steering wheel, and optional radio. ­The 1951 Volkswagen Beetle DeLuxe model had an upgraded interior, with glovebox doors, revised steering wheel, and optional radio.
­The 1951 Volkswagen Beetle DeLuxe model had an upgraded interior, with glovebox doors, revised steering wheel, and optional radio.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The yearly changes were only the beginning. The same could be said for Volkswagen's continued corporate growth. By 1956 the company had passed one million in total production and was doing business in 80 countries.

That included the U.S., where Dutch Volkswagen importer Ben Pon had first tried selling the Beetle in 1949. He managed only two. Next came Max Hoffman, America's import-car baron, who teamed with Arthur Stanton and John von Neumann to sell Volkswagens through East and West regions.

But after moving just 887 in 1952 and 1,139 the following year, Maxie bailed out, a decision he later came to rue. "Heaven help me," he lamented. "They just wouldn't sell."

Volkswagen built right-hand-drive Beetles for markets such as Great Britain, as evidenced by this classic 1954 Volkswagen Beetle sedan. Volkswagen built right-hand-drive Beetles for markets such as Great Britain, as evidenced by this classic 1954 Volkswagen Beetle sedan.
Volkswagen built right-hand-drive Beetles for markets such as Great Britain, as evidenced by this classic 1954 Volkswagen Beetle sedan.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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1955-1959 Volkswagen Beetle

The Beetle lost its split rear window for 1953 in favor of a one-piece oval unit, as shown on this 1956 Volkswagen Beetle sedan.
The Beetle lost its split rear window for 1953 in favor of a one-piece oval unit, as shown on this 1956 Volkswagen Beetle sedan.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The 1955-1959 Volkswagen Beetle models well and truly established the little air-cooled, rear-engine car as part of the American landscape. America was becoming the Bug's home away from home, and in 1955, Volkswagen United States (later Volkswagen of America) opened its doors in a modest two-story building in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Though the 1956 Volkswagen Beetle's price had risen to a stiffish $1,995 (versus $1,280 in 1949-1950), Volkswagens accounted for almost 65 percent of the 51,000 import cars Americans bought that year. In 1957, over 50,000 were sold.

"There is no longer any doubt about it," said Road & Track in October 1956. "Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's little 'people's car' has done what no other [import] has ever been able to do: it has gained an unmistakable wheel-hold in the garages and hearts of the American car-buying public . . . . The only mystery is: how did it happen? Especially with practically no national advertising? Of the various explanations, probably the simplest is that the Volkswagen fulfills a need which Detroit had forgotten . . . a car that is cheap to buy and run, small and compact, light and maneuverable yet solidly constructed, and perhaps above all, utterly dependable and trouble-free."

How true. Against the increasingly bloated, overdecorated gas-guzzling fantasies of mid-1950s America, the thrifty, practical Volkswagen Beetle was a paragon of common sense -- almost an "anti-car."

Karmann coachworks began building Beetle convertibles in 1949. Pictured is a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle cabriolet by Karmann. It seated four. Karmann coachworks began building Beetle convertibles in 1949. Pictured is a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle cabriolet by Karmann. It seated four.
Karmann coachworks began building Beetle convertibles in 1949. Pictured is a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle cabriolet by Karmann. It seated four.
2007

It certainly wasn't snazzy or even very roomy, it wasn't fast (0-60 mph took over 20 seconds and top speed was just 68 mph), and backing off the gas in mid-corner could send you sliding off tail-first. But the Beetle was fun to drive, a breeze to park, had no trouble keeping up with traffic, and, thanks to constant improvement, was finished like a Rolls-Royce and wore like iron. No wonder so many Americans loved it.

In all, the Volkswagen Beetle took Volkswagenwerk a very long way in a rather short time. By 1960 the company had added plants in Hanover and Kassel, and was shipping Beetles as complete-knock-down (CKD) kits for assembly in countries like South Africa (starting in 1951), Australia (1954), and Brazil (1959).

The car Hitler had conceived for the German people had become a car for the people of the entire free world. The pride of Wolfsburg had progressed far indeed.

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In the Bug's biggest appearance change yet, the 1958 Volkswagen Beetle introduced a larger, rectangular rear window. In the Bug's biggest appearance change yet, the 1958 Volkswagen Beetle introduced a larger, rectangular rear window.
In the Bug's biggest appearance change yet, the 1958 Volkswagen Beetle introduced a larger, rectangular rear window.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

For more great articles and pictures on new and classic Volkswagens, see: