1960-1969 Volkswagen Beetle


The Volkswagen Beetle had a breezy charm that made it a 1960s icon. The 1963 Volkswagen Beetle sedan, shown here, retailed for $1,595. See more classic car pictures.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

Though it hardly changed outside, the 1960-1969 Volkswagen Beetle kept getting better under the skin, and became a reassuring presence in the mad, mod world of the 1960s.

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Americans took to the Volkswagen Beetle in ever larger numbers, both as practical, no-frills transportation and for a quirky charm that perfectly suited the era's "Up the Establishment" mood -- an unassuming David against Detroit's gas-guzzling Goliaths.

Yet even as "Beetlemania" reigned supreme, the times were changing faster than the car. How much longer could it last?

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1960-1961 Volkswagen Beetle

Pushbutton door handles were the big change for the 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. The 1960 Beetle sedan cost $1,565, the convertible started at $2,055.
Pushbutton door handles were the big change for the 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. The 1960 Beetle sedan cost $1,565, the convertible started at $2,055.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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.

A cutaway view of the 1961 Volkswagen Beetle displayed the little car's packaging. Note how little space the engine uses; it's behind the rear axle.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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.

Rear seat space was p­reserved in the 1961 Volkswagen Beetle convertible, but rear visibility was compromised by the folded top.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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1962-1966 Volkswagen Beetle

The 1963 Volkswagen Beetle no longer featured the distinctive Wolfsburg crest on the trunklid. Beetle sales in the U.S. topped 200,000 for the first time.
The 1963 Volkswagen Beetle no longer featured the distinctive Wolfsburg crest on the trunklid. Beetle sales in the U.S. topped 200,000 for the first time.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The 1962-1966 Volkswagen Beetle enjoyed a winning combination of clever advertising and several years of what seemed like -- could it be? -- Detroit-style annual model changes.

But at a time when Detroit was promoting "longer, lower, and wider," Volkswagen promoted the 1962 Volkswagen Beetle by asking buyers to "Think small."

Refinements for the 1962 Volkswagen Beetle included larger taillights, sliding covers for interior heat ducts, a new compressed-air windshield washer, and -- at last -- a gas gauge to replace the former reserve fuel tap.

The Wolfsburg crest that had graced Beetle trunklids since 1951 disappeared for the 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, but that was about the only visual cue to denote the new model. However, a leatherette headliner appeared, sunroof models got a folding crank handle, foam insulation was added to the floor, and a new fresh-air heating system was added.

Volkswagen celebrated a milestone in 1964, as Beetle number 10 million was built. The 1964 Volkswagen Beetle offered sun worshippers a steel sunroof, replacing the former fabric version. The new one didn't extend nearly as far back, however, so it didn't leave the gaping hole for rays to shine through that the old one did. For those who needed more, there was always the convertible with its snug-fitting insulated top.

For 1965, Volkswagen retooled and took the opportunity to improve visibility once more via larger windows (but only on European- and American-market cars). Also new that year was a folding rear seatback for extra inside luggage space, and a further improved heater controlled by two levers flanking the central handbrake.

The 1964 Volkswagen Beetle convertible sported a snug-fitting insulated top.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The Wolfsburg plant on the Mittelland Canal was by now Germany's largest and most modern automotive assembly facility. Some of the 1.3 million Beetles sold in the U.S. by 1965 were turned into rolling frat houses. How many people could be packed into -- or on -- a Volkswagen became a source of bragging rights on college campuses throughout the country during the 1960s.

Yellow turn-signal lenses appeared for the 1966 Volkswagen Beetle, as did emergency flashers, and the high-beam switch moved from the floor to the turn-signal lever. The engine enlarged to 1285-cc and 50 horsepower.

Slotted wheels provided a bit of cooling air to the brakes, and carried new hubcaps with a flatter design. The steel sunroof that was introduced for 1964 showed up on 20 percent of 1966 Volkswagen Beetles in 1966.

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The 1966 Volkswagen Beetle was the most-changed Beetle in a decade. Big news was a bigger engine, from 1200 cc and 40 horsepower to 1285 cc and 50.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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1967-1969 Volkswagen Beetle

The 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, such as the cabrio pictured, got a slightly enlarged engine of 1493 cc and a bump of three horsepower, to 53.
The 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, such as the cabrio pictured, got a slightly enlarged engine of 1493 cc and a bump of three horsepower, to 53.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

The Bug's popularity continued unabated with the 1967-1969 Volkswagen Beetle, but when VW tried an offshoot that wasn't a Beetle, the failure of the new model should have been a warning sign for the company.

Steady improvements continued in 1967. The 1967 Volkswagen Beetle's engine was upsized to 1493-cc (as on Type 3) and 53 horsepower (1200 and 1300 engines continue outside U.S.). Also new were dual-circuit brakes, backup lights, door lock buttons, and a 12-volt electrical system.

Another extensive round of changes occurred for the 1968 Volkswagen Beetle. Bumpers were raised and the overriders eliminated, while larger taillights incorporated the tail, brake, and backup lights into a single unit.

A fresh-air ventilation system was added that necessitated an air-intake louver on the cowl, and crash safety was improved with a collapsible steering column. An external fuel filler was a welcome addition, as drivers no longer had to lift the trunklid to gain access to the gas cap.

Engines took on emission controls thanks to U.S. exhaust regulations. And for the first time, those who spurned manual transmissions were treated to the Automatic Stick Shift, which was actually a semi-automatic; the clutch pedal was eliminated, but the driver still had to move the shift lever to choose between the three forward gears.

Nineteen sixty-nine brought yet another year of comparatively extensive improvements. The 1969 Volkswagen Beetle sported double-jointed rear axles, which first appeared on the 1968 Automatic Stick Shifts, improving handling and stability. Rear windows on sedans gained a defroster, a locking steering wheel and fuel door were adopted, the trunk release was moved to the glovebox, and a day/night rearview mirror was added.

A collapsible steering column and optional Automatic Stick Shift, which eliminated the clutch pedal, were 1968 Volkswagen Beetle additions.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

Volkswagen experienced a major failure, however, with the Volkswagen 411, introduced in the summer of 1968. With chunky styling, a 98.5-inch wheelbase, and a 1.7-liter version of the Type 3 engine, the Volkswagen 411 was offered as two- and four-door fastback sedans and a Type 3-like two-door wagon.

But the Volkswagen 411 was just another blown-up Beetle, quite ugly, and rather overpriced. Buyers yawned on both sides of the Atlantic, and kept doing so despite the substitution of fuel injection in 1969, followed by 1973's desperately facelifted 412 models with 1.8-liter engine. Volkswagen finally gave up in 1974.

Such fumbling led some to conclude that Volkswagen was a "one-car company," unwilling -- or unable -- to go beyond the Beetle, let alone replace it. And indeed, by decade's end, Volkswagen had a yardful of dead-end prototypes that mostly advanced the state of the Beetle, not the automotive art.

Yet there was no great panic in Wolfsburg, for the Beetle was still confounding the doomsayers by selling better and better each year. In the U.S. alone, deliveries had soared from nearly 118,000 in 1960 to beyond 300,000 in 1967. In 1968, Americans bought a record 400,000-plus Beetles -- fully five percent of the entire U.S. market. Not bad for a basic design nearly 50 years old.

The 1969 Volkswagen Beetle gained a rear window defroster and locking steering column. This example shows the bigger bumpers introduced for 1968.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

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1960s Volkswagen Beetle Advertising

Volkswagen Beetle advertising seldom took itself seriously, a nice link to a car that invited pranks like this in which college students pack a 1965 Bug.
Volkswagen Beetle advertising seldom took itself seriously, a nice link to a car that invited pranks like this in which college students pack a 1965 Bug.
2007 Publications International, Ltd

America loved 1960s Volkswagen Beetle advertising, and with good reason. In an age of blustery pitches glorifying size, power, and prestige, 1960s Volkswagen Beetle advertising was the calm voice for a different set of values. Plus, it made you smile. The understated style was introduced in 1959 by New York ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.

In a sea of hard sell, Volkswagen appeals were islands of refreshing wit that extolled its products' virtues with breezy self-effacement. "Live Below Your Means," advised one ad. "Think Small," counseled another.

One ad didn't even bother with pictures. "No point in showing you the 1962 Volkswagen," read the headline. "It still looks the same." One ad portrayed a Beetle above the word "Lemon," explaining how Wolfsburg inspectors rejected the entire car because of one blemished chrome strip on the dash.

You couldn't help but love a company willing to kid itself in public, and no one responded more to the Beetle or its advertising than America's vaunted "baby boomers." As these children of postwar affluence came of age in the 1960s, they embraced Volkswagens as a way to show rejection of what they saw as the materialism of older generations. Besides, Volkswagens were cheap to buy and run, and they were easily fixed.

Most of these kids probably didn't realize the Beetle was born of war, but it didn't matter. They were too busy decorating the cars with flowers, "peace symbols," and psychedelic colors. Free-living hippies became especially fond of the roomy Beetle-based Microbus because it was so easily turned into a rolling bedroom.

Yet even as "Beetlemania" continued across the land, a threat was on the horizon, and it wasn't coming from Europe or Detroit. Though Volkswagen increased sales throughout the 1960s to remain America's top-selling foreign make, its share of the import-car market withered from 67 percent in 1965 to a less commanding 51 percent by decade's end.

In other words, small-car demand was still rising, but the Beetle no longer drove it. Who was? Two little-known companies called Toyota and Datsun, then starting to sell high-quality small cars with performance, room, comfort, features, and even style that put the Beetle in the shade -- and for no more money.

Suddenly, the Beetle looked very old. It still had charm, yet everyone -- Wolfsburg included -- knew that it could no longer be relied upon to guarantee Volkswagen's continued good health. After decades of unbridled success, the Beetle was running out of time.

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