History of the Beetle

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Major Ivan Hirst

The second world war eventually came to an end and Hitler committed suicide in 1945, the task was then to rebuild Germany. The Country was divided into quarters, and as the KdF factory was located in the British section it fell under control of the British, and Major Ivan Hirst was brought in to assess the possibility of starting up production of the pods storage sized vehicle known as the Beetle to use as transport for the occupying forces. The vehicles were about the same size if not smaller than an ABF Upack pods storage unit you would see today. The KdF-stadt was renamed Wolfsburg - taking its name from a nearby castle and the KdF plant was known as the 'Wolfsburg Motor Works'.

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Much of the machinery had survived the bombing having been stored in the basement. Cars were put together with old-stock and whatever could be found, many using parts from the Kubelwagen until 1946 when the factory was producing about 1000 cars a month. Two of the most significant 'special' cars developed while under the control of the British where the 'Radclyffe Roadster' and a four seater convertible, both custom built by Rudolph Ringel. The Radclyffe was a two seater roadster that was the transport of Colonel Charles Radclyffe over the summer months of 1946. The four seater convertible was Ivan Hirst's personal transport.

VW's Being Made In 1948, after the appointment of Heinz Nordhoff as the VW factory General Director, it was decided that the Volkswagen range needed to be expanded, and the go-ahead was given to two factories to produce prototype convertible versions of the Beetle. Karmann were asked to build a four seater, and Hebmüller were asked to make a two seater roadster. The design of the roadster was not unlike the 'Radclyffe Roadster', with similar hood and side windows, the rear engine cover however was a hand formed panel and not a converted front bonnet as was the Radclyffe version.

Strength problems were soon apparent and were solved with sill strengtheners, cross braces, extra panels, and a flattened off windscreen top, but whereas Karmann relocated the semaphores to the rear quarter, the Hebmüller's remained in the front quarter. The prototypes were thoroughly tested and given final approval by Volkswagen, and the Karosseries were given an order for 2000 cars, with the official designation of the Hebmuller as Type 14A, and the Karmann the Type 15A.

Karmann-convertibleBy the end of 1949, 358 two seater convertibles had been made - comparable to the 364 four seater convertibles made by Karmann. However, the Hebmüller factory was to hit a major setback on Saturday, 23rd July 1949. Fire broke out in the paint shop, and quickly spread throughout the factory. The damage was extensive but with the help of the employees, the factory was again in production only four weeks later.

The fire had put a tremendous strain on the finances of the karosserie and production of the Hebmüller convertible slowed, with 319 cars made in 1950 (Karmann made 2679). The coachbuilder finally went out of business in 1952 and production of the Type 14A was transferred to the Karmann Factory to use up the remaining Hebmüller parts, the last car built in February 1953.

Volkswagen claims 696 Hebmüllers were sold, although Hebmüller claim that a figure closer to 750 cars were built. There are surviving cars with body numbers over 700, with the highest known being 710, but an exact figure of how many cars were built will probably never be known.

The Wolfsburg factory continued to build saloons until it was eventually discontinued in 1978, the biggest change being in 1971 with the introduction of the 'Super Beetle'. These beetles came equipped with the IRS previously only available on US models, and an all new McPherson strut front suspension to replace Porsches preferred torsion bars. This new front suspension allowed a repositioning of the fuel tank and spare tire thus giving an increased luggage capacity. The 1302S super beetle had a slightly redesigned 1600cc engine that developed 50bhp. These changes were accompanied with a revised external body and a new floorpan.

On the 17th February, 1972, the beetle finally overtook Fords model 'T' as the most popular car ever made, later disputed by Ford who found new production figures, the beetle went on to make sure there was absolutely no doubt. The last beetle to be made in Germany left the production line in January 1978, bringing the end of an era, but the Cabriolet production continued for the U.S spec, cars only until 10th January 1980. This was not the end of the beetle though, production continued in Puebla, Mexico in a factory that was built in 1954. The 20,000,000th beetle rolled off the Mexican production line in May 1981 and with demand in Europe for the beetle still high, Volkswagen of Germany was importing beetles from Mexico up to 1985.

 

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 e-mail: Shane@VolksWest.co.uk