Beetle Retrospective: From 1949 to the 21st Century, we celebrate the Beetle in America

The Beetle is not just another car.
No sir: the Beetle – old, new or otherwise is a cultural icon, a creator of strange rock star rumors, a maker of film history and a racing champion on the track and in the sand. It’s our first car, our fathers’ first car, our grandfather’s first car, and, soon, it will be our next car. So to start the celebration, we thought we’d take a look at a few of the miles we’ve traveled since 1949, when the Beetle was new to America and so, for that matter, were we.

The 2012 VW Beetle
We’re not spilling the beans. Except to say that some folks out there feel that the 2012 VW Beetle will take styling hints from our Ragster concept (Autoblog says that). We’ll let the people decide when they see it. Otherwise, it’s true that the Beetle is based on the Golf VI platform and that powertrains will be shared accordingly. We can also confirm that the Beetle will feature technologies like Bluetooth®, a Fender™ Premium Audio System, 19-inch wheels and dual exhaust.

Say Hello, and Goodbye to the New Beetle – the 00s

  • 2010: Final Edition Coupe and Convertible, along with the Red Rock, close out the New Beetle.
  • 2006: The New Beetle receives a slight redesign, and the 2.5L 5-cylinder engine replaces the 2.0L and 1.8T powerplants
  • 2004: A New Beetle TDI becomes the first production Volkswagen model to be paired to the DSG transmission
  • 2003: The much-anticipated New Beetle Convertible goes on sale
  • 2003: The final air-cooled Beetle, “La Ultima Edición,” rolls off the production line in Puebla, Mexico on July 31st
  • 2002: Turbo S debuts, along with a 6-speed manual, a 180-hp 1.8T engine, special wheels, interior, and more for performance-oriented Beetle fans

You want sporty? Try the Dune Concept, introduced at the 2000 Los Angeles Auto Show. An all-wheel drive sports Beetle designed for Baja-style racing and playing, the Dune had a 2.3-liter five-cylinder engine and a variable roof that changed with light and heat – and also went up and down. With 18-inch alloy wheels, the Dune sported a very aggressive stance.

Generally, the 00s featured a number of special editions (New Beetle Hot Wheels, anyone?). Perhaps most notable, however – and least known – is Mexico’s Ultima Edicion Beetle in 2003. This was truly the last Beetle (not New) built and sold. Only 3,000 were made, and they featured a choice of Aquarius Blue or Harvest Moon Beige exterior paint, a 1.6-liter engine, CD player with four speakers plus chrome bumpers, trim, hub caps and exterior mirrors. Of course, for the US, the last, last, really final edition Beetle was the New Beetle in 2010.

CONCEPT 1 and the 90s

  • 1998: the New Beetle is officially launched in the U.S. and Canada
  • 1994: the CONCEPT 1, designed by Volkswagen Group’s design center in Simi Valley, CA, is presented at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit

Those who were there say things got a little crazy at the Detroit Auto Show in 1994. People lined up to simply see the Concept that would become the replacement for the Beetle. They say there was even some line cutting, and even certain other automotive executives were spotted at the booth, checking out the VeeDub goods. All in all, it’s fair to say that the debut of the Concept 1 is now firmly enshrined among the greatest vehicle debuts ever. After all, it’s a Beetle, and some twenty years after the last Beetle had been built for America, it was back. Designed by J Mays and Freeman Thomas at the company’s Simi Valley, California design studio, the New Beetle actually hit the streets in 1998. And while the New Beetle was mechanically closer to the Golf as a part of the Volkswagen Group PQ34 platform, design-wise it was a clear relative to the Beetle – just look at those running boards, sloping headlamps and rounded roofline.

Super Beetle and the 70s-80s

  • 1979: Final model year for the standard Beetle sedan and Super Beetle Convertible in the U.S., with the final one – a Triple White Edition Convertible – rolling off the line on January 10, 1980
  • 1975: The final year for the Super Beetle, as the Golf GTI makes its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
  • 1974: Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection is added to the Super Beetle to help comply with new U.S. pollution standards; it also improves the Beetle’s fuel economy to 33 mpg.
  • 1972: 15,007,034th Beetle models are produced, surpassing the Ford Model T as the most-produced car of all time (a record currently held by the Toyota Corolla)
  • 1971: Super Beetle is introduced, with such improvements as the first on-board diagnostics for VW, an optional semi-automatic transmission, and a more powerful 1600cc engine. McPherson struts replace torsion bar front suspension.

So – just how Super was the Super Beetle? Try fuel injection. And colors like “Marathon Metallic”, a limited edition “Bi-centennial Beetle Convertible” and super cool “waist” stripes. And if you think that putting matte paint on a car came around sometime during the nineties at the SEMA Auto Show, well, think again: the Super Beetle had matte black trim in the seventies. The engine was a standard 1600 with super cool black tip exhausts. It also came available with Recaro sport seats, a stereo radio and fog lamps.

Herbie and the 60s

  • 1969: Disney’s “Herbie the Love Bug” debuts; 3 more Herbie films would follow in the next 11 years.
  • 1968: Independent rear suspension replaces the dated “swing axle,” the front end gets more modern ball-joints instead of king-pins, and the wheel bolt pattern changes from the “wide-5” configuration to a four-lug setup.
  • 1967: Beetle gets a 12-volt electrical system (previously 6-volt)
  • 1966: Introduction of the “more” powerful “1300” engine
  • 1960 or 61: Beetle gets a gas gauge!

Despite key improvements such as a more powerful engine and an independent rear suspension, the sixties were cultural. First there was an unexpected cameo on the album of “that band by a similar name,” and of course there was Herbie the Love Bug. But first, the band: a 1968 Lotus White Beetle is seen on the cover of their 1969 album as the band walks the crosswalk. The Lotus White was eventually purchased by the owner of a music shop, who recognized the forgotten car at a dealership. It later made its way to VW.

As far as Herbie goes, here’s the thing: he was a race car. And he won. Always.

Question: In the original movie, which engine powers Herbie during racing scenes?

Early Days – 40s and 50s

  • 1958: The rear window changes again – this time the rectangular window that carried through to the end of Type 1 production in 2003
  • 1955: One millionth Beetle rolls off the assembly line in Wolfsburg (during this same year, Volkswagen of America, Inc. is established in Englewood Cliffs, NJ)
  • 1953: First year for the “oval” rear window, which replaced the “split” window
  • 1949: The first two Beetle models are imported and sold in the U.S.

In America, Volkswagen sold two 1949 Beetle models featuring a more powerful 1131 cc engine (making 25 horsepower) and a VW logo on the rims. And despite the slow start in the States, it was just six years later when the Beetle registered 1 million on the worldwide assembly line build-o-meter, VW in America was established and the Beetle began its climb to become the most popular car ever sold.

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Related Links:

‘Crazy restless’ couple drives a Beetle around the world.

Beetle Performance in 3D: Bam-a-lam!

Fender: The Sound of Performance

Electric VW Beetle

VW Beetle: A Look Back

The VW Beetle: Peace, love and smoking tires.

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