Peter Takes on History
February 17, 1972
The VW Beetle becomes the best selling car in the world
Henry Ford once said, "There's no use trying to pass a Ford because there's always another one just ahead."
Funny because it was true. At the time, in the mid 20's, half of all registered automobiles in the world were Fords. But, on this day in history, February 17th, 1972 the Volkswagen, specifically, the Volkswagen Type 1, replaced the Ford Model T as the best selling car in history.
Fifteen million Model T’s were built during their production run from 1908 to 1927. The outrageous production numbers were made possible by one famous Ford innovation; the assembly line. The line production method reduced the time it took to assemble a Model T chassis from 12 hours in 1913 to one hour and 33 minutes in 1914. That year Ford produced 308,000 vehicles; more than the output of all other carmakers combined!
Consumerism was central to Henry Ford’s vision of America. He believed that mass production could keep the cost of manufactured goods low enough that well-paid factory workers with enough leisure time would fuel the engine of a consumer society. Ford put his money where his mouth was. He doubled the minimum wage for his factory workers to $5 a day, instituted a five day work week and a progressive hiring policy welcoming African Americans and even handicapped workers.
Soon his philosophies and manufacturing methods came to the attention of an aspiring automobile manufacturer in Germany who set about emulating Ford’s success. Adolf Hitler hung a full length portrait of Henry Ford in his office and often quoted Ford in his writings.
Ford was an antisemite. Hitler, famously, agreed with him.
As the new Chancellor of Germany Hitler wanted to give Germany wheels. He began an ambitious program of road work and dreamed of filling those roads with affordable German autos available to the average Josepf thanks to a government payment plan.
Hitler hired Ferdinand Porsche to design a “people’s car.” It would hold the average German family - two parents and three children - and would cost no more than a motorcycle - the main method of motorized transportation in the Motherland.
The Volkswagen chassis design was done by an 18-year-old Hungarian student named Bela Barenyi in 1927 a full decade before Porsche was brought in. Barenyi, after a series of lawsuits in the 50’s was finally recognized for designing the car’s basic foundation. Porsche gave it the characteristic shape. But with all of Germany’s industrial production focused on weapons from the mid-thirties until the mid forties, the car was never built.
Production of the Volkswagen finally began as part of Germany’s reconstruction after the Second World War. With German citizens not immediately able to afford the luxury of an automobile, the cars were built for an export market and became part of the German economic miracle of the late 1940’s.
The Germans themselves first attached the name “Käfer” or Beetle. In other countries it had other nicknames. In France and Italy it’s called “The Ladybug.” In Hungary “The Flea.” In Bolivia it’s “The Turtle” and in Finland the “Bubble.” And for some reason, in many countries, it’s known as “The Frog.” Whatever it was called, the VW Beetle was just what the rest of the world wanted in 1950. Sales sky-rocketed. But not in America. We still remembered Germany’s last big export - WWII. So the Beetle wasn’t an easy sell. Until Madison Avenue took the wheel.
The ad men took a look at the VW and figured out what would sell. The size, the economy, the unique shape. If you were around then you can remember the magazine ads. Black and white. A portrait of the Beetle and a clever bit of text below. Like “Think Small,” or “Live Below Your Means” (a new VW cost $1999 in 1969) or the ad in 1969 where they replaced the portrait of the Beetle with a picture of the Lunar Lander and added the caption “It’s Ugly But It’ll Get You There.”
On February 17, 1972, the 15,007,034th Volkswagen Beetle came off the assembly line, breaking a world car production record held by Ford's Model T for 45 years.
On July 31, 2003 the last original Beetle, number 21,529,464 was assembled and immediately retired.
And on December 9, 2010 20 people managed to cram themselves into an “old style” 1964 Beetle setting a Guinness World Record. That’s specifically an “old style” Beetle. The new style Beetle, in production from 1998 to 2011 was clearly roomier and could be stuffed with 25.
Now that’s progress.