The Volkswagen Beetle first went into civilian production 75 years ago this month – the launch of one of the most iconic cars of the 20th century.
December 27 marks the official anniversary of the car known as the Type 1. The Beetle had been originally planned as a prestige project by Hitler’s National Socialists before the war.
But from 1939 onwards, the Wolfsburg factory was switched to building armaments for the German war effort, by which time only 630 Beetles had rolled off the production line.
It was only under British trusteeship that the unique success story of the VW Beetle began at Wolfsburg, thanks to the strategic vision of Major Ivan Hirst of the British Army.
Hirst played a key role – it was his farsightedness and talent for improvisation that made it possible to start production in the years of rationing under conditions dominated by war shortages.
With his enthusiasm for technology and cars, his purposefulness and distinct attitude, he succeeded in transforming a former armaments plant into a civilian industrial company in an impressively short space of time.
The British Military Government had already issued an order for 20,000 vehicles in August 1945. The start of production was a visible sign of a new beginning and hope at the factory, which had been largely destroyed by the end of the war.
This solution was in line with later British policy for Germany, which saw financial security and future prospects for the population as key elements in the development of democratic structures. Finally, democracy finds its way into the Volkswagenwerk: on November 27, 1945 a Works Council elected in a democratic ballot held its first constituent meeting.
Nevertheless, there were considerable problems in supplying the workforce with food and living space and production was hampered by raw material and energy supply bottlenecks. Despite these difficult conditions, the first Volkswagen left the production line shortly after Christmas. Wolfsburg and Volkswagenwerk received a belated Christmas present only eight months after the end of the war. By the end of 1945, 55 vehicles had been built.
The decision to develop a civilian factory and to start series production of the Volkswagen Type 1 was the starting point of a unique success story.
Under the unofficial designation of VW Beetle, the car became more popular than almost any other car model throughout the world. It was also a record breaker in terms of production duration and volume. Volkswagen only discontinued production of the VW Beetle in Mexico in 2003, after 21,529,464 vehicles had been manufactured, including about 15.8 million in Germany.