Road Tests Sales Legends

Sales Legend: VW Beetle

Time 7:22 pm, June 22, 2010

beetle1THE VW Beetle is the daddy of sales legends.

No other car can beat its staggering sales total – Ford’s Model T may have been a pioneering car, which put millions on the road, but the Beetle beat its production record way back in 1972.And had another 30-odd years to go after that!

You may already know from many a pub quiz, but the total sales figure still bears repeating: 21 million. Yes, 21 million. Such an amount of cars is barely comprehensible, particularly as VW seemed not to make a single major change throughout the car’s life.

It did, of course – but the model you could still buy from Mexico in 2000 was, to the untrained eye, still pretty much the same as the 1930s original. 

Mind you, just as famous as the Beetle is its infamous route to production. It was the brainchild of one Adolf Hitler, who wanted a car to put his nation on the road, and fill up those amazing new autobahns he was building. His stipulation was to carry two adults and three children at 100kph – a good 60-odd mph, then – from one side of Germany to the other, with total German reliability and dependability. 

He set another big name the design challenge – Ferdinand Porsche. He of 911 fame followed his characteristic profile of rear-mounted engine, aerodynamic shape and absolutely assured build standards, to give Hitler what he wanted. Amazingly, the design team then undertook no less than 1.8 million miles of testing to prove the integrity of the car.

The Second World War interrupted its launch, which was to be tied in with a special savings scheme for Germans. This would mean many more people could afford a car, by buying stamps each week to collect in a booklet. It was a bit like Green Shield stamps, ahead of its time and certainly generated enough interest to be a route to new car ownership that’s perhaps worth reassessing today…

Alas, for those who’d eagerly saved, it never fully came to be. Instead, the war-struck factory was taken over by the Brits, led by Army engineering whizz Dr Ivan Hurst. He tried to get forward-thinking British car companies interested in taking it over. 

beetle6Of course, as they were so forward-thinking and on the money, they refused, reckoning the car had no real commercial merit. Production thus restarted independently.

Despite this obvious missed opportunity by homegrown car makers, UK dealers saw the Beetle early. The first one sold here was by J Gilder in Sheffield, back in 1953, and it soon started exploding across the country.

It was this one car that led to the huge VW Group operation in the UK today, meaning tens of thousands of motor industry jobs can be directly related to it.

The secret to the Beetle’s massive success was, of course, advertising. Once things were up and running, see, the reliable car was proving to be so popular in Europe, the company reckoned it could start selling it in the US, too. With the help of some brilliant advertising, it was an absolute sensation, and quickly forced the massive Wolfsburg factory to grow
even larger.

The world hadn’t seen anything like it – by 1972, 15 million of them had been built. Quite incredible, for a car that was also famed for its consistent, never-change style and development. Big news was the introduction of a clock. Huge news was a slightly larger engine. Bodywork changes or all new models? Why, the very idea…

We love to mark legends here in Car Dealer Magazine, but the VW Beetle is a particularly special case. The entire VW story started here, and the whole Volkswagen business model and ideas have been built on the qualities it so brilliantly showed off. It’s the legend of legends, alright… 


James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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