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From the archive, 30 September 1974: VW Beetle seeks survival in new markets

Originally published in the Guardian on 30 September 1974

Unless last week’s enforced short-time working at Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg headquarters has upset the company’s calculations, the eighteen millionth VW Beetle should lie built on Thursday. Such a statistic is perhaps of academic interest – two years ago the Beetle overtook the Model T Ford as the world’s best-selling single model, and with another million Beetles soon to roll off the production lines this year, the only remaining question is how much longer VW will continue to produce the thing.

The Beetle has been both the making and the breaking of VW’s might. Conceived before the war and first produced by the British military caretaker Government in West Germany in the late 1940s, the Beetle’s phenomenal success made VW into the country’s biggest employer, biggest taxpayer, biggest vehicle producer and so on ad absurdum. But the management began to believe that the vehicle’s success would be perpetual and in recent years the single model policy which for so long ruled Wolfsburg has led the company into financial difficulties.

There have been several hundred changes to the Beetle during the years, and there are few parts in today’s cars which would fit those early Beetles. But the car still shows its age, and by the end of the decade VW must surely have taken it off the European market. Until then, however, it continues to be made at the rate of about 4,000 a day in Germany, Belgium, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, and shortly in Nigeria, as well as being assembled in Australia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, and several other countries. It seems that for the future the company will concentrate on selling the Beetle in developing countries where its mechanical simplicity, longevity, and lack of sophistication are considered to be virtues rather than disadvantages.

The Beetle in Britain is no longer a cheap car: even the most basic car costs over £1,000. This year’s inflation and the movement of the Deutschmark against Sterling has hit British VW sales hard, and in spite of innumerable marketing gimmicks such as selling Beetles with seats upholstered in jeans material, the attraction of the model seems to be waning. The Beetle’s American success was slowed down by safety campaigner Ralph Nader, who accused the company of building unsafe cars. The early Beetles were indeed inherently unstable, very susceptible to sidewinds, and generally ill-handling cars. More recently, the suspension has been given a major redesign and the result is a great improvement – but the car still lacks any great feeling of security. It is not a car to be driven fast. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds