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The Volkswagen Beetle

August 12, 2003

A public radio commentary

The last Volkswagen Beetle has rolled off the assembly line in Mexico. Long gone from the United States, the Beetle found a second life in Mexico. But now, with the closing of the Mexican plant, an era has ended.

Selling over 21 million in its lifetime, the Beetle achieved pop status, gaining a reputation as the alternative lifestyle car. Yet its origins were alien to this sensibility.

It began in Berlin in 1933 when Germany's new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, claimed that a nation would in the future be judged by its miles of paved highways. Promising to build a vast network of roads, he bullied German automakers into producing a people's car - a Volkswagen - to fill his new roads.

Hitler tapped Ferdinand Porsche to design his people's car. Porsche had built luxury cars and sports cars, yet he'd always wanted to build a simple, inexpensive car. So, Porsche outlined for Hitler a car with a small engine, four-wheel independent suspension and able to go 60 miles per hour. Hitler added a few design criteria of his own, insisting the car be a four seater to accommodate a family, and that it be air-cooled to protect the car in all types of weather - garages were few and far between in those days.

You probably recall Porsche's Volkswagen Beetle as a cheap thing, yet to my engineer's eye the car was a marvel, even a revolutionary vehicle - introducing innovations adapted only years later by other cars. Its engine and transmission were a triumph of light-weight metal alloys. Its air-cooled engine could travel in all climates, unlike traditional cars with water cooling. And aerodynamically the car was the cutting edge: Today it seems bulky but at the time, 1938, it was the most aerodynamic thing on the road.

It took Porsche's revolutionary car years to make it to the road. Hitler started the car on its journey, but throttled it with his World War: The plant designed to build the Beetle instead made missile parts.

After the War the Volkswagen plant restarted and, using Porsche's design, it made automotive history. It started with a few hundred cars in 1946, expanding rapidly to huge growth in the 60s and 70s as the Beetle took America by storm.

Yet, in the end, the Beetle proved too primitive for modern American. It was a cheap car because there were no air bags, no sophisticated safety bumpers to weigh it down. No emission controls distracted from the elemental simplicity of Porsche's Beetle. By the 1970s regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and others made it impossible for the basic Beetle to survive.

So, the Beetle moved to Mexico, where it thrived until recently, as NAFTA.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises