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Greatest car of the 20th century?

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

With the end of the year coming, we tend to get a little nostalgic.  What is the highest selling automobile of all time? If you said the Model T, you would be correct…..if you were answering back in 1972. It was that year that the 15,007,034th car rolled off the line in Wolfsburg, Germany, officially making the VW Beetle the answer to the question.  Prior to the redesign of the “Bug” in 1998, it hadn’t changed much in design since the 1930s, making it the longest running and most-manufactured car from a single design platform, worldwide.

greatest-car-of-the-20th-centuryThe Beetle has been known by a few different names historically – the KdF Wagon, the Volkswagon Type I or even the VW Bug. If you grew up in the 60s, you might even had called them Herbie, after the star of six movies alongside Dean Jones and Buddy Hackett.

The more remarkable fact wasn’t that an anthropomorphic car could outwit the father from Mary Poppins (see The Love Bug), but that this car that was so beloved  by college kids and surfer dudes was actually the brain child of Adolph Hitler.

The People's Car


The legend (probably more supported by facts than not) was that, while in prison in 1924, the future Fuhrer came up with an idea of solve Germany’s massive unemployment problem. They would build special highways for automobiles and would mass-produce a new kind of car - “the people’s car”. 

Ford had been doing something similar with the Model T for years, so this new German car had to be a little different. And it was.  It would be designed to perform well enough to carry five passengers at a speed of 65 mph (100 kph). This would leave the 30-40 mph Model T from the late 20s in the dust. 

And the cost had to be affordable.The plan was for “the people’s car” to cost 990 Reich Marks, equivalent to 31 weeks pay for the average German worker in 1936. That’s equivalent to about $24,500 in today’s money since the median worker today in the US makes $41,000.

So far, so good.  Fast forward a few years, the Nazis are in power, and Porsche is contracted to design the people’s car from 1934-1938.

The minor skirmish that was World War II put full-scale production of the Beetle on hold until 1945. When the first model was sent to England at the conclusion of the war, their leading car makers looked it over and made some pronouncements that history has shown to be, um, a little bit off the mark.

“Quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer.”

“Too ugly and noisy”

“To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.”

It took until 1959, but thanks to the “Think Small” advertising campaign, the Beetle became the highest-selling foreign car in the US for the entire decade of the 60s. And The Love Bug helped make it a pop culture icon. But even Volkswagon knew that good things don’t last forever, and when they introduced the VW Golf in 1974, it signaled the company’s movement away from almost-complete reliance on the Bug for its sales.   Forward ahead 24 years, and consumers rejoiced when, in 1998, Volkswagon brought the Beetle back, even though the new revival was based on the Golf’s floor plan.

It’s certainly justifiable to name the Volkswagon Beetle as the “Car of the Century” of the 20th century, as that’s what it was designated in 1991 by a panel of 100 motoring journalists from 37 countries.

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This post was published on December 27, 2014 and was updated on August 2, 2022.

Topics: Car Care