How Did the VW Beetle Become an Emblem of the '60s?

By Nova BarelaLast Updated Mar 5, 2021 1:53:54 PM ET
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Two festival goers that found Woodstock too much lay passed out on the bonnet and roof of their Volkswagen Beetle. Credit: Three Lions/Getty Images

These days, we think of the Volkswagen Beetle as an emblem of 1967’s Summer of Love. The well-known counterculture social phenomenon put San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood on the map — and it helped the Beetle solidify its place as a hippie symbol. But there’s more to the "love bug" than its late ‘60s success story. In fact, the VW Beetle benefited greatly from one of the most successful rebranding efforts in modern history.

The Origins of Volkswagen: World War II

While the VW Beetle is now synonymous with free love and the 1960s, the vehicle’s darker origins began a good three decades prior. In 1933, white supremacist and German dictator Adolf Hitler announced what he called a "people's motorization," and, the following year, the Reich Association of the German Automobile Industry officially challenged the country's automotive industry to develop a "volks wagen," or people’s car.

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The body of the Beetle is mounted on the chassis at the Volkswagen Factory in Wolfsburg in 1962. Credit: Erich Andres/United Images/Getty Images

But this alleged "car of the people" effort was something of a propaganda-minded guise. That is, Ferdinand Porsche developed the vehicle under the motto "strength through pleasure," and aimed to make an all-terrain vehicle for Nazi military use. In fact, the car’s brochure stated that it was "suitable not only for personal use but also for transport and particular military purposes." By May of 1938, Volkswagen's Wolfsburg-based factory opened and began churning out vehicles.

After Nazi forces were defeated in 1945, Germany’s automotive production factories were put under the control of the British government. More than 10,000 Beetles were manufactured by the end of 1946, and, by the end of the decade, Volkswagen had sold around one million Beetles. In fact, it was also during this time that the now-iconic Volkswagen model was dubbed the "Beetle."

Undoubtedly, distancing the Beetle from its unsettling, dark roots was a large undertaking, but, within less than two decades, the vehicle would be reclaimed. And transformed into a counterculture symbol for anti-war, anti-government folks who celebrated free love.

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Beetle-Mania: Marketing Was Key to the VW Beetle’s Success

In 1972, the Wolfsburg manufacturing plant hit a notable milestone: It had manufactured 15,007,034 Beetles, thus surpassing the amount of Ford Model T cars. So, how did this rebranded vehicle’s popularity surge? The VW Beetle was affordable — and compact.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

First off, it’s air-cooled engine, for example, was much smaller and lighter than a water-cooled system. This notable feature also made it much easier to maintain and repair the car. Not only was the Beetle less of an investment upfront, but it didn’t cost owners a ton overtime. Additionally, The Beetle’s size was a key factor in its popularity in the United States.

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Crafted by the New York-based ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, what’s been dubbed "one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time" helped make the Beetle the "biggest selling foreign-made car in America throughout the ‘60s" (via BBC). This 1959 "Think Small" campaign was a departure from traditional automotive advertising, which was full of bluster, fantasy and illustrations of the vehicle. Instead, "Think Small" featured simple, clean photographs of the Beetle, presenting it as a practical, compact alternative to the muscle cars and gas-guzzlers on the market.

"The message was one of smart anti-luxury," a car blog points out. "[And it] took gentle aim at an industry obsessed with superficiality and styling, rather than the substance underneath the car bodies." In many ways, it’s a lot like Apple’s initial marketing stance and aesthetic: Keep it minimal and emphasize those everyday needs.

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That clever marketing angle, combined with a low price and quirky appearance, helped cement the Beetle as an early symbol of ‘60s counterculture. (Well, alongside its cousin, the VW van.) "For the Woodstock generation, driving a Beetle or its larger cousin, the Volkswagen van, was a form of protest against materialism and the gas guzzlers churned out by the big American carmakers," The New York Times notes.

The VW Beetle’s Popularity Continues Post-1960s

Beetles were produced in Germany until 1978, after which production shifted to factories in Brazil and Mexico. In fact, the last Volkswagen Beetle was produced in Mexico in July 2003. By that point, approximately 30,000 Beetles were produced weekly, a figure that stands in stark contrast to the 1,300,000 Beetles produced every seven days in 1971.

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Photo Courtesy: Erich Andres/United Images/Getty Images

In 1997, Volkswagen introduced the "New Beetle," which, among other changes, featured the engine in the front rather than the rear. The New Beetle was produced until 2003, before becoming the A5 Volkswagen Beetle, which was sold until 2019. (A scandal involving Volkswagen’s attempted violation of the Clean Air Act certainly didn’t help, especially in the age of green-minded, electric vehicles.)

In total, a staggering 23 million Beetle models were sold over an 83-year period. So, will this pop culture icon be back any time soon? In December 2020, the CEO of Volkswagen, Scott Keogh, was asked just that. "You know, with the Beetle, never say never," Keogh said. "We're certainly gonna keep its, you know, soul alive."

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