Feb. 17, 2023

The Rise of the Volkswagen Beetle

The Rise of the Volkswagen Beetle

February 17, 1972. The Volkswagen Beetle becomes the world's best-selling car, breaking a record held for decades by the Ford Model T.


Cold Open

It’s February 17th, 1939 at a motor show in the Messe exhibition center in Berlin, Germany.

A journalist strokes his hand along the smooth bodywork of a car in the center of a busy hall. Next, to him, a salesman runs through his patter about the brand-new model — the KdF-Wagen — an affordable and practical car that every German family will soon be able to purchase.

The journalist asks whether he can look at the engine, and without waiting for an answer… lifts the hood. But there’s nothing underneath, just an empty compartment. He furrows his brow and asks if the car is just a dummy.

The salesman laughs and beckons the journalist to the rear of the vehicle.

He opens the trunk… and points to the car’s 25-horsepower engine. The journalist nods, impressed by the innovative idea to put the engine in the back. He asks whether he can see the engine running. The salesman looks unsure, but the journalist says he can’t really give the car a good report if he doesn’t see it in action.

After a moment’s hesitation, the salesman fires the engine up. The journalist smiles at the humming sound reverberating around the hall. People turn their heads and stare. And after a few seconds, a red-faced, officious-looking man bustles over.

The man pulls the journalist away from the car and the salesman kills the engine. The journalist starts to protest, but the man shushes him tells him not to disturb the Fuhrer. He points across the hall to a group of men in military uniform. At their center is the instantly recognizable leader of Germany: Adolf Hitler.

The KdF-Wagen is Hitler’s passion project. He’s here to enjoy its official launch at the Berlin Motor Show and bask in the overwhelmingly positive reaction the vehicle receives. The new car is an engineering triumph for Germany and the Nazi regime. But the imminent outbreak of war means the Fuhrer will never see the KdF-Wagen take to Germany’s roads.

Instead, the car will be relaunched after 1945 with a new name. The vehicle now known as the Volkswagen Beetle will be an instant hit. Not only will it help Germany’s economy bounce back after the devastation of war, but it will eventually become the world’s best-selling car, overtaking a record long held by the Ford Model T on February 17th, 1972.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 17th, 1972: The Rise of the Volkswagen Beetle.

Act One

It’s May 1934 in the Kaiserhof Hotel in Berlin, five years before the KdF-Wagen will be launched at the Berlin Motor Show.

58-year-old car designer Ferdinand Porsche rises to his feet and raises his right arm in the Nazi salute. He exclaims “Heil Hitler” as Germany’s leader enters the hotel’s meeting room.

Fourteen months ago, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. He immediately increased the state’s control of vital industries, hoping to use them to strengthen the nation. Within nine months, laborers began to construct a vast network of high-speed highways called autobahns connecting major towns and cities across Germany. Vehicle ownership is still rare as Germany struggles through the Great Depression, but Hitler is planning for the future. So, today, he has summoned Ferdinand Porsche to discuss the next stage in his plan to expand the German automotive industry.

Porsche takes his seat and Hitler flops into a chair opposite. As the Fuhrer begins speaking, Porsche is surprised by the Chancellor’s quiet voice and relaxed demeanor—quite different from the animated, railing speeches Hitler is famed for. In his soft tone, Hitler explains that he wants a cheap, reliable, and easy-to-use car suitable for ordinary Germans.

Porsche nods. He opens his briefcase and pulls out technical drawings for the Type 12, a compact sedan with a distinctive rounded rear that first rolled off his assembly line a few years ago. Porsche suggests that a loan from the state would allow him to ramp up production. But Hitler vigorously shakes his head and mutters “No.”

Porsche frowns, afraid that he’s sparked Hitler’s legendary temper. But the Chancellor maintains his tranquil air as he explains he doesn’t want to subsidize one of Porsche’s old cars. He wants an entirely new vehicle—one that Germans will know has been created for the Nazi regime. He leans across the table and whispers the name he’s given the project: Volkswagen, the People’s Car. Then, he sits back, smiling.

Porsche swallows nervously. He wasn’t expecting to design and build an entirely new car. So he asks whether there are any requirements for the new Volkswagen. Hitler nods and reels off a list of specifications. This new Volkswagen should be able to reach 100 kilometers per hour but be fuel efficient. It should have an air-cooled engine, be able to carry two adults and three children, and it should cost no more than 1,000 Reichsmarks.

After breezing through these requirements, the Fuhrer furtively leans in to enumerate two more important stipulations. The Volkswagen must also be capable of carrying two soldiers and a machine gun. And it should be able to drive at the speed of a marching soldier without stalling.

Porsche tries to keep the shock off his face. Since the end of World War I, Germany’s armed forces have been strictly controlled. But, clearly, that era is coming to an end if Hitler wants to mass-produce a car that can be converted to military use.

As Porsche reels from the realization, the Chancellor stands to leave. Just before Hitler exits, Porsche asks when the Volkswagen should be ready. Hitler turns and calls over his shoulder: “Ten months.”

Ferdinand Porsche quickly gets to work but the car designer fails to hit the tight timetable, in no small part because of the Fuhrer’s constant tinkering and interference. But Porsche does eventually manage to design a car that satisfies all of Hitler’s specifications.

Four years later, in May 1938, Porsche sits on a stage at a building site near Wolfsburg for the ceremonial laying of a cornerstone at the new Volkswagen factory.

It's a grand event. Hitler delivers a speech from a lectern emblazoned with a swastika. Third Reich flags ripple in the breeze. And behind the Fuhrer, in bleachers specially built for the occasion, are dozens of men in military uniform. The cars parked in front of the stage are the only clue that this is a ceremony for a new automobile factory and not another Nazi Party rally. 

In his speech, Hitler praises Porsche and his design team, before making clear that the Nazi Party was the driving force behind the project. Then, he reveals the car’s new name. It’s not going to be the Volkswagen, but the KdF-Wagen, named after a shorthand for the Nazi Party’s official leisure organization meaning Strength Through Joy.

In the coming months, the factory will be swiftly completed. But, only 210 KdF-Wagens will be produced before World War II breaks out and the factory is converted for military use. But in the wake of the conflict, the KdF-Wagen will be resurrected, and its growth will be unstoppable.

Act Two

It’s June 5th, 1945 in Wolfsburg, Germany, 27 years before the Volkswagen Beetle will become the world’s best-selling car.

28-year-old Major Ivan Hirst, an officer in the British army, stands with his hands on hips as troops clear debris from the front of the Volkswagen factory. One of them soon shouts that he’s found the front door. It opens with a kick and Major Hirst enters to find what he can salvage before the factory is demolished.

One month ago, Germany surrendered to end World War II in Europe, and Allied forces began to occupy the former Third Reich. A few days ago, Major Hirst’s unit arrived to take control of Wolfsburg and check if the Volkswagen factory contained any useful tools for the British.

Major Hirst’s expectations are low though. He anticipates a scene of devastation with the factory plundered of anything valuable. But as the officer strides into the vast factory, he’s pleasantly surprised.

It’s dark, but enough light filters through dusty windows to see an assembly line running down the center of the main hall. Everything is still eerily neat and tidy, as though the workers have just clocked off for the day.

As Major Hirst wanders the room, he hears somebody calling his name. He follows the voice to a generator room, where a soldier examines switches and wiring. The soldier says there’s a chance the power is still working. Hirst grabs a large lever and gives it a pull. The lights immediately snap on.

With the building fully illuminated, Major Hirst wanders to the far end of the factory, where the roof has collapsed. Near the gaping hole, at the end of the assembly line, is a distinctively dome-shaped car. Hirst recognizes it as one of the vehicles used by high-ranking Nazi officers. He presumes it’s one of the last produced before the factory was shuttered.

But as Hirst moves to inspect the vehicle, a smooth, cylindrical object in the rubble catches his eye. It’s a bomb. It must have crashed through the roof in an air raid but not exploded. Hirst turns and races out of the factory, calling his men to evacuate.

Safely outside, Major Hirst considers his options. He could allow his engineers to detonate the bomb. It would certainly make his job of demolishing the factory easier. But Hirst decides to disregard his orders. The Volkswagen factory still has power and machinery in place. It might be advantageous to keep it open.

After carefully and safely removing the bomb from the building, Major Hirst gets to work restoring the factory. For three years, he throws himself into the task with enthusiasm. He re-hires the German workers who manned the factory during the war years. He negotiates with the British occupying force to source steel, batteries, and glass. He persuades the British Army to place an order for 20,000 Volkswagens. He even plants fields of crops around the factory to help feed Volkswagen’s workers.

But after three years, the time comes for Major Hirst to relinquish his control over the project. On September 6th, 1948, Hirst walks around the building with Volkswagen’s managing director, Heinz Nordhoff. For the last 18 months, Heinz has worked under constant British supervision. But that’s about to come to an end.

Heinz smiles as Major Hirst shakes his hand and tells him that the factory is no longer under British control. After years of military occupation, it now belongs to the West German government, and Heinz can do with it as he wishes.

But major Hirst is still interested in Volkswagen’s future. He asks Heinz what new cars he has planned. Heinz replies that he doesn’t have any planned at all. Hirst furrows his brow explaining that the Volkswagen factory has 8,700 workers who can make more than 1,000 cars a month. Surely, it makes sense to have a fresh start and build new, improved models.

But Heinz shakes his head. He’s a big fan of the original Volkswagen Type 1—the car designed by Ferdinand Porsche for Adolf Hitler. It’s reliable and sturdy with a unique look. He will improve the design, but he wants to gradually refine the Type 1 rather than start from scratch. Heinz is confident that Germans will fall in love with the model as much as he has.

In time, Heinz Nordhoff will be proven right. As the West German economy recovers from the war, families will have more disposable income. Vehicle ownership will increase—and the most popular car by far will be the Volkswagen Type 1. Happy owners will nickname their distinctively shaped car “the Beetle,” a moniker which will become so widespread that the company will officially adopt it as the car’s name. Only a decade after the war ended, the millionth Beetle will roll off the assembly line. And from there, the car’s popularity and production will continue to soar, pushing the Beetle to break a world record and become the best-selling car in automotive history.

Act Three

It’s February 17th, 1972 at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, 27 years after the factory resumed production following World War II.

A technician is all smiles as he opens a door and slips behind the wheel of a shiny, brand-new Beetle. He’s surrounded by co-workers who eagerly await the historic moment that Volkswagen’s famous Beetle will become the world’s best-selling car.

For the last two decades, the Beetle has recorded phenomenal sales figures. It has been the top-selling car in Germany for 24 consecutive years. It broke into foreign markets too, easily outperforming its French and British rivals. In America, the Beetle was renamed the Bug, and it overcame initial anti-German sentiment to become the most popular imported car for years. But now, behind the wheel of this particular car, the technician beams with pride. He is about to signal to his colleagues the exact moment a new world record is set.

The technician turns the key in the ignition. The engine fires up, and the crowd of workers erupts into cheers. The car is driven slowly past a long line of celebrating workers toward a bank of photographers and television cameras here to capture the moment.

The car’s license plate is marked with the vehicle’s production number. It’s the 15,007,034th Beetle to come off the Volkswagen assembly line. The record held by the Ford Model T for more than four decades has finally been broken.

But the Beetle’s run at the top will not last forever. Despite the celebrations, the car’s production is already in decline. Two years later, Volkswagen will unveil a new model—the Golf hatchback—a car seen by many as the Beetle’s successor. Even so, the Beetle will continue to be built until the last one rolls out of a Mexican factory in 2003. By that time, more than 21 and a half million will have been produced. And though sales of other car models will eventually surpass it, even today, the Beetle remains the best-selling single-generation car in history – an accolade it first achieved on February 17th, 1972.


Next on History Daily. February 20th, 1281. The Japanese Imperial Court orders all temples and shrines to pray for victory in the face of a Mongol invasion, and, in an unlikely twist, a massive typhoon saves the country.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.