Some classics wear their price tags on their sleeves. Look at a fuel-injected ’57 Chevy Bel Air, and it’s immediately apparent that it’s valuable merchandise. On the other hand, there are the sleepers of the classic car world, the cars that are worth a lot of money but it’s only obvious to those in-the-know. Your Accord-driving neighbor would, for example, never guess that the proceeds from a restored VW microbus could put his kid through college at a very good state school. Here are five you’d never suspect of being quite pricey:
The original air-cooled VW Beetle lasted an incredible 58 years in production, during which time it was fundamentally unchanged. It’s a record that will likely never be approached, let alone broken. Although nearly everyone of a certain age has at least one Beetle story or fond memory, there are a few things still not generally known about the beloved car. Here are five of our favorites:
- The original classic Beetle didn’t leave production until 2003: Although it was last sold in the U.S. in 1979 (by which time the water-cooled Rabbit had replaced it), the original air-cooled Beetle was produced in Puebla, Mexico, until 2003. It’s essentially identical to the cars produced in Germany for export to the U.S. in the 1970s, but it is illegal to try to import a Mexican Beetle into the U.S. because they don’t comply with recent emissions and safety laws.
- It was conceived by an infamous dictator: The original Beetle was the brainchild of Adolf Hitler. Keen to put ordinary Germans on the newly constructed autobahn superhighways in their own cars, a subsidized savings plan involving a coupon booklet was devised. When a family filled their booklet, they were supposed to get their car. WWII intervened and all pre-war Beetle deliveries were limited to Nazi party officials. Private owners didn’t get their hands on a Beetle until after the war.
- Germans don’t remember it as fondly as we do: The connection with the dictator who brought ruin to their country as well as the fact that it serves as a reminder of the lean times before the West German economic miracle took hold means that post-war Germans don’t have the same warm and fuzzy feelings about the Beetle that American ex-hippies do.
- The Beetle will float: The Beetle may have been inexpensive, but it was never cheap. Gaps were tight and doors sealed well. Additionally, it was a unibody car with a very flat floor with few openings. All of this meant that the car would actually float for at least several minutes after hitting the water before turning into a small U-boat.
- Subject of groundbreaking ad campaign: The Beetle was the subject of one of the most influential ad campaigns of the 20th century. Most recently lampooned on the TV show “Mad Men,” it was among the first national campaigns to utilize irony and self-deprecating wit. A tiny black-and-white photo of a Beetle in a sea of white space with only the headline “Think Small” was the first of the ads introduced in 1959 by the agency Doyle Dane Bernbach.
February 9 marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The ensuing British invasion certainly had an impact on American youth culture.
But it was the arrival of another type of Beetle that not only arrived first, but that had a larger impact, perhaps not on American youth culture but on American car culture and drivers of all ages.
It was in January 1949 that the first Volkswagen Type 1, the car that would be beloved by the nickname it gained from its beetle-like shape, arrived in the United States.
That first Beetle was shipped to New York City by Dutch businessman Ben Pon Sr., the first official Volkswagen importer. Believe it of not, only two such Beetles were purchased that year by American drivers,. Yet before the end of the year, Volkswagen of America had established its U.S. headquarters on the East Coast, and by the mid-1950s more than 35,000 Beetles were on American roads.
Inexpensive to buy and to operate, VW Beetles became popular with economy-minded drivers and by Americans who saw Detroit as part of the stifling Establishment. By the end of the ‘60s, more than 400,000 “bugs” were being sold each year in the U.S.
An anniversary news release from VW notes that, “from custom paint jobs to open-top Dune Buggy bodies, the Beetle fit perfectly into the counter-culture of the 1960s.”
“Since its arrival in the United States 65 years ago, the Volkswagen Beetle has preserved its reputation of being more than just a car, but a symbol of uniqueness and freedom,” Michael Horn, president of what now is known as Volkswagen Group of America, said in the anniversary announcement.
“The Beetle has become part of the cultural fabric in America and we are proud that its rich heritage continues to live with fans around the States,” he added.
The original Beetles with their air-cooled and rear-mounted engines continued to be offered in the U.S. marketplace through 1977. Other, more modern cars replaced the “Bug” as the mainstay of the VW lineup. But 21 years later, a New Beetle, a contemporary car with its engine in front and with five-star safety protection for those riding inside — but also with delightfully retro styling — relaunched the Beetle brand and presence in the U.S.
Beetlemania was back.
‘Vee Dub: Bohemian Beauties” is the unlikely name for a new exhibit at LeMay-America’s Car Museum that focuses on the little car that could: the classic Volkswagen in all its glory.
Opening Saturday, Jan. 11 with a public unveiling at the Tacoma, Wash., museum, the show features examples from private collectors and the museum’s own collection of Ferdinand Porsche’s simple “people’s car” that took the world by storm.
Volkswagen of America, which is partnering with LeMay in producing the exhibit, has lent three rare and significant VWs:
KdF-Wagen — Only a handful of KdF-Wagens were produced between 1941 and 1945 for use by the German army. The fully restored vehicle contains more than 95 percent of the original KdF parts.
Panel Delivery Type 2 — The panel-delivery variation of the rear-engine sedan was ideal for loading and transporting cargo with its large double cargo doors and low floor. Today, it is an enduring collector’s item.
Wedding Car Beetle — Volkswagen de Mexico built two of these wrought-iron-bodied beetles in recognition of the uniquely artistic effort by a private customizer in Mexico during the 1960s.
“We are excited to collaborate with Volkswagen to celebrate a car brand that has defined a culture of customization and entrepreneurship,” said David Madeira, president and CEO of the museum.
The opening Saturday includes a movie marathon showing three The Love Bug films featuring Herbie, the sentient VW race car.
The Vee Dub show also has a social media element: tell your own unique Volkswagen stories under the hashtag #VWACM. The best stories will be on digital display at the exhibit.
For more information, see Vee Dub: Bohemian Beauties.
(Editor’s note: One of the features we hope to include as a regular part of this blog are photos and stories from those often unexpected but usually very pleasant surprises found while exploring the rust and dust of the old roads. Let us know if you’ve come across such places so we can share your stories and photos as well.)
Bobby Troup wrote about Flagstaff, Kingman, Barstow and San Bernadino, and for some reason he didn’t forget Winona, though I’ve been there and saw nothing that might be a reason for memorialization in a song. Unless, perhaps, Winona wasn’t just the way station between Gallup and Flagstaff but a woman who shared the town’s name?
Regardless, Troup didn’t include Newberry Springs in his lyrics for (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, perhaps because even back in 1946 Newberry Springs was little more than a watering hole in the Mojave Desert (they wouldn’t film the movie Bagdad Cafe there until the mid-1980s), or maybe because Vartan “Willie” Kalajian had yet to establish his business in Newberry Springs.
We were driving the California section of old Route 66 when we spotted what appeared to be an auto salvage yard hidden behind trees and protected by a big fence. However, it never — well, not usually — hurts to see if you can get in, so we followed a long, sandy driveway to an open gate.
There sat Willie himself, wrenching on a spotless white Karmann-Ghia he was building up for his daughter.
Willie mind if we wandered around and took some photos?
Help yourself, he said.
Later, we got to chatting and realized that if we’d have asked to stay for dinner, Willie likely would have been accommodated.
Willie’s business is Willie’s On & Off Road Center, which specializes in Volkswagens and in using VW parts to build dune buggies, he said. After our trip, we checked his website (www.williesoffroad.com) and learned he also scouts locations for movie shoots, and provides vehicles for those movies and location support for film crews working throughout the region.
The Volkswagen “Type 1″, more affectionately (and certainly more descriptively), referred to as the “Beetle” or “Bug”, was first introduced to the American public in 1949. It was 1933 and the demand of Germany’s leader (yes, Der Furher, Hitler himself), that Germany build a state-sponsored “People’s Car” or Volkswagen. He put together his idea of what the vehicle should be capable of and how much it should cost, so the average German citizen could afford it. In fact, a “Stamp-Book” savings program called, “Five Marks a week you must save . . . if to drive your own car you crave”, which some 336,000 Europeans bought into. He wanted a vehicle that would easily carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100km/hr (approx. 62mph) and cost around 990 Reichsmark (roughly the price of a small motorcycle at the time). A tough task to achieve, many designers and manufacturers would try and fail.
Browse the world’s largest online marketplace for classic and collector vehicles.
Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was chosen (sometime in 1933 or 1934) as the Chief Engineer of the project and began working on the design immediately. He had in his mind the idea of a vehicle which he had been working on (for several years prior) in his own design studio. By 1938, a factory was set up near the new town of KdF-Stadt (the name was later changed to Wolfsburg), which was actually a purpose-built town, specifically for the workers and their families to live.
Prototypes of the vehicle surfaced as early as 1936 and were built at the time, in a plant in Stuttgart, Germany. Erwin Komenda, the former Chief Designer for Auto Union (now Audi), was in charge of the body design and actually used an innovative device, called a “Wind Tunnel”, to make the car aerodynamically efficient for optimum fuel economy. Unfortunately, by the time WWII started in 1939, they had only produced a handful of units, none of which were delivered to the Stamp-Book holders. Then, by orders of Hitler, all manufacturing was changed to military production to support the war efforts. However, a year earlier, they were able to present a completed “Cabriolet” to Hitler on April 20, 1938 (in celebration of his 49th birthday).
Several military versions of the distinctive round-shaped body, with the flat four-cylinder, air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and rear wheel drive were produced at the new factory in Stuttgart during the war. Just before the war ended, sometime in April of 1945, the U.S. Forces had captured the area of KdF-Stadt (renamed Wolfsburg shortly after the war) and its heavily bombed factories.
After the war, the U.S. handed it over to the British who were in control of the “occupation zone” were it was located. British Army Officer, Ivan Hirst, is considered almost solely responsible for the survival of the vehicle in the post-war era. He took one of the vehicles and painted it green (instead of the German military tan) and presented it to the British Army officials and suggested they use them for “light transport” vehicles. They were persuaded it was a good idea and placed an immediate “vital-order” for 20,000 units to be built. The first several hundred units, produced in the still severely damaged factory, went to the German Post Office and personnel of the occupying forces.
By 1955, they had produced the first million Volkswagen Beetles (Type 1’s). Quite a feat, all things considered. Shortly after the war had ended, several automotive manufacturers from the U.S.A., Britain and France had been offered the company and its facilities, but all declined, with most stating that the little car would never sell or be popular in their markets and some even stated it was not only too ugly, but too noisy.
In fact, Henry Ford II said what they are trying to give us “is not worth a damn!”! Major Hirst, who had fiercely protected the little car and its factory since the end of the war, would hand over control of its operation to Heinrich “Heinz” Nordhoff, a former senior manager at Opel Ag. He would run the company, keeping the “one-model” policy in effect, until shortly before his death in 1968 (there being only two successful diversions from that policy . . . the introduction in 1950 of the Type 2 van, camper and pickup models also known as the “Transporter and Microbus” and the 1955 introduction of the Karmann Ghia sportscar). In 1949, the company had been reformed as a trust and was controlled by the new West German government and the government of the State of Lower Saxony.
It wouldn’t be until August of 1967, that the Volkswagen parent company would refer to the Type 1 as a “Beetle” in their own marketing materials for the U.S.A. Worldwide production of the original air-cooled, Type 1 was over 21.5 million units making it the longest-running and most continually produced vehicle of the same design-style platform in history; eventually, surpassing the long-held record by the Ford Model T. The beloved little Beetle was sold in the U.S. through 1980 and was manufactured and sold in other areas of the world through July of 2003. The last air-cooled Beetle to be made was rolled out of the plant in Puebla, Mexico on July 30, 2003. The Beetle went through several minor transformations and upgrades, yet basically remained the same until the end of its run.
In an international poll, conducted in 1999, for the most influential car of the 20th Century, the Volkswagen Beetle came in fourth after the Ford Model T, The British “Mini” and the Citroen “DS”. The Beetle was and still is, famous today for many types of racing and even has special classes and races held in its honor. It is especially suited for the grueling Baja desert events due to its famous air-cooled reliability and great traction. The Beetle has attained “cult” status on a worldwide basis and continues to draw crowds everywhere it goes. Certainly the most famous and beloved of all Beetles is Walt Disney’s, little white “Herbie the Love Bug”, old #53 complete with racing stripes.
A travel operator is offering people the chance to see Mexico from the unique perspective of a classic VW Beetle.
While the Beetle was first built in the late 1930s, it was actually still in production in its vintage form until 2003 at factories in Mexico, which is why you can still sometimes find classic cars of this kind that are in pristine condition.
The tour operator’s Travelling Beetle service allows you to explore many different areas of Mexico, from the central spine of the country to the gorgeous coastlines.
At the moment, you will have to be able to handle a stick shift car in order to take part in a tour, although the operator is planning to source some automatic models for the 2013 season.
Twelve people can hire six cars for large group stints, although there are of course smaller packages for two or more people.
Spokesperson, Nicolas Caillens, said that he was aware that some people would be concerned about the safety of travelling on the roads of Mexico, but pointed out that the tour specifically avoided the small number of states in which drug-related violence is prevalent, giving tourists plenty of harmless fun behind the wheel.