It has been: a part of Germany's darkest hours as a never-realized Nazi prestige project. A symbol of Germany's postwar economic renaissance and rising middle-class prosperity. An example of globalization, sold and recognized all over the world. An emblem of the 1960s counterculture in the United States. Above all, the car remains a landmark in design, as recognizable as the Coca-Cola bottle.
The car's original design — a rounded silhouette with seating for four or five, nearly vertical windshield and the air-cooled engine in the rear — can be traced back to Austrian engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who was hired to fulfill Adolf Hitler's project for a "people's car" that would spread auto ownership the way the Ford Model T had in the U.S.
Aspects of the car bore similarities to the Tatra T97, made in Czechoslovakia in 1937, and to sketches by Hungarian engineer Bela Barenyi published in 1934. Mass production of what was called the KdF-Wagen, based on the acronym of the Nazi labor organization under whose auspices it was to be sold, was cancelled due to World War II. Instead, the massive new plant in what was then countryside east of Hanover turned out military vehicles, using forced laborers from all over Europe under miserable conditions.
"Unlike in West Germany, where its low price, quality and durability stood for a new postwar normality, in the United States the Beetle's characteristics lent it a profoundly unconventional air in a car culture dominated by size and showmanship," wrote Bernhard Rieger in his 2013 history, "The People's Car."
The New Beetle — a completely retro version build on a modified Golf platform — resurrected some of the old Beetle's cute, unconventional aura in 1998 under CEO Ferdinand Piech, Ferdinand Porsche's grandson. In 2012, the Beetle's design was made a bit sleeker.
The end of the Beetle comes at a turning point for Volkswagen as it rebounds from a scandal over cars rigged to cheat on diesel emissions tests. The company is gearing up for mass production of the battery-driven compact ID.3, a car that the company predicts will have an impact like that of the Beetle and the Golf by bringing electric mobility to a mass market.
The last of 5,961 Final Edition versions of the Beetle is headed for a museum after ceremonies in Puebla on July 10 to mark the end of production.
AP photo blog about the last Volkswagen Beetle: https://bit.ly/32bXuMx