A History of Economics in 100 Products – the VW Beetle

In the second of our 'A History of Economics in 100 Products' series we look at one of the world's most iconic cars
In this fascinating video from Harvard University Press, Bernhard Rieger reveals how a car commissioned by Hitler and designed by Porsche became a global commodity on a par with Coca-Cola.

The VW Beetle is arguably one of the most recognisable products of the 20th century. Its curvy design has made it famous the world over.

But the story of the Beetle is also a story of . The sinister twist is that the government involved was led by a man called Adolf Hitler.

If Hitler was alive today, he’d probably be a huge Top Gear fan. It was after taking a ride in a Czech-built Tatra V570, that he asked Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to build a ‘People’s Car’ (or ‘Volkswagen’).

In the 1930s, Germany was still reeling from the Wall Street Crash of 1929, with over six million people out of work. After he’d come to power, Hitler thought mass car ownership might ease unemployment, encourage people to spend their money and improve the economy. He gave Porsche instructions to build a small, efficient and cheap car that would comfortably fit a family, while being fast enough to travel on the country’s new autobahns.

Drawing of a Beetle as shown in a 1938 VW brochure
The Beetle as shown in a 1938 VW brochure

To buy the car, Germans were offered a stamp savings book. The Beetle’s full price was 990 reichsmarks and savers could put aside 5 reichsmarks every week until their book was full. The trouble is, the scheme didn’t really work.

By the time the Second World War began, few German families had saved up enough stamps to buy their Beetle, so the factory mainly ended up building its military cousin, the Kübelwagen (essentially, the ‘bucket car’).

After the war ended, the German economy was in tatters. The Allies realized that the country would need jobs and factories if it was to get back on its feet. With most of the machinery for making Beetles still intact, they restarted production and Beetles started rolling off the lines once again.

The car went on to be a huge success around the world, with millions built and sold over the last 70 years, becoming the surfer’s preferred mode of transport and even starring in the highly successful Herbie movies. Volkswagen went on to become a major player in the global car market. A new model was launched in 1997.

Recently, however, Volkswagen has been hit by a massive pollution scandal. As overall European car sales have climbed, VW’s have dipped, which has knocked millions off its market value. In spite of this, total global sales of all VW models still reached 9.3 million in 2015.

The Beetle remains one of the most iconic of all car designs, and grew to fame in a century in which the automobile, and its corollary, the petrochemical industry, helped stimulate global economic expansion on a scale never before seen.

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