PORTAGE, Pa. — It's been 50 years since the first Volkswagen Beetle putt-putted out of a German factory, but the "homely little critter" with the bug-eyed headlights and anemic heater still warms the hearts of collectors.
"Other cars are interesting, but the Beetle is beautiful," says Terry Shuler, 39, of Portage, president of the Vintage Volkswagen Club of America and author of a book on the car's history.
"It's so different looking. The Beetle was never copied. Nobody would dare copy the ugly Beetle. Then Volkswagen came out with their little Rabbit, and the whole world looks like Rabbits."
Lester Goldsmith, 34, of Memphis, Tenn., who owns six Beetles, says, "When I think of ugly I think of a '59 Cadillac and '57 Plymouth. Now it may be homely to some, but it's come to be cute to me. And once you get used to it, no other car looks right."
20 Million Produced
It began as Adolf Hitler's "People's Car," which branded it an untouchable in this country for many years. But eventually 20 million VW Beetles were produced, more than any other car in history, and the design changed little over the years.
"Can you conceive of anything coming out of Detroit today lasting 50 years?" asks VW spokesman Bob Stockton. "It just doesn't happen."
Even the company has trouble explaining the car's mystique and its enduring popularity.
"There was something about the Beetle," Stockton says. "It was a homely little critter, sort of like the Cabbage Patch Doll of the automotive world."
Nearly 5 million Beetles, affectionately called "Bugs," were imported into the United States from Germany until 1979. They were replaced by the radically different and more expensive Rabbit, which since 1978 has been assembled at a plant in New Stanton, Pa.
Beetles are still manufactured in Mexico and Brazil, although the latter is phasing out production at the end of this year. So it seems the little car is just about done for--except among collectors, who just can't seem to let it go.
"People are not going to let it go," says Jon Peters, 36, of Mountain View, Calif., who owns six old VWs. "If anything, people want VW to bring back the Beetle.
"The one thing VW didn't count on is that it would have such a cult following."
Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, a German automobile engineer, developed the concept for the Beetle as early as 1926 and built the first prototype 10 years later.
While Porsche is considered the father of VW, Hitler was its godfather. The German dictator wanted the Volkswagen to be a truly inexpensive people's car.
"Crude as it may seem from our perspective, the Beetle was the most aerodynamic vehicle of its day by light years, with its sloped nose, slanted windshield and sloped back and air-cooled rear engine," Stockton says.
"It captured the hearts of many," Goldsmith says. "It had a reputation for being notoriously reliable and economical. I can still operate my old Beetles more economically than a new car. I drive a 1955 daily."
Despite its dependability, low cost and excellent gas mileage, it took about a decade following World War II for the Beetle to finally be accepted by the American public, partly because of its size and a stigma against anything German.
"After the war, everybody wanted big V-8s, a highway cruiser that could go down the Pennsylvania Turnpike at 60 m.p.h.," Stockton says. "Families were bigger and fuel was cheaper. Why would you want this funny looking German car that goes putt, putt, putt?"
Ben Pon, an exporter from Holland, brought the first two Beetles into the United States in 1949.
"They failed so dismally that he had to sell them at cost to buy a ticket to get back home," Stockton says.
By the 1960s, however, the German import had gained a solid foothold, and by 1970, VW was selling more than 400,000 Beetles a year, Stockton says.
But escalating prices, criticism by consumer advocates who claimed Beetles were unsafe, and a push to buy vehicles made in America tarnished the car's luster by the mid-1970s and contributed to its demise in 1979.
Seven years later, an unknown number of late-model Bugs that refuse to quit, refurbished vintage cars and customized versions still scamper over American roads, particularly on the West Coast.
"To have a 'Cal-looker,' a California-style Beetle, is a big thing for a lot of the kids now," Peters says. "You're really cool if you have a Cal-looker with a big stereo system in it, the kind that makes the windows vibrate.
"But even when I take my 1950 deluxe Beetle out on the streets, you'd be amazed at the number of people who will take a look at it, who think it's the neatest thing since sliced bread. You open the deck lid, and it looks like a little squirrel cage. They're amazed that the thing gets down the road on such a small motor."