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PLEASURES OF THE ROAD : BUGGED! : Not since the Model T has there been a car with the staying power of the beloved VW Beetle, an ugly duckling that was adopted by a generation of admirers.

March 12, 1989|DENNIS ADLER | Adler is automotive editor of Westways and West Coast editor of Car Collector & Car Classics.

People often grow fond of homely things, and perhaps nothing on wheels has ever been as homely, or as popular, as the Volkswagen Beetle. Not since Henry Ford's Model T has there been so prolific an automobile. Ubiquitous . There should to be a picture of the VW next to that word in every dictionary.

The Volkswagen is known to have had several origins, but the automobile that truly inspired the VW's design came from none other than Mercedes-Benz. It was the 1936 Mercedes 170H that influenced the Volkswagen's author, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. As automotive ancestry goes, having Mercedes-Benz and Porsche at your roots isn't too shoddy.

Based on the shape of the rear-engined Mercedes, the VW prototypes were built in 1936, with the definitive form arriving in 1938. Had it not been for World War II, the new Wolfsburg assembly plant would have had the cars in production by 1940.

Later, with Germany's factories almost decimated by Allied bombing, Volkswagen's reincarnation might well be attributed to the British, who took control of the Wolfsburg plant in May, 1945. Demand for the cars by British occupation forces helped put the company on the road to prosperity. By 1947, a dealer organization had been set up, and plans were in the works to export "The People's Car" to the people of the world.

In January, 1949, the first Beetle was officially shipped to the United States. How many of the strange-looking, air-cooled, rear-engined sedans attracted American buyers?

Two.

Not a particularly auspicious beginning. VW's first years in this country were unremarkable, to say the least. In three years only 2,000 were sold. And then, in the face of the great chromed and finned vehicles emerging from Detroit, Americans suddenly "discovered" the Volkswagen. Sales began to soar, and Wolfsburg never looked back.

What was the VW's mystique? Styling? It had all the charisma of a beetle, a lasting moniker pinned on the car by American motorists. Performance? With an output of 36 horsepower, the Volkswagen could go fast only if dropped from a very great height. Features? It had few. For years, it didn't even have a gas gauge. Its success has been puzzling to industry analysts for decades.

By the late '60s, the Bug had become something of a cult car, and in Southern California, VWs could be seen cruising the beach cities covered with Peter Max-style paint schemes. And, of course, there were the Beetle Boards. If you owned a VW in good condition, Beetle Boards of America would paint your car with an advertisement, (usually for cigarettes), and pay you a modest fee to cover maintenance costs.

After nearly a quarter century of production, the Volkswagen became the most popular car in the world. On Feb. 17, 1972, the 15,007,034th Beetle was built in Wolfsburg, eclipsing the Model T's record as the most-produced automobile.

Following the fuel crunch of 1973, the Beetle became even more popular in America. Its low-horsepower, four-cylinder engine was one of the most fuel efficient on the road, returning 26 miles to the gallon.

Nothing lasts forever. With the Bug's popularity beginning to wane in the late '70s, Volkswagen introduced its replacement, the Rabbit. The Beetle sedan passed from the showroom in 1977, and two years later, the convertible bid farewell.

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