The origins of the car date back to 1930s Nazi Germany. Hitler's desire that almost anybody should be able to afford a car fit with a proposal by car designer Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1952). The intention was that ordinary working Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme. Prototypes of the car called the KdF-Wagen (German: Kraft durch Freude = strength through joy), appeared from 1936 onwards. The car already had its distinctive round shape -- designed by Erwin Komenda -- and air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine. However the factory (in the new town of Kdf-Stadt, purpose-built for the factory workers), had only produced a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. Consequently the first volume-produced versions of the car's chassis if not body were military vehicles, the jeep-like Kübelwagen (approx. 52,000) and the amphibious Schwimmwagen (approx. 14,000). Deliberately designed to be as simple as possible mechanically, there was simply less that could go wrong; the radiator-less air-cooled 985cc 25hp motors proved especially effective in action in North Africa's desert heat.
The Volkswagen company owes its postwar existence largely to one man, British army officer Major Ivan Hirst (1916-2000). Post-war, he was ordered to take control of the heavily bombed factory, which the Americans had captured. He persuaded the British military to order 20,000 of the cars, and by 1946 the factory was producing 1000 cars a month. The car and its town changed their Nazi-era names, to Volkswagen (people's car) and Wolfsburg.
Production of the "Type 1" VW Beetle (German: 'Käfer', US: 'Bug', French: 'Coccinelle', Mexico: 'Vocho') increased dramatically over the years, the 1 millionth one rolling off the assembly line in 1954. During the 1960s and early 1970s innovative advertising campaigns and a glowing reputation for reliability and sturdiness helped production figures to surpass the levels of the previous record holder, the Ford Model T: by 1973 total production was over 16 million. Faced with stiff competition by economical Japanese autos, sales began dropping off in the mid 70s. Production lines at Wolfsburg switched to the new water-cooled VW Golf in 1974, a car unlike its predecessor in most significant ways. Beetle production continued in smaller numbers at other German factories until 1978, but mainstream production shifted to Brazil and Mexico. Volkswagen sold Beetles in the United States until 1978 and in Europe until the mid-1980s.
Like its competitors the Mini and the Citroën 2CV, the original-shape Beetle long outlasted predictions of its lifespan. More so than those cars, it maintains a very strong following worldwide, being regarded as something of a "cult" car since its 1960s association with the hippie movement. Sales of the Volkswagen Beetle model exceeded those of Ford Model-T (15 million) on February 17, 1972 and by 2002 there had been over 21 million produced. Production continued in Mexico until mid-2003.
In 1998 Volkswagen launched the nostalgic New Beetle, a car technically unrelated to the original in any way, being based on the Golf, but deliberately reminiscent of the original's rounded shape. Marketing campaigns have stoked the continued goodwill people have towards the original, and helped the new model to inherit it to some extent.
By 2003 annual production had fallen to 30,000 from a peak of 1.3 million.