Last week, the German auto company Volkswagen announced that its plant in Puebla, Mexico, would produce the company's very last Beetle. The famous slope-roofed, rear-engine air-cooled car's final journey from Mexico offers a road map for cars and international relations in the 20th century.
Between 1908 and 1927, Ford's Model T automobile changed the way Americans traveled. Our nation fell in love with cars; most were large and relatively expensive. In the 1940s when America entered World War II, vehicles became part of the war effort and personal purchases were rarely available.
Before the war, Germany produced only upscale vehicles. The leaders of Nazi Germany initially decided to make smaller, inexpensive cars for more of the population. A prototype of the Beetle was developed, but that was shelved to make war machinery.
When the war ended in 1945, the Allies acquired the Volkswagen factory and, for a while, it was used to make British Army vehicles. At that time, many people, businesses and nations rejected anything made in Germany. As a child, I remember adult friends and family saying that they would never buy anything German, let alone a car whose name had been associated with Hitler.
When it became clear that post-war Germany was pro-democracy, attitudes changed; German products began to be accepted in more parts of the world. The repaired Volkswagen factory started producing the car with the iconic silhouette. Initially, these cars were not popular; in 1949 just two VW beetles were sold in the U.S. A year later, 157 were purchased, and by 1955, Volkswagen had produced a million Beetles. Between 1949 and 1977, over 21 million of the old-style VW Beetles were sold worldwide. The VW bus also became a "hippie" favorite.
By the mid 1960s, many Americans decided they really liked the Beetle, also known as the "Bug." It had been 20 years since the end of the war, and a new young generation wanted an inexpensive car and admired its quirkiness. We, personally, hadn't arrived there yet but were on that road.
A friend, leaving the country for a year's sabbatical in the mid-1960s, asked us, then a one-car family with two kids and a two-car garage, to "car sit" for the year. He warned us that when he reclaimed his car, and we had only one again, it would cost us money. We laughed; we shouldn't have.
Two days after our friend returned and took his car home, we were desperate for a second but affordable car. That's how we ended up at a small car repair shop where a man had combined parts from a 1963 and 1964 baby blue Beetle. For $600 we had our second car. In 1972, Maury took the Beetle to the local VW dealer for significant repairs and returned home with brand new tomato-orange Beetle.
It seemed wonderful and moved with us from Illinois to Huntington. Its rear-engine stabilized it in Chicago's snows, but the stick shift wasn't much fun in Huntington's underpasses. In the late 1970s, new Beetle safety ratings raised serious concerns about the car. We traded it in for an equally small but safer canary yellow Toyota Tercel. Irony! At the time, Americans were rejecting German cars, Japanese ones were certainly not desired.
In recent years, VW Beetle sales have been sluggish and mainly in developing countries as more Americans sought SUVs and trucks. The Beetle's final journey from Mexico is a good reminder of how America's preferences for vehicles and international relations have changed over time.
Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org