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Eight decades later, the last Beetle rolls off the production line



After eight decades, the longest-running car in automotive history is about to disappear. On Wednesday, the last Beetle rolled off the line at Volkswagen's sprawling assembly plant in Puebla, Mexico.

It's been a long, strange trip. Originally conceived by Adolf Hitler as the "people's car" – or Volkswagen, in German – the Beetle eventually became the most popular vehicle in the world.

The little car has come back from the dead twice before, however, and a senior VW official has suggested one should "never say" when it comes to bringing the Beetle back to life yet again.

Designed by Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche ̵

1; who would later launch his own sports car – the Beetle was first produced in 1938. By 1972, production had topped 15 million, surpassing demand for Henry Ford's long-lived model T.

In recent years, VW has tried to revive demand with a series of new versions but, in time when SUVs and CUVs have shunted sedans and coupes to the side of the road, slumping sales made the decision inevitable.

But the initial run was limited. The first Beetle rolled out of the then-new VW plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, just months before the opening shots of World War II. The factory was quickly converted to military production and, by the time the silence fell, the Allies had bombed it into rubble.

That might have been the end of a very brief history, it was not for British Army Major Ivan Hirst, who was assigned to restart German manufacturing. He found one car that somehow survived the bombing and decided to put it back into production. A few years later, the first of the reborn beetles was shipped to the U.S. and hit with buyers tired of the behemoths that Detroit was producing at the time.

It was the American counterculture that really embraced the Beetle, transforming Hitler's people's car into a hippie-mobile – along with the Volkswagen Microbus. At its peak, the German automaker sold over 400,000 Beetles annually in the U.S. Volkswagen Beetle in Berlin, 1965. Volkmar Hoffmann / picture alliance via Getty Image

Two decades later, production had reached 21 million. But the Beetle was already in decline. By then, it was almost an afterthought for Volkswagen, which was rolling out ever-broader mix of products, including the golf model that had largely supplanted the Beetle.

By 2003, with global sales down to more than 30,000, Volkswagen Pulled the plug after 65 years of production. But the nameplate quickly won, with the automaker bowing to fans by revealing the "New Beetle," the first complete makeover ever.

Sales did gain some momentum, but the New Beetle never came close to matching the success of the original. It obtained any traction in Europe, with demand largely centered in the U.S. and Latin America.

VW tried to give it one more shot, introducing a third-generation model in 2011 that addressed complaints about the New Beetle's stubby nose and cramped interior. The remake got a big send-up when, on November 22, 2010, Oprah Winfrey announced on her TV show she was giving a third-gene Beetle to everyone in her audience

But the sales needle barely moved, and the little coupe rapidly loses ground as buyers started migrating from passenger cars to utility vehicles

Last August, VW announced the end of an era with the launch of the "Final Edition" Beetle, giving it two special paint colors and some minor tweaks to the exterior trim. Sales have actually gained some momentum this year: American motorists took delivery of 9,398 of the cars during the first half of 2018, up from 7,967 during the same period last year. But during the original car's heyday, VW sold nearly that many in the U.S. each week

Could there be another Beetle in the works? VW is spending billions of dollars to shift from gas to diesel power and has already announced plans to build an all-electric version of the classic Microbus. This past April, meanwhile, the revealed an all-electric dune buggy concept at the New York International Auto Show. Past decades, Beetles were routinely converted into beach buggies and some analysts wondered if an all-electric version of the bug could follow


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