Car and culture enthusiasts across the globe mourned the loss of the Volkswagen Beetle back in 2019, when the brand officially stopped production of the beloved model. For over 60 years, the VW Beetle captured the hearts of minds of Americans through film, television, and more. But how did the Beetle first achieve its status as an icon? Turns out, there’s quite the storied history to this treasured vehicle. 

Early days

As many fans of the VW Beetle will know, the iconic model had a grim start. In 1935, the same year that the swastika became the German flag, engineers drew up the Volkswagen, or “people’s car” as an affordable, practical vehicle fit for German families. The first model of the car was shown to the public in 1938, but the project was quickly put on hold as WWII broke out across Europe. And, while production continued, only militarized versions left German factories. 

By 1946, the factory producing the Volkswagen Beetle was put into British hands, and over 10,000 cars had been produced. Soon, with a little help from Doyle Dane Bernbach, the Beetle would become a household name. 

The ‘Think Small’ campaign 

In an effort to set themselves apart, Volkswagen commissioned the famous ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach to create a series of ads promoting the VW Beetle in the 1960s. It would be a move that officially put the Volkswagen Beetle on the map.

Coined the ‘Think Small’ campaign, the ad agency created the now iconic “Lemon” and “Think Small” ads that would launch the Beetle into popularity. 

vw beetle leaflet vintage

So powerful because it subverted consumer expectations of the era, the campaign’s playful tone and self-deprecating sense of humor set the VW Beetle up as the car of choice for conscious consumers who wanted to go against the grain. 

By the end of the 60s, the brand would be selling millions of Beetles worldwide.

A cultural touchstone

Just a few decades from its less-than-savory start, the Volkswagen Beetle had already captured the hearts and minds of the American public. In 1968, movie-goers saw the iconic Beetle portrayed as the adorable “Love Bug” in the Herbie franchise that would characterize the late 60s and 70s. 

Later, international spy Austin Powers would drive a decked-out version in The Spy Who Shagged Me, cementing the car as a symbol of the wild and vibrant counter-cultural movement of the 60s and 70s. 

1999 Volkswagen Beetle convertible

From it’s dark beginnings to a heyday characterized by fame on the big screen, the Volkswagen Beetle certainly has one of the richest histories of any car. And while we’re sad to see it go, we’re hopeful this won’t be the end of the VW Beetle. As Hinrich J. Woebcken, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said in his announcement, “Never say never.”

Claire Biggerstaff
Claire Biggerstaff is a freelance writer and photographer from Charlotte, NC. Her curiosity leads her to write about a wide variety of topics. On her off days, she enjoys reading Polygon articles, and curling up to a good YouTube playlist.

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    7 Comments

    1. wunderbar !

    2. I love the fact that it became bigger when it was put on movies. Like always people are attracted to what they see a famous people having. But back in the 60s/ 70s I bet it was nice to have a car.

    3. The Beetle is such a cute car. It was a stand out and made way for other “Think Small” cars like the PT Cruiser, the Mini Cooper and the Smart Car. As soon as I hear “Beetle” I think of Herbie for sure. This VW car was definitely legendary. I can’t believe they squashed the Beetle. =(

    4. The key takeaway is you need to watch all the Austin Powers movies immediately!!!

    5. Cool article. Definitely a fun little car.

    6. Love this! Next time tell me something about the headlights also 🙂

    7. I’ve always loved the aesthetic of the Beetle.

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