Volkswagen’s First Foothold in America

Many car enthusiasts know that Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle design first emerged in pre-WWII Germany. Only a small number of the “people’s car” were built before war broke out, ending Volkswagen’s civilian line-up for the duration. The first VW Bugs to hit American shores came soon after wars end, but it wasn’t until the early ’50s when the odd-looking little vehicles really began to take off in the U.S. From The Complete Book of Classic Volkswagens is the story of how VW mania first came to America.

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Small Oval Window

By mid-1953, the Volkswagen phenomenon was really beginning to take hold in America. Production for 1953 would be 151,323 units. According to Ward’s Automotive Yearbook, 1,237 new Volkswagens—nearly 10 percent of the entire model-year production total—were registered to owners in the United States in calendar-year 1953. And to top off this new awareness of the brand, Ward’s even spelled Volkswagen correctly for the first time!

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Volkswagens were also getting good reviews in car magazines. “Handling qualities are exceptional,” declared Motor Trend of the Beetle in 1953. “You can break the rear end loose, but only if you work at it.” The reviewer noted that the Beetle’s interior trim was “as good as in some cars costing an additional $1,000.”

One of the reasons that the Volkswagen was more in the spotlight in America in 1953 was the fact that the company’s first dealerships opened that year. Volkswagen then sent the mechanics and their families over from Germany. Each dealer was assigned one or more factory mechanics to assure that parts and service departments would meet stringent requirements. It was a perfect storm and the roots of the Volkswagen tidal wave were in place.

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Magazines such as Motor Trend not only began to feature Volkswagen photos and articles, but they did so repeatedly. Volkswagen got ink in that particular publication no less than three times during 1953. In the September issue, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was mentioned as the creator of the Volkswagen and Porsche automobiles. In October, an article entitled “Seven Economy Cars” covered the Volkswagen sedan in minute detail. “The whole car is crammed with features as unusual as the engine,” the magazine said. “Do you want a car that breaks sharply with tradition and does so with undeniable competence? If so, the Volkswagen deserves your attention,” the magazine said.

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An article entitled “German Auto Industry” appeared in the December 1953 Motor Trend. “Best known German export car is the Volkswagen, rearpowered by an air-cooled flat four and finished like an expensive car,” said the caption under the picture of a Beetle sedan. The article also stated, “For 1953, the Volkswagen plant alone expects a production of 160,000 passenger cars.”

All the Worlds’ 1954 Cars (put together in 1953) said, “To date, over 2,000 Americans and 500,000 Europeans have bought these durable, economical, well-finished and sprightly Volkswagens.”

The Motor Trend Worldwide Yearbook 1954 gushed over the latest Volkswagen: “The Deluxe Export Sedan and Cabriolet offer between 30 and 32 miles to the US gallon. The 24.5-horsepower engine does not sound overly exciting; however, the Volkswagen combines simplicity, ease of repair and cheapness of replacement parts, which led to the Model T’s fabulous popularity. Although the normal maximum speed does not exceed 65 mph, that speed is accomplished at just over 3,000 rpm, a noteworthy factor in reducing engine wear. Its pound-per-horsepower ratio is a relatively unimpressive 63.43, but despite this, the Volkswagen can hold its own under normal traffic conditions. The ride offered by this surprisingly roomy car is fairly comfortable. Its handling qualities are superior, aside from a tendency toward overly quick steering in the turns.”

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SMALL-OVAL WINDOW FACTS

  • Aftermarket accessories available for the Volkswagen in 1956 included a ’40-Ford-like front end called the Classic Kit that Kit Enterprises of San Bernardino, California, sold for $135.
  • In 1956, Garden Supply Co. of Grass Valley, California, advertised a Volkswagen luggage rack for $20. “Haul lumber, ladders, luggage,” said the Garden Supply advertisement.
  • In 1957, Judson Research and Mfg. Co. of Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, offered a Volkswagen supercharger with 6 pounds of boost for $144. It gave a 45 percent boost in rear-wheel horsepower and cut 0-to-60 mile-per-hour times to 15.5 seconds.
  • In 1957, pioneering automotive publisher Floyd Clymer of Los Angeles, California, was selling a Volkswagen owners’ handbook for $2.
  • The 100,000th Volkswagen to be exported to Sweden was shipped on New Year’s Day 1957.
  • On December 28, 1957, the two millionth Volkswagen was made.

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The classic air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle, officially the Volkswagen Type 1, is regarded as one of the most important and well-engineered vehicles of the twentieth century. It was the most popular imported car in America in the 1960s, and before that it enjoyed a humble beginning as “the people’s car” in its native Germany. The Complete Book of Classic Volkswagens encompasses the evolution of the popular Beetle as well as other variations of Volkswagen’s air-cooled cars, vans, and trucks. Thoroughly illustrated, this is an invaluable reference to Volkswagen’s collectible and iconic cars.

The history of VW automobiles is just as colorful as the hues they were manufactured in, and this book illustrates the full story. German automakers originally sought to supply their countrymen with an automobile that was easy to mass produce. By 1938, they finalized the design for the VW “Bug”–the first rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive configured car. In its heyday, the little rounded Beetle was produced at a rate of more than one million per year. Today, with more than 23 million cars built, the Beetle holds the record as the most-produced passenger car of all time. But the Beetle is only one part of the air-cooled Volkswagen story. The rest–from Type 2 vans, pick-ups, and campers to the Type 113 “Super Beetle”–is included here. If you’re the owner of a Volkswagen or if you just love their iconic look and you’re interested in their evolution, this book deserves a place on your bookshelf.