On this day in 1944, under the threat of Allied bombing during World War II, the German car manufacturer Volkswagen halts production of the “Beetle,” as its small, insect-shaped automobile was dubbed in the international press. Ten years earlier, the renowned automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche had signed a contract with Germany’s Third Reich to develop a prototype of a small, affordable “people’s car.”
The German chancellor, National Socialist (Nazi) leader Adolf Hitler, called the car the KdF (Kraft-durch-Freude)-Wagen (or “Strength-Through-Joy” car), after a Nazi-led movement ostensibly aimed at helping the working people of Germany. Porsche didn’t like that moniker; he preferred Volkswagen (meaning “people’s car”), the name under which the car had originally been developed. In 1938, the government built a factory to produce the car in the city of KdF-stat.
The first production-ready Beetle debuted at the Berlin Motor Show in 1939. Several months later, Germany invaded Poland, sparking the conflict that would explode into world war. During the war years, the German army’s need for a lightweight utility vehicle took precedence over the production of affordable passenger cars. The result was the Type 62 Kubelwagen, a convertible vehicle with a modified Beetle chassis, four doors and 18-inch wheels (compared with the Beetle’s 16-inch ones) to give it better ground clearance. Though production at the KdF-stat factory was dedicated primarily to the Kubelwagen and its amphibious counterpart, the Schwimmwagen, the factory did continue to produce Beetles from 1941 to August 7, 1944, when production was halted under threat of Allied bombing. In the war’s aftermath, a devastated Germany was divided into four sectors.
Those under British, French and American control would combine to form West Germany, while the region under Soviet control became East Germany. KdF-stat (soon renamed Wolfsburg), which was in the British sector, and its auto factory remained in relatively good shape for having been a target of Allied bombs. Volkswagen, then under the control of the British military, began turning out Beetles again in December 1945. By 1949, the company (now called Volkswagen GmbH) was back in German hands, and in 1972 the Beetle passed the iconic Ford Model T as the top-selling car in history.