The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the most iconic cars of all time.
Used by millions, loved by many, and famously hated by the entire cast of Top Gear, there are few cars as instantly-recognisable as the Beetle.
The original ‘people’s car’ (that’s what Volkswagen stands for in German) has provided affordable and economical transport to the masses for decades.
The original Beetle – officially known as the ‘Type 1’ – was produced non-stop from 1938-2003, with over 21 million units being produced worldwide in factories all around the globe. The image above is of the very last “OG” Beetle ever produced. Anywhere you go in the world, people know what the Beetle is. The original “Bug” (as it is known in some English speaking countries) is the longest-produced and most-produced car of any single platform in history.
Even as the original Beetle gave way to the ‘New Beetle’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s, or as that Beetle was replaced by the A5 (the “New New Beetle”) these updated cars were still a distinctive sight on the roads.
Although the Beetle is a “marmite” car (you either love it or hate it, generally speaking) there is no denying that it holds a special place in motoring mythology.
So why did VW stop making the Beetle in 2019?
In this edition of Car Facts we are going to unpack the reasons why the VW Beetle was discontinued.
A Brief History Of The Beetle
The VW Beetle was produced over three distinct ‘generations’ (NB: there were revisions and improvements within these distinct generations as well)
- The Volkswagen Beetle (aka the ‘original Beetle’) first entered production in 1938, and this continued until 2003. The story of the original Beetle has its roots in pre-war Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler himself was keen on the idea of an affordable, mass-produced car for the ordinary German, one that could be used on the new Reichsautoban network (fun fact – he received the first convertible model ever built, in 1938). Such a vehicle did not really exist at this point in time in Germany, with cars being expensive to produce and to purchase. Without wishing to go into too much depth on the history of the Beetle, it was Ferdinand Porsche (of Porsche fame) who was tasked with developing the Volks wagen. There were specific requirements, from fuel economy to maintenance and repair needs to performance, and after numerous different prototypes the ‘Type 1’ Beetle was born. The intent was to allow Germans to buy the car via a savings scheme, meaning you didn’t have to front all of the money at once. Production was halted soon after it started due to the outbreak of World War Two, but it was resumed thereafter. The rest, as they say, is history, and post-war the car become one of the most popular in the world thanks to its affordable, frugal and practical nature.
- The New Beetle was launched in 1997, and production continued until 2011. The New Beetle clearly borrowed design cues from the original, but was very different mechanically as it was front-wheel drive and front-engined. It was based on the Volkswagen Group A4 platform, basically making it a Golf in a retro-looking costume.
- The A5 Beetle was launched in 2011 and continued until 2019, and was based on the Volkswagen Group A5 platform. In effect it was a ‘refresh’ of the New Beetle on an updated platform.
Why Did VW Kill Off The Beetle?
As far as we can tell, VW have never provided an official answer. However, from our research we can piece together a few key reasons that can explain the decision to stop the production of what is arguably the world’s most-iconic car:
- Sales performance & buyer preference – The main reason why VW stopped making the Beetle is sales performance. The original Beetle ended production in 2003, with declining demand being cited by Volkswagen as the reason for this. Despite updates and improvements over the years, it was fundamentally an ancient car by the time the last model rolled off the production line in Mexico. The markets where the original Beetle had found success (after its decline in Western countries) had also “modernised” sufficiently to the point where the outdated Beetle just wasn’t cutting it any more. The New Beetle which launched in the late 1990s was an attempt to “cash in” on the nostalgia of the original car. However, despite some early success (thanks to the market liking the blend of retro charm and modern features) the New Beetle – and the New New Beetle after it – never sold in particularly great numbers. By 2018, the A5 Beetle constituted about 4% of Volkswagen’s total sales. It was a niche product, and simply not generating the returns required to justify its continued production. Consumer preferences had shifted towards SUV/crossover cars, and away from economy hatchbacks. Therefore, the model was killed off due to poor sales performance.
- Electrification – Another oft-floated theory is that Volkswagen stopped making the Beetle to allow them to focus more on upcoming electric cars. There is no doubt that VW – along with most other manufacturers – has shifted focus to electrification, so we can see this as being a valid argument, although nowhere near as strong as the sales performance one.
- Platform-sharing – The New Beetle generations were based on VW’s A4 and A5 platforms respectively. We have seen some claims online that one of the reasons VW hasn’t continued the Beetle is that with the move to the Volkswagen Group MQB Platform, it was going to be technically challenging to make the Beetle work and this was another reason (along with the poor sales performance) why it was discontinued.
Will VW Bring The Beetle Back?
Considering the Beetle is such an iconic car, is VW ever likely to bring it back?
In our view, the Beetle will be back at some point in the future. While there are no confirmed plans to do so, car manufacturers (like most companies) can never resist the opportunity to cash in on nostalgia and a popular name, even if their attempts to do so in the past didn’t necessarily go to plan.
The most likely scenario is that VW might look to one day bring the Beetle back as an electric car. While the company has been developing a number of electric models, we feel that the Beetle name and provenance would lend itself well to an affordable electric car for the masses. Most EVs to date have sat firmly in the higher end of the market, so there is definitely opportunity for a mass-market EV that recaptures the original essence of the Beetle.
Don’t be surprised if that happens!
Conclusion – Why Did Volkswagen Discontinue The Beetle?
Ultimately, VW stopped making the Beetle for sales performance/financial reasons.
The car just didn’t sell as well as it used to, and buyer preferences – especially in Western countries – had moved on to crossovers/SUVs (like VW’s Tiguan).
The original Beetle was the “people’s car”, but the people had fallen out of love with cars like the Beetle, and instead preferred to spend their money elsewhere. The New Beetle found relatively short-lived popularity as a ‘nostalgia trip’, but ultimately the platform-shared nature of the car meant it was just an awkward-looking Golf that never really captured the magic of the original car – which was incredibly outdated by the time production ended in the early 2000s. It’s hard to argue that the New Beetle was a failure, as it brought attention back to Volkswagen in many Western markets like the USA, where the brand had been floundering for years. It was something quirky and retro-cool in an era of fairly boring cars. However, the nostalgia-trip didn’t last forever.
Car companies are nothing if not ruthless when it comes to financial matters – attempting to cash in on nostalgia with the New Beetle hadn’t really gone as well as hoped, and so production was pulled.
Compounding this is Volkswagen’s shift towards prioritising the development and production of electric vehicles.
Because so many Beetles were produced, there are still plenty to pick from if you are after a classic car (in the form of the original) or even a ‘modern classic’ in the New Beetle. As with many of the other great mass-market heroes, like the Toyota Corolla or the Honda Civic, there are plenty of options to pick from.
However, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Volkswagen bring the Beetle back at some stage, possibly as an entry-level electric vehicle for the masses. In our view it would be the perfect way for the ‘people’s car’ to come full circle!
What do you think of the VW Beetle? Are you a fan or are you glad it’s gone? Leave us a comment below and let us know your thoughts.