The Beetle is Crawling Back


The humble Volkswagen Beetle — which is actually not its official name, but few people know what a Type 1 is — created the massive compact-car market in the United States.

It took the brilliant mind of Ferdinand Porsche — and high-quality labor from a rebuilding post-war West Germany — to make a compact car a success in the United States of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

By opening up the compact-car market in the U.S., VW blazed the trail for all small cars — domestic and imported. While the Chevrolet Corvair was initially all but an Americanized Beetle, the rest of the domestics weren’t. Still, the success of the Falcon, Valiant, Rambler and Lark was only possible after VW made small cars acceptable in the big-car-crazed U.S.

By the early 1970s, the early Beetle became a victim of its own huge success.

By 1970, the Big Three had run one full generation of compacts off U.S. assembly lines, and a second one was on the way. The Falcon gave way to the Pinto, the Corvair led to the Vega, and the Rambler became AMC and birthed the Gremlin. In addition, the Valiant had a plethora of siblings from Dodge.

While the Japanese competitors were generally viewed as quirky and cheap during the 1960s, by 1970 they were becoming formidable competitors. During all this, the Beetle just puttered along with minimal changes.

While staying the same in a world of change played well in the turbulent 1960s — even among the Counterculture — the Beetle was old hat in the 1970s. The Beetle looked dated compared with everything else in the market.

B. Mitchell Carlson

SCM Senior Auction Analyst

Brian wrote his first auction report for Old Cars Weekly in 1990 and has contributed his colorful commentary in Sports Car Market since 1998. His work appears regularly in Kelley Blue Book, and also in a handful of marque-specific publications. Carlson shuns what he calls “single-marque tunnel vision” and takes great pride in his “vehicular diversity.” He attends about two dozen auctions per year, but he broke away to roar around Oregon with Paul Hardiman in SCM’s Dodge Viper and Porsche 911 Turbo in the 2015 Northwest Passage.

Posted in Affordable Classics