It’s hard not to spot an import brand car on American roads.
That wasn’t always the case, Volkswagen reminds us, as it commemorates the shipment of the first Beetle to New York City, 65 years ago.
Back in January 1949, Volkswagen delivered a VW “Type 1,” or Beetle, to Ben Pon Sr., a Dutch businessman and the world’s first official Volkswagen importer.
“It made inroads very tentatively, selling only two that first year, and then seemed to burst like wildfire,” said Leslie Kendall, curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum. “It was the right car for the time. It did for a lot of Americans what the Model T did for generations before.”
VW shipped thousands more to the United States in the early 1950s, as the “Bug” established itself as America’s budget car. Sales were so good that Volkswagen established a U.S. sales arm in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., in late 1955.
The Beetle sold well because it was a well-built car at a reasonable price. And people saw it as having some style, and poking fun at the larger cars that dominated U.S. roads, Kendall said.
“They were so adaptable, you could turn them into a dune buggy, you could hop it up, you could paint it wildly,” he said. “It was the car of the hippie movement and of the counterculture.”
Beetle sales grew into the hundreds of thousands in the 1960s. When the Beetle was at its peak in 1970, VW’s U.S. sales topped out at 570,000 vehicles.
VW is struggling to recapture that momentum. Though American drivers have always had a soft spot for the Bug, VW’s trouble with reliability and quality problems pushed its cars behind low-cost, durable imports from Toyota, Honda and Nissan in the 1980s and ’90s.
Although it is the third-largest car company in the world, VW has fallen behind even South Korean upstart Hyundai in U.S. sales.
The German automaker sold 408,000 VWs in the United States last year, and just 43,000 Beetle hardtops and convertibles. But it remains committed to the model.
“The Beetle has become part of the cultural fabric in America, and we are proud that its rich heritage continues to live with fans around the States,” said Michael Horn, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America.