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40 years since final VW Beetle rolled off production lines in Germany

Four decades ago on Friday the last Volkswagen Beetle was assembled in north Germany. But far from being forgotten, its status as a cult car continues today.

40 years since final VW Beetle rolled off production lines in Germany
The VW plant in Emden in 1978. Photo: DPA

For many Volkswagen employees, January 19th 1978 was an emotional day. Some of them were tearing up at the plant in Emden, Lower Saxony.

After more than 16 million VW Beetles, or Käfer, had been produced, an era came to an end when the very last Beetle produced in Germany rolled off assembly lines at the plant in the port town.

But how exactly did a car VW described in archives as “neither fast nor particularly economical or comfortable” become one of the most popular cars in automotive history? It all goes back to its history.

Engineered by Ferdinand Porsche and styled by Austrian designer Erwin Komenda, the “People’s Car,” as its name made clear, was an economy car based on an idea that came from Adolf Hitler.

Hitler had wanted to develop an affordable car for the average German worker, and in 1933 Porsche accepted the technical challenge.

Still, it was only in 1947 that private individuals were finally able to buy the first Beetle models and from then, its popularity grew and grew. In 1955 the company celebrated the production of its millionth Beetle at the plant in Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony.

Soon the ladybug was gaining popularity across the pond in the US, helped by a ‘Think Small’ advertising campaign by New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1959.

Throughout 1960s America, the auto went on to become the biggest selling foreign-made car in the country, much loved by the counter-culture movement of the time with its funky design and cheap price. 

In 1964, VW built a new plant in the harbour city of Emden.

“At the beginning, about ten Beetles were produced per day and the parts came from Wolfsburg,” says 83-year-old Willi Kuroswki.

The former welder and VW employee fondly recalls working in Emden with his colleagues, adding that “many friendships still hold true to this day.”

The VW plant in Emden in 1978. Photo: DPA

But VW was mistaken in thinking the success of the Beetle would go on forever, says car expert Willi Diez from the Institute of Automotive Economics.

In the early 1970s the company almost went under, Diez adds.

“By then the market had changed, and the Beetle suddenly looked old and it was technically outdated.”

If the Volkswagen Golf as the successor to the Käfer had not taken over immediately, the company wouldn’t have been able to save itself, according to Diez.

In all of automotive history no other car has been “as globally important as the Beetle,” says the car expert. Sales of the ladybug were impressive not only in Europe and North America, but also in Latin America.

But as with all good things, it eventually come to an end. In 2003, due to decreased demand, the last model was assembled in Mexico. By then, over 21.5 million Beetles had been built worldwide, making it one of the world’s best-selling cars.

Its affordability, reliability and distinct look and feel arguably helped ensure its success.

Despite an end in production, the much-loved iconic automobile lives on; nowadays it’s not uncommon to see them chugging along on German streets.

But for anyone interested in buying one, prices are pretty steep.

Henry Hackerott, who organizes Käfer meet-ups in Hanover, says a Beetle from the 1950s could set you back up to €30,000 depending on the condition.

SEE ALSO: Here's a little-known East German vehicle that's actually amazing

HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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