John, Paul, George, and Ringo

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It’s Beetlemania here on Forgotten Metal! That’s right: today is a Volkswagen Beetle two-for-one, which means- oh boy oh boy- we get to talk about the Bug’s wide variety of tail lamp designs over its long and pockmarked history. I’m sure you all can barely contain your excitement,  but that’s for later. What we have here is a grey 1973 and a purple and white 1971 VW Bug. Now, there was a Beetle on here once before, but this car has such a rich and fascinating history that it could fill hundreds of posts. Plus, I saw two of them right next to each other and I couldn’t resist snapping a picture. Or twelve.

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In case you didn’t click the link above (it’s okay, I’ll get over it), here’s the Sparknotes for the VW Beetle: German chancellor and soon-to-be genocidal maniac Adolf Hitler decided that his country’s people were each going to have, if they saved up enough Reich marks, their very own car. They would also get their own road networks (the autobahn) alongside which German families could stop off and spend a weekend vacation at special “KDF” resorts. KDF stood for “Kraft durch Freude-Wagen,” or the “Strength Through Joy Car,” which was the Beetle’s original name. Don’t worry, it gets weirder.

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The Strength Through Joy Car was designed by Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche), and the earliest cars went on to be owned by some of the top Nazi bosses, including Hitler himself. The only problem was that the people’s car never actually reached the people. The dawn of World War II meant that the expansive factory in Saxony that the Beetle was to be built in had to be converted to make war materials, including three militarized versions of the Beetle named the Kubelwagen, the Schwimmwagen and the Kommandeurwagen. In addition to hard consonant sounds, it also made one of the Nazi’s most deadly secret weapons: the V-1 Flying Bomb.

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Once the Allies got wind of this, they bombed the factory, and in April of 1945, took the building from the retreating Nazi forces. British Major Ivan Hurst and his colleagues found, among the rubble of the bombed-out factory, a strange, Beetle-shaped car. After offering the factory to several Western car makers, all of whom refused (Henry Ford is quoted as calling the place “not worth a damn”), the factory was then given back to the local government of Saxony, who began finally producing what the factory was always meant to produce: cars. That place is now home to the Volkswagen group, the largest car manufacturer in Europe, who produce everything from diminutive VW economy cars to brands like Lamborghini, Audi, Bentley, Porsche and Bugatti.

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But enough about war. Now it’s time to talk about peace, free love, and tail lamps. Somehow, in a series of events that no one can truly plot out or understand, the car of fascist Germany became a symbol of the American hippie. In the 1960s, and in a very strange turn for the ironic, the former runabout for the Nazi party became cool among the flower people. Which led them, in between “blissing out” and organizing Woodstock, to decorate their cars to reflect their newfound, groovy attitude. This two-tone purple and white Bug is an (admittedly tame) example of the sort of thing they came up with.

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However, when it came to the exciting and varied world of Volkswagen-rear-turn-and-brake-indication, the hippies had their work cut out for them. That’s because, while the rest of the car didn’t change all that radically over its 65 year production run, Beetle developers changed the design of the rear lights no less than seventeen times. I know, my mind was blown too.

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This 1971 Bug has the squared off bottom, with the classic 2/3 red, 1/3 white combination. The grey 1973 car has the rounder, orange-red-white design, which definitely has its place in my much-revered VW Beetle tail light “top five.” My personal favorite, though, would have to be the half-orange, half red light that was only sold in Italian and Australian markets in 1960. Those babies are a rarity, let me tell you.

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Engines, while not as captivating or romantic as tail lights, were also interesting. Both cars have the same flat four, 1493cc engine mounted in the back, and both have the same four speed manual transmission. Neither are very powerful or fast, but that was never really the Beetle’s reason for being. The people of 1930’s Germany were so enraptured by the idea of owning their very own car, that they didn’t much care that it was slower than a cold knife through colder butter. And the hippies were too high on love to notice. It was the perfect car for both markets, which is probably why Volkswagen sold over 21 million of them. All of which, may I add, had an excellent pair of tail lights.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • The grey car looks like it’s waiting to be painted. Perhaps in a psychedelic orange or aquamarine. One can only hope.
  • No, the orange tags in the windows of both cars are not for a funeral (which would make this whole thing really tasteless), but instead for some sort of VW owner’s club.
  • That last picture is actually a pretty good before-and-after shot for car modification. Both cars looked pretty much the same from the dealership aside from the tail lights and the vents on the trunk), but the paint, headlights, chrome accents and wheels are all different on these two.
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7 thoughts on “John, Paul, George, and Ringo

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