The first time a Volkswagen Beetle came to America was nearly the last. A private importer, Ben Pon, thought the small, odd-looking cars that were popular in Europe in 1949 could find the same audience here. Early that year, Pon shipped two Beetles to the United States and tried to recruit dealers. By all accounts, the reception was a cold one; Pon sold both with no fanfare, and lore has it one had to cover his hotel bill.
But Pon had the right idea. The Beetle did catch on, as did the Bus, the Jetta, and on through the decades. To mark 70 years on American soil, Volkswagen held something of a family reunion for its models in Los Angeles this week – a rare gathering of classics from Volkswagen of America’s collection and the best of the modern era. Although seven decades of engineering and design advances have transformed the lineup, certain important traits shone through.
1949 Beetle / 1979 Super Beetle / 1998 New Beetle / 2019 Beetle Final Edition
While the Beetle evolved from the ones Ben Pon sold to the last 1979 Super Beetle, they were mostly remarkable for how little didn’t change. Power more than doubled – from 25 hp to 48 hp – and the later Beetle had more creature comforts, but the basics remained the same: an air-cooled engine driving the rear wheels, all designed for simplicity.
The revival of the New Beetle in 1998 was a huge historical moment, which brought the Beetle into the 21st century with modern safety features, engines and interiors. The 2019 Final Edition offered much of the original’s spirit in a package with 174 hp and up-to-date technology.
1967 Type 2 21-window Bus / 2019 Volkswagen Atlas
Volkswagen has always built stylish people movers; the first Type 2 Bus came to America in 1950, kicking off a five-decade run of Volkswagen vans. The rarest and most expensive variant of the classic Bus was the 21-Window “Samba” version, which has now become a sought-after collector’s item. The Volkswagen-owned copy in two-tone white-on-orange paint makes all of 53 hp.
Today, the Volkswagen Atlas people mover is available with 4Motion all-wheel-drive, the ability to tow up to 5,000 lbs. when properly equipped,2 and up to 17 cupholders. There’s even an available panoramic sunroof that gives modern families a taste of that 21-window feeling.
1984 Mk1 Rabbit GTI / 2019 Golf GTI
With 90 hp and a five-speed manual, the original Rabbit GTI created the “hot hatch” segment and offered affordable performance with everyday usability. That formula has been honed over 35 years into the current GTI – a compact, 228-hp (achieved with premium fuel) expression of driving enthusiasm that can still haul four people and their stuff in comfort.
1982 Mk1 Jetta / 2020 Jetta
Offered as a sedan alternative to the Golf/Rabbit, the first-generation Jetta mixed European design and engineering with fuel-efficient packaging. A 76-hp four-cylinder engine was linked to either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic transmission. The 2020 Jetta demonstrates just how far compact sedans have come – growing some 15 inches in length compared to its ancestor, with far greater performance and creature comforts, like an available 10-color interior LED lighting system.
1973 Squareback / 2019 Golf Alltrack / 2020 Volkswagen Tiguan
The Squareback wagons used components of the Beetle in a more family friendly shape, complete with storage under the hood and above the engine in back. The 65-hp version was among the first vehicles worldwide to have fuel injection. The 2019 Golf Alltrack was its direct modern descendant, offering the kind of wagon packaging that thousands of families over the decades embraced, along with 4Motion all-wheel drive. The 2020 Volkswagen Tiguan has proven itself a different kind of successor; with an optional third row1 and one of the largest interiors in its class, it too has been embraced as a Volkswagen that can transport multiple generations in style.