The genesis of the company known as Volkswagen goes back to Adolf Hitler’s desire to put the German people on wheels, much as Henry Ford had done with the Model T for Americans. Interestingly, a number of car designers had worked on the idea before Hitler put it forth. One such designer, Ferdinand Porsche, had been trying to get a number of manufacturers interested in such a project for a number of years.
Porsche had built what he called the "Volksauto" from the ground up in 1931, putting together a car with an air-cooled rear engine and torsion bar suspension. The "beetle" shape came about because the front hood had to be rounded to improve its aerodynamics in order to get the most benefit from the small engine. BTW, that first Beetle was one of the earliest new car models to be tested in a wind tunnel, which is a common practice today.
Hitler selected Porsche’s new car design and commissioned him to build it.
Sadly, only a few of the new Volkswagen cars had been completed by the time World War II started in 1939. The first Beetle came to the U.S. after the war in 1949, but only two of them sold that year. Volkswagen of America was formed in 1955 to organize the distribution and servicing of the new Volkswagen models.
The company engaged the Madison Avenue Ad agency Doyle, Dane Bernbach, which proceeded to position the new Volkswagen Beetle models favorably with younger, more sophisticated new car buyers. The ads clicked and sales took off. Ultimately, some 21,529,464 of the new Volkswagen cars were sold worldwide—easily making it the best-selling automobile of all time.
For the record, those new Volkswagen models were never officially called Beetles. Volkswagen referred to the car throughout its lifespan as the Type 1. Production of the VW Type 1 officially ended in July of 2003, in Puebla, Mexico.
When it became obvious the days of air-cooled new Volkswagen cars were numbered, the company introduced its follow-up, the 1974 VW Golf. Where the Type 1 had been air-cooled, rear-engined, and rear-drive, the Golf was liquid-cooled, front-engined, and front-wheel drive. The success of that vehicle begat a host of similarly configured automobiles, ultimately culminating in new Volkswagen models such as the GTI sporty hatchback and the turbocharged, 12-cylinder, all-wheel drive Volkswagen Phaeton ultra-luxury sedan.
Today, Volkswagen is one of the three largest automobile companies in the world. A contemporary version of the Beetle was brought back in 1998, and is still in production along with a lineup of new Volkswagen cars including SUVs, crossovers, sedans, and hatchbacks.