The Volkswagen Type 1, better known as the Beetle, was first manufactured in 1938, however few were made initially and production took off after the 2nd World War. The initial design was intended to be able to carry a family of five but cost the same as a motorcycle. Initially known as “the Volkswagen” (the People’s Car), this little car gave the Volkswagen Group its name.
The Beetle was both a major force in the rebuilding of the German economy after the 2nd World War and the democratisation of personal mobility. Its economical manufacture (less steel was used to build it due to its sloped rear) and resulting low sales price enabled many to afford their first car.
The Beetle platform was used as the base to create the Type 2 or VW Bus, as well as the Type 3. The production run lasted 65 years with the last Beetle built in South Africa in 1979, and the last Beetle built worldwide in Mexico in 2003.
World Number 1: 21 529 464 Volkswagen Beetles were produced, making it the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single platform ever made.
In 1961 Volkswagen introduced the world to this elegant compact car at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The Type 3 diversified Volkswagen’s product range beyond the existing models – the Type 1 (Beetle) and the Type 2 (Bus or Kombi) – while retaining several of the Beetle’s key engineering principles, notably the air-cooled rear-engine and rear-wheel drive layout. The concept of the Type 3 was to be more of a family car than the Beetle, offering more passenger and luggage space and a larger engine.
The Type 3 was marketed as the Volkswagen 1500 and later as the Volkswagen 1600, in three body styles: two-door Notchback, Fastback and Variant.
World First: In 1968, the Type 3 became the world’s first volume production car to feature electronic fuel injection, pioneered by Bosch and offered on the Volkswagen 1600 TE & LE version (E designating “Einspritzung” or “injection” in German).
In 1968 Volkswagen stepped out of the shadow of its compact car range and into the large passenger car segment. This could be seen as a continuation of the evolution away from the Type 1 and Type 3 into a more spacious segment. When launched, the 411 not only had the largest body and some new styling from Italy, but also the largest motor and fuel injection. The 411 retained VW’s trademark air-cooled, rear placement, rear-wheel drive, boxer engine with a front/rear weight distribution of 45/55% and a forward cargo storage of 400L. At the same time it introduced design and engineering departures for the company – including a completely flat passenger area floor and suspension using control arms and MacPherson struts. This ensured that a year after launch three standard production 411s broke nine South African 24-hour endurance records and the prestigious 24-hour record.
The Type 4 was available as a fastback sedan or a variant and in two generations, the 411 and the 412. It might have had a short production run (1968 – 1974), but it paved the way for one of Volkswagen’s most successful vehicles, the Passat.
Interesting sales figures: the US proved marginally to be the largest market for the Type 4 with 119 627 sales, this was followed by Germany where 119 094 were sold. South Africa was the 3rd biggest market for the Type 4 with 34 452 sales and the United Kingdom 4th at 13 367.
Though production of the Golf began in 1974, Volkswagen started working on prototypes for possible replacements for the Beetle in the 1950s. In 1971 exports of the Beetle to the United States of America plummeted, due to the impact of the “Nixon shock” – a series of economic measures implemented by President Richard Nixon – and a 10% import duty imposed on cars entering the US. The 1973 oil crisis led to the German government banning the use of private vehicles on certain days. As a result of these factors, the development of the Golf was ramped up. The Golf Mk1 marked Volkswagen’s shift from rear-wheel drive and rear-mounted air-cooled engines to front-wheel drive with front-mounted, water-cooled engines that were often transversely-mounted.
Over the years the Golf Mk1 had several regional variations, including the Caribe (Mexico), the Rabbit (USA) and the Citi Golf (South Africa).
Exceptional design: The Golf Mk1 was designed by Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, reflecting his signature “origami” style that emphasises sharp corners and flat planes. Giugiaro would later call the Golf Mk1 “the most important design of his career”.
The Type 2, known officially (depending on body type) as the Transporter, Kombi or Microbus, or, informally, as the Bus (US), Camper (UK), Bulli (Germany), Caracara & Volksie Bus (South Africa), is a forward control light commercial vehicle first launched
in 1950. The original design is based on the Type 1, or Beetle chassis and was the idea of Ben Pon, the importer of Volkswagens to the Netherlands. While visiting Wolfsburg to order Beetles in 1946 he saw an improvised parts-mover based on the Type 1 chassis, and realised something better was possible using the stock Type 1 pan.
The first Type 2, T1 (Transporter 1) was launched in 1950. It rapidly evolved from a people or load-carrier into well-known campervans and the more luxurious Caravelle. Each generation has brought a change in the model number; the T1 built in SA from 1955 until 1967 was succeeded by the T2 which built until 1980, succeeded by the T3 – this model on display. In 1991 the South African plant opted to start using Audi five-cylinder engines in the T3, which continued until the factory stopped production of the transporter series in 2002, after 47 years. The Type 2 is the best-selling Microbus in automotive history, assembled on six continents, with over 12 million units sold worldwide across variants and generations.
From Sakki-sakki to Rap: In South Africa the Type 2 T3 is synonymous with TV adverts with David Kramer, family trips, taxis, and has even earned itself the name “Caracara”, short for Caravelle, with a song named after it by South African rapper, K.O.
The Volkswagen Citi Golf was, throughout its 25 years of production, a uniquely South African car. The Uitenhage plant had been manufacturing the Golf Mk1 for six years when the Golf Mk2 was released. Though the Mk2 was also manufactured in South Africa, it had a slightly heftier price tag than its predecessor. Noticing the gap in the local market for an entry-level vehicle, VWSA decided to create the Citi Golf – a facelifted version of the Mk1 that became an icon in its own right. By the time the last Citi was manufactured, the company had already launched the Golf 6 – meaning the Citi outlasted five generations.
The first prototypes of the Citi Golf were painted red, yellow and blue – and when the car was launched in 1984, it was exclusively available in these three colours. This colour choice was inspired by the Dutch artist Mondrian, some of whose most famous work uses the primary colours red, yellow and blue. Many variations and special editions were launched throughout the years, including the Citi CTI, the Ritz, the Chico, the Citi Golf.com and the Citi Mk1, which were the last 1 000 Citi Golfs to be built.
Motorsport legend: In December 2007 Gugu Zulu claimed the first national rally title won by a black South African, racing to victory in his Citi Golf.
The Polo Vivo was introduced to the South African market in 2010, as a replacement to the Citi Golf. The original Vivo was a restyled version of the Polo Mk4 and was a uniquely South African vehicle built from 70% locally-sourced parts. In 2018 a new Vivo based on the Polo Mk5 was introduced.
The Vivo is built for the local market only and is not exported. However, when VWSA expanded into Sub-Saharan Africa by opening a vehicle assembly facility in Kenya, the Polo Vivo was the first car to be assembled at this facility. The Kenya facility, as with Volkswagen’s facilities in Rwanda and Ghana as well, received semi-knock-down kits of vehicles to assemble for their local markets.
A special edition of the Vivo, the Polo Vivo Mswenko, was introduced in 2020. Mswenko means “swag” in isiZulu, and the design elements in this limited-edition vehicle reflect its name.
Market leader: Since its introduction in 2010, the Polo Vivo has been the top-selling passenger car in South Africa every single year, for 11 years.