Home » Here’s The Story Behind VW’s 1960s Beetle Re-Design And Why It Never Happened

Here’s The Story Behind VW’s 1960s Beetle Re-Design And Why It Never Happened

Redesignbeetle Top

Among classic air-cooled Volkswagen obsessives like myself, there exists a pool of photographs that seem to be familiar to almost everyone within the community. These photos have been reproduced in countless books, displayed on on websites, sweaty, crumpled printouts passed between hands in crowds, and so on. They’ve all been scrutinized and marveled at, some more than others. One particular set that always manages to seize my interest like a chimp grabbing a Snickers bar are these pictures of a stillborn modernized Beetle from the mid 1960s. It represents a fascinating glimpse into a future that never happened, but I never really knew the story behind this project, which Volkswagen called EA 97/1. Finally, some details have emerged, thanks to our pals at Car Design Archives, and it’s an interesting – even if, in the context of how VW was run for decades – predictable tale. Let’s look at these pictures and dig into the story behind them.


First, a bit of context. You have to remember that the VW Beetle was a design that was finalized in 1938, and by the 1950s was already starting to look very dated. The entire look of cars had changed over the intervening decades, and the Beetles’s narrow body/separate fenders/humpbacked look just wasn’t in vogue anymore, even though the Beetle had already begun to establish its own distinct character and identity by the 1950s.

According to Car Design Archives (CDA), “VW noticed that sales of the Beetle were beginning to slow down, especially in export markets,” though I have to admit that I’m not sure I’m seeing the same trends. If we look at this record of American market sales figures reprinted on The Samba for the Beetle for its lifetime in America, from 1949 to 1979, sales throughout the 1950s look pretty strong to me:


That seems like pretty steady growth? Maybe it was too slow for Volkswagen, and, besides, they probably weren’t wrong to note that they were selling a 1930s-looking car in the 1950s, and that definitely needed to be addressed, somehow.

In case you’re not familiar with these pictures, here’s what I’m talking about:


Look at that! It’s clearly a VW Beetle, but it’s been pretty extensively re-designed and modernized, and looks more like a late 1950s or early 1960s car than the iconic Beetle as we’ve known it. The archaic running boards are gone, and the body is a full-width design. The information dug up by CDA reveals that the redesign project, led by Rudolf Ringel of the Studies and Prototyping Department, reached out to Luigi Segre and Sergio Sartorelli from the Italian design house Ghia for the project. Ghia’s partnership with Volkswagen is, of course, well known, mostly thanks to the famous Karmann-Ghia sporty (let’s be honest, not sports) car built on humble Beetle mechanicals.

The project’s goals were really very rational: to make the Beetle a more modern unibody design, instead of the strange semi-unibody/semi-body-on-frame method that was used; to make the pasenger cabin roomier and more comfortable, improve visibility and enlarge the window area, and, of course, to transform the Beetle into something that would look current when parked next to, say, a Rambler or Renault Dauphine or even a Toyota Crown. And all this was to happen by September of 1965, ready to be unveiled to the world at the Frankfurt Motor Show.

It seems that at least two styling models were built, with slightly different design details, though overall they were really quite similar:


I haven’t found exact confirmation of this, but I suspect the upper one is an earlier design than the lower one there. I say this because that upper one incorporates the sloping, double-glass Hella headlights used on Beetles from the start of production until 1967 (for U.S.-spec models, at least), and the lower one has more upright units, similar looking to both what would appear on 1968 and later Beetles and also similar to the lights used on the more upmarket VW Type 3 cars which hit the market in 1961, and were being developed contemporarily with this redesigned Beetle project.


I find this redesign project fascinating for a lot of reasons, mostly because it has to be one of the earlier design attempts to modernize a car while trying to maintain the distinctive visual character of the original car. In later decades, we might call this a “retro” design, though at the time I’m not sure they would have thought of it that way. Still, the designers are being asked to perform an interesting dance here, making something that feels like a ’60s-era car while retaining just enough of that Beetle-ness, so much of which is rooted in a 1930s automotive design language. Look at the details that were retained: the “butterfly” sorta-shaped stampings on the front hood, the distinctive engine lid, the suggestion of separate fenders, the sloping roofline. It does feel like a Beetle.

If this actually came out in 1965, though, I think it would still have looked a bit dated; it feels more like a late 1950s update of a 1930s car than a 1960s update, but that makes sense, considering the project started in 1957. Most of this was all known, though; what was new to me were the reasons why Project EA 97/1 never actually happened, which is what I learned from the CDA post.

It seems that the project actually got as far as being greenlit by the VW board of directors, and tooling to build the new model ordered, with 10 pre-production prototypes (the book Volkswagen Raritäten says dozens!) actually built! I had no idea the project got this far along. But, two things conspired to keep it from actually happening.

The first one was good news for Volkswagen, because Beetle sales picked up to and even beyond the expected or even hoped-for levels set by VW. This lessened VW’s perceived need to replace the Beetle, and besides, the new version would be more expensive to build, both on a per-car basis and the one-time costs of all the new production equipment. So, faced with expenses and less profits to replace a vehicle that was still selling wonderfully, the argument for a new Beetle was hard to make.

The second reason was that in 1965 VW bought Auto-Union from Daimler-Benz, a move that would much later form the technical future of Volkswagen post-Beetle/air-cooled era. This move made VW reluctant to pour more money into their aging bread-and-butter car, as well as redirecting the company’s focus.

1938 2003

So, six months before the planned revised Beetle was to be launched, the project was canned. On some level, I think this is kind of a shame, but at the same time, the fact that the Beetle continued on until the outrageous date of 2003 with what was still fundamentally a late-1930s design absolutely delights me. A redesign every decade or so is what most cars do. But not the Beetle. The stubbornness of the design became a crucial part of its character, and if you wanted to buy a car with running boards and separate fenders in, say, 1975, you really had no other choice.

Plus, a switch to a unibody design from the old body-bolted-to-pan design would have meant that the whole dune buggy/kit car movement of the 1960s and 1970s likely would not have happened. There was only a Meyers Manx or Brubaker Box or any number of other VW-based kit cars because VWs were dirt cheap, ubiquitous, and had bodies you could pull off after taking out only 10 bolts. A unibody Beetle wouldn’t have allowed for that, and that would have prevented one of the most vibrant and fun automotive subcultures from being born.

So, while I think the Ghia-designed ensleekified neo-Beetle is a very cool artifact, I think overall I’m happy midcentury VW was such a risk-adverse cheapskate. Sometimes staying a step behind the competition is just the right move, as strange as that sounds to us today.

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50 Responses

  1. I’m so happy this redesign didn’t happen. It gets rid of 100% of the original car’s charm. It would’ve still been a ridiculously underpowered, ill handling car with bad brakes. But now super ugly.

  2. Okay i have had it. Enough of the damn Volkswagen. 10 months Volkswagen this Volkswagen that. How about a Vehicross story? Rarer than 99% of your Hoky Grails you push. The best car ever built, advanced before its time, better style and performance than any Jeep. But you guys are part of the build mediocre laxadaisical cars conspiracy. And if you doubt me then how was I able to spell it correctly?
    Yeah i thought so.

    1. “laxadaisical” isn’t a word in English, nor in any other language, so I’m not sure what you’re mistakenly bragging about spelling correctly.

      No one enjoys your tedious whining about VWs.

  3. I never saw the beetle as a 30s design, it’s just a beetle. It doesn’t look like anything else I can think of from the 30s (besides all the weird prototypes and one-offs that inspired it that I only know of from reading Torch articles)
    That redesign does look like some other 50’s cars, and therefore would have dated it much worse than leaving it alone did.

    1. Yes that’s not worded well. The original had a heavy emphasis on aero -and thus compromised internal packaging- due to the design requirements.Later when they got bigger engines ,that shape wasnt required

      Also i agree.The redesign looks worse

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