Article by John Lemon
VWSA has recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first Beetle off the production line in Uitenhage which took place on 31 August 1951.
There are only a few surviving photographs of what should have been a momentous occasion, however the few that survive do tell a very interesting story.
During 2000 in preparation for VWSA’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2001, I was asked to research and write some articles on the history of SAMAD (South African Motor Assemblers and Distributors) as VWSA was then known as and some of the cars built there like Studebakers and Austins.
During 1996 when on a fact-finding trip to the AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg I scrutinized some old record books which were pre-printed with consecutive chassis numbers and the rest of the details like engine number, where the car was destined for delivery to etc etc., were hand-written in the appropriate spaces. My quest was to confirm how many fully assembled Beetle’s were sent to Uitenhage before assembly started as numerous people had told me that only one was sent. The first car sent to Uitenhage was assembled in Wolfsburg on 17 March 1951 and dispatched on 28 March. As it turned out another fully built-up car was sent to Uitenhage on 27 July 1951 which car still survives and belongs to Dr Johan van Rensburg of Kimberley.
During the course of events in preparing for VWSA’s 50th anniversary I had the opportunity to make a more detailed study of the photo taken of the first Beetle off the production line. Something had always bothered me about the photo in that the outside of the tyres had been painted with black tyre paint but whoever painted the outside of the tyres had failed to paint the inside of the tyres, the inside of the right front tyre which can be clearly seen in the photo, was dirty. It would hardly have been necessary to paint the tyres of a car just leaving the production line so why was it done ? This question bugged me for at least 10 years.
While studying the changes made to early Beetles for one of the articles I was writing in 2000, suddenly the pieces started coming together regarding what had been bothering me about the photo.
It was noticed in the photo that the “first” Beetle off the line in Uitenhage did not have the Wolfsburg bonnet badge or the “chrome” insert in the windscreen rubber which it should have had if it had been assembled in August. Those changes were made to Beetle’s assembled in Germany in April 1951 so the first car off the line in SA in August should have had the changes. Then it clicked. The “first” car off the line in Uitenhage was not the first car assembled in SA but rather the car sent by Wolfsburg in March which would not have the changes made in April. Even more evidence is visible as the car right behind the “imposter” in the photo has the bonnet badge and windscreen surround !!!! Game, set and match.
Why the “switch” was made is anybody’s guess but a likely scenario is that the car that should have been number one was not ready on the day for some reason.
Isn’t a historians life interesting ??? !!!
Below is an extract from an email about Wolfsburg Hood Crest also written by John Lemon
VWSA used the normal “blue” badges (there were some very small varuiatons like the wolf’s tail and the “stones” above the castle gateway) from August 1951 when production started here. The badges were put in production in Germany in April 1951. So we had the badges from the beginning.
The picture of the “first” Beetle off the production line in Uitenhage on 31 August 1951 does not have a badge because VWSA tried to fool us all as the car was NOT the first Beetle assembled in Uitenhage but rather a fully built up one sent by Wolfsburg at the end of March 1951 so it would not have had a badge. The car behind it on the production line does have a badge as it should have as it was built from parts sent from Germany in June/July 1951. That car should have been the first one —– why it was not used remains a mystery but I suspect it was not ready on the day and the photo I have shows it did not have seats or other trim.
So SA had badges from the beginning. The “blue” colourful colourful badge lasted unchanged until the end of the 1959 model year. From the 1960 model year the badge became simpler in black, chrome and red.
That badge remained unchanged until the early part of the 1963 model year and was then dropped, so some early 1963 model Beetles still had the badge.
To my knowledge and from years of observation, both badges remained unchanged throughout the time they were fitted to the various models, even overseas.
Until end of model year 1959
Until end of model year 1963
Just some of the aftermarket badges made by other companies