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Beetles come to America—65 years

February 12, 2014 - The four cylinder engine produced 25 horsepower. Top speed, about 60 mph. There was no gas gauge.

While many engineering upgrades have been implemented, 65 years after the first Volkswagen rolled on the shores of the United States—the unique Beetle remains prominent today on American highways.

Ortonville resident Bob Ellis is a member of the Michigan Vintage Volkswagen Club and maintains a 1949 Beetle—the first U.S. imported model.

"Actually Volkswagens were brought to the United States by soldiers after World War II ended in 1945," said Ellis.

"The first cars didn't immediately gain popularity—Americans wanted the big sheet metal cars. Only two Beetles were sold in 1949. But the 1949 Beetle had such extravagant equipment as more color choices, chrome bumpers, headlight rings, door handles and hubcaps," he said.

"Prior to 1949, the Beetle was primarily all blacked out. The interior has German wool seats and headliner and a hole for a hand crank to get the engine going if the 6-volt battery, located under the back seat, failed. The heater never really works well—after about a half-hour it gets too hot."

"The lack of a gas gauge is compensated by use of a reserve tap. When the car gets down to about a gallon of gas and the engine starts sputtering, the driver can turn a valve which opened up a reserve of a about a gallon or so of gas. The engine was air cooled, featured mechanical drum cable brakes and a gearbox void of synchromesh. You have to double clutch to keep it in gear."

Despite it's shortcomings the car is simple, but very well-engineered.

"It gets about 35 miles per gallon," he said. "And you have to open the window to shut the door due to the pressure inside. It's that air tight. It will also float in water, for a little while."

The Hoffmann Company of New York, which imported Beetles in the early 1950s, eventually abandoned Volkswagen, and imported Porsches instead. However, by the mid-1950s sales of the Beetle began to increase.

"Now 65 years later many of these cars are still on the road and collected."

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