A Tale Of Two Cars

In July, a record run came to an end. Conceived in the 1920s, designed in the 1930s and manufactured continuously since the 1940s, the original VW Beetle is no longer being made.

Columns From: 9/1/2003 Modern Machine Shop, ,

In July, a record run came to an end. Conceived in the 1920s, designed in the 1930s and manufactured continuously since the 1940s, the original VW Beetle is no longer being made.

I’ve been a fan of the VW Type 1 since my dad first purchased one in 1961. To me it represented an automobile that was the complete opposite of anything else that was available at the time. It had a rear engine, four-on-the-floor, a trunk in the front, a horn that went beep, and—coolest of all to me—a sunroof, which was rare in 1961.

At that time, circa 1961, the Porsche model 356 was being manufactured. It was very similar in design to the VW Beetle and even shared some components. That is logical since Ferdinand Porsche’s 1930s design was the progenitor of both.
Among the design’s technical innovations was its use of torsion bar suspension. Each wheel was independently sprung. The engine was air cooled so there was no radiator to monitor. The horizontally opposed boxer engine was designed to cruise the autobahn flat-out for hours on end. With the engine in the rear, the car used one of the industry’s first integrated transmission and differential units, called a trans axle.

Through the years, I owned a number of bugs (unfortunately never a Porsche). They were dependable, utilitarian and fun. They were also noisy, slow, top heavy in turns and miserable in the winter. But somehow the car succeeded, selling more than 21.5 million units into a historically fickle market during a 70-year production run.

Porsche’s divergence from the basic VW design came with the advent of the 911 in 1966. By continuously developing and refining the car, Porsche today resembles the original design only in the broadest sense. On the other hand, the last VW off the line in July unmistakably resembles its first 1940s ancestor.

In our metalworking industry, too often there is a tendency to hang on to tools, methods and processes that, while comfortable and familiar, are less efficient and advanced than others available. Like a Beetle owner who overlooks the car’s many deficiencies out of loyalty, love and habit, shops need to pass over that tendency and occasionally evaluate if their manufacturing represents the best available practice or more of a resistance to change what’s familiar. Few metalworking customers are as loyal as VW owners.

Think of it this way. Dr. Porsche designed the Beetle in the mid 1930s. That design took two paths, the Beetle, which didn’t change much, and the 911, which did. If your shop were a car, which would you prefer to resemble?

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