Prince Hohenlohe at the Panamericana: The Race that Made the Beetle a Mexican Star

Volkswagen has long done well in Mexico. With a plant in Puebla churning out the people’s cars and a longstanding love affair with the Beetle (the last ever Beetle was made in Mexico) there’s real VW love down Mexico way. It wasn’t love at first site, though. As with many markets, Mexicans were initially suspicious of the little Beetle and its little engine. To convince the people that the Beetle could keep up with the best, Prince Alfonso of Hohenlohe-Langenburg took seven Beetles the world’s most dangerous race: la Carrera Panamericana.

Only run on five occasions, the Carrera Panamericana was a road race devised to celebrate Mexico’s completion of its section of the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads running across the Americas. Organized by the Mexican government, the first race took place in 1950, running from American border to the Guatemalan border.

As a result of its starting location, near Texas, the race was immediately attractive to American race car drivers, though racers from around the world were eager to join. The race was broken down into nine legs and took place over the course of five days and was run almost entirely along the 2,200 mile stretch of newly built Pan-American highway.

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Immediately the race was a hit and also a hazard. In the first year, four people died (including one spectator). The spectacle and the prize money, though, garnered local and international attention. The prize of 150,000 pesos (the equivalent of about $150,000 today) was won by Hershel McGriff, who raced an Oldsmobile 88 that he paid the equivalent of $14,000 for. By 1954, though, the race was largely run by professionals in Ferraris and Mercedes 300 SLs and attracted big crowds.

As a result of the race’s popularity, not to mention its difficulty, it was the perfect venue for VW to show how good its Beetle was. Mexicans were skeptical at first of the little Type 1 when it first arrived in 1954, since they were mostly used to big American sedans. Seven Beetles, therefore, were entered in the race to prove that they could cut the mustard.

And so it fell to Prince Alfonso Maximiliano Victorio Eugenio Alejandro Maria Pablo de la Santisima Trinidad y Todos los Santos zu Hohenlohe-Langeburg, who had entered the Beetles, to lead a line of Beetles in the Panamericana. To compete in the race, though, drivers needed to maintain an average speed of 50 mph. That was no great difficulty for the winning V12-powered Ferrari (which averaged 107.93 mph), but for the 1200 cc, 36 hp Beetles, it wasn’t exactly a given that they could even qualify.

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So the team hatched a plan. The seven Beetles ran bumper-to-bumper, like geese, to cut down air resistance. The tactic worked and Prince Hohenlohe-Langenberg led his Beetles to the finish in 78th place overall averaging more than 63 mph. That wasn’t exactly a blistering pace, but history would prove this to be a tortoise and the hare situation. The Beetles finished in the final eight spots, but all the same, they beat expectations. Members of the media, in fact, were so staggered by the pace that they suggested that the Beetles had been fitted with Porsche engine. Porsche had seen a run of success at the race in previous years (the names Carrera and Panamera are references to the race) and the Prince’s family was friends with Ferdinand Porsche, so hopped up Beetles weren’t a farfetched idea. A professional mechanic from Texas was hired to inspect the cars, though, and determined that were indeed the standard engines.

More than just proving that the cars could keep up with traffic, though, Prince Hohenlohe’s Beetles proved that VW made reliable cars. Of the 150 cars that entered the race, only 86 finished the 2,000-mile race.

“The race put Volkswagen on the map because they sent half a dozen Beetles in ’54 and they finished one after each other and ran like clockwork,” Johnny Tipler, writer of La Carrera Panamerica, told The Times in 2013. The race had proven the Beetle’s mettle, not only as a city car for Europe but as go-anywhere, do-anything car for North America, too. That success was quickly followed by the creation of Volkswagen Mexicana, S.A. and Distribuidora Volkswagen Central, founded Prince Hohenlohe-Langenburg. By 1961 Beetles were being assembled in Mexico, and in 1962 the first Volkswagen plant was established in Xalostoc. Eventually, all the taxis in Mexico City would be Beetles, and the car would go on being built until 2003. And all thanks in no small part to a race run 50 years earlier.

The Panamericana, meanwhile, was cancelled the following year due to safety concerns. With seven people dying at the 1954 race and the 1955 Le Mans tragedy, the appetite for dangerous road racing wasn’t strong enough for the race to continue. A Panamericana road rally now runs in much the same style as the Mille Miglia historic rally, attracting classic cars and enthusiasts from all around.