The 75th anniversary of Wolfsburg, Volkswagen's purpose-built factory town, was this past weekend. VW didn't make a big deal about it, mostly because of all the associations with those people Indiana Jones liked to kill, but I think it's worth noting, especially with this odd, mostly forgotten relic: the EA 97/1 prototype.
The iconic Beetle was clearly a design of the 1930s, and stayed looking like a mildly-updated 1930s design until its demise in 2003. But that didn't mean that VW wasn't aware of this. Their offices had windows, after all, and they were keenly aware that they were somehow cheating the usual fate of car companies with their continued success of such an outdated design.
They started research and development on Beetle updates and replacements as early as the 1950s, and many of those went on to become other models in their own right, like the Type III, Type IV, Brasilia, and others, though none actually managed to really replace the Beetle until their most radical leap to water-cooled FWD cars with the Golf in the 1970s.
This particular prototype here, called EA 97/1, was one of the first major attempts to modernize the Beetle's look while keeping its identity and essential character intact. It's like the New Beetle of the late '50s.
The project was started in 1957 by Ghia, who had been working with VW on the Karmann-Ghia already, so they were quite familiar with re-bodying the basic VW pan. It's not known if this was initially contracted by VW as a design study or if Ghia just proposed it on their own, but it does have an official VW prototype number, so at some point it was an "official" VW research project.
Personally, I think the design is pretty fascinating, both in what it keeps from the original design and what it changes. The most archaic element, the separate fenders with their connecting running boards, are gone, replaced by a full-width body with completely integrated fenders. Well, at least in the front. The rear maintains a semi-separate fender look, with a dramatically-curved leading edge that flows back into the rear of the body in a straight line.
The overall body is smoothed out, with the crude protuberances of the Beetle's exposed door hinges and fender-top indicators smoothed into a cleaner, unbroken surface. The car really doesn't look that different from many others of the era with this treatment, like, say, the Fiat 600 or Volvo PV544. The Beetle's character was retained primarily through the hood and engine lid, both of which remain close to the original source.