The VW Beetle Started With Nazis, Boomed Under Mad Men And Died In Mexico

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Sunday marks nine years since Volkswagen rolled out the Ultima Edicion of its famed Beetle. As of today, no car has had the impact on personal mobility that the Beetle did during its 65 years of production.

Now, there's a book that puts the diminutive German car, its creators and all of the change it effected into perspective, showing the changes that happened to, and because of it.

The Beetle still stands as the best-selling, longest-lived car in history: a true People's Car. It even unseated the venerable Ford Model T, which hit the 15 million mark in 1927 after 19 years in production. By the time VW pulled the final curtain on its curiously curvy little car at the company's assembly plant in Mexico in 2003, 21 million had been produced, all over the world, over over nearly seven decades.


In her historical account of the little bug-shaped car that changed the world, Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle, Andrea Hiott goes past the typical, "this is who designed it, this is what worked and what didn't, and this is what happened with it" approach to explore the artistic and philosophical forces at play in the car's design, development and impact.

Although Jeremy Clarkson seethes hatred toward the Beetle — officially known as the Type 1 — and seems to believe that it was little more than a slightly better alternative to other crappy cars, it embodied a style of thinking that touched everything from design and engineering to art, advertising and social mobility. Not to mention that over the seven decades it's been around, there have been many more people than Clarkson who think of the Beetle as a fantastic little car. After owning a '73 Type 1 for several years, I can count myself as one of them. It wasn't just its practicality, but its Teutonic solidness and unique aesthetic that set it apart from everything else I've ever driven. How else could a car designed by an Austrian eccentric for Nazis be marketed by a Jewish guy and bought by hippies, college professors and moms? Sure, in its heyday, it was an easy car to own, but people also liked its honest simplicity.


Hiott's background as a student of philosophy, neuroscience and German is a perfect complement to the quirky subject of her book. It's clear that she tapped into her philosophical studies to turn an automotive history into something deeper, a work describing an evolution in peoples' way of thinking. Thinking Small talks about Nazis, but it does so differently. Instead of focusing on their thoroughly recounted evil deeds, Hoitt probes what they did and why, and how it affected German, and later European personal mobility; how they affected social change. It asks, and answers the question: How did a non-political automotive genius like Ferdinand Porsche fall in with a megalomaniacal demagogue like Hitler?


From Volkswagen's early beginnings as a state-sponsored industrial project, through its tough post-war years (when factory workers scarcely had enough to eat), to its "coming out" through Bill Bernbach's no frills ad agency hidden amongst Madison Avenue's slick firms, to the vast swaths of developing countries that eventually embraced the car, Hiott shows that Volkswagen's first car was born amidst change. Then it spurred change, and when the time came, went away so that something new could take its place.

Now legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach, the ad firm that created the "Think Small" campaign, brought something new to the way the world looked at the products it was buying, and Volkswagen was its first really big account. The two companies — one a Nazi orphan, the other masterminded by a Jewish guy from New York — grew up together. According to Julian Koenig, one of DDB's copywriters at the time:

"With this car, there was no reason to resist the truth. All we had to do was reveal its magic in a style that would strike a chord." In the same way that a musical note on a key is obvious to the ear, so too is a warm expression of the truth: Such things can mysteriously open our hearts.


There are a couple of holes in the book, but considering the rather broad cultural context Hiott used to frame detailed portraits of the Porsche family, Hitler, Bernbach and Volkswagen CEO Heinrich Nordhoff, it is perhaps understandable that they are there. The first is Josef Ganz, a Jewish engineer who designed a car called the "May Bug" in the early 30s, only to be imprisoned and later (luckily for him), banished from Germany. Hiott admits that his design most likely ended up in the hands of Hitler, and through him Porsche's, but she only gives Ganz passing notice in a paragraph where she demotes him to "automotive writer."


The second is John Muir, an aerospace engineer who dropped out of Lockheed's coat and tie world in the 1960s to grow out his hair and wrench on Volkswagens in Taos, N.M. Muir's self-published book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot sold 2 million copies, and continues to stand as an icon of the do-it-yourself spirit of many Volkswagen owners.

But don't take my word for it. Read Hiott's book. If I sound like I'm promoting it, I am. It's an important, easy to read historical work that lends perspective and depth to today's consumerist society. German economist Ludwig Erhard, the man who wrote Germany's post war economic plan before the war (because he knew the National Socialist doctrine would fail), said that "men were primarily motivated by their never-sleeping appetite for material gain, coupled with their deep-seated instinct for self-survival; in short, by their quest for security and protection against want and helplessness in a troubled and feckless world."


There's a message in that for all of us. What the Beetle had to do with global change over the last seven decades is perhaps best put by Hiott:

The story of the Volkswagen is part of the human story, not just the story of any one country, time, family. The Beetle is just a car, to be sure. But its story isn't just a story, it's our story.


Photo credit: Jason Torchinsky/Associated Press