Why The VW Beetle Is A Universal Standard Of Weight And Measure

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The sheer volume of things that are measured in terms of the classic VW Beetle is staggering. From whale hearts to heavy artillery, one object is used more often than any other to give a perspective of size and weight. The Beetle's role as a standard unit of measurement is an unsung achievement. Let's take care of that.

"E. coli … moves its whole length in two nanoseconds. If it were the size of a Volkswagen, it would be going four times the speed of light."

The classic VW Bug, with its nearly immutable design, has been driven all over the world and all over the movies for the better part of a century. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who couldn't pick its shape out of a lineup or, more realistically, a weedy Southern California backyard.

So its not surprising the Bug, so imbedded in our culture, is an object of reference. If you need to describe something about size of a Volkswagen to someone who can't see it, well, you know they're going know size of the Bug. What's odd is how the VW absolutely eclipses all other objects of comparison.


Sure, things are judged the size of a Buick or a 747, and maybe, for bonus points, your math teacher asked how many basketballs or dollar bills put end to end you need to reach this or that. It's true Quarter Pounders and other McDonald's menu items are forever being stacked to the moon. But these things don't compete with the massive number or variety of comparisons made to the VW.

It's the measure of things. It is the ruler itself.


Most other objects are limited in their comparative function. For example, Mack trucks are exclusively used to describe objects we are to think of as large. But Volkswagens are used to describe things as too small and too large and, more importantly, as they really are.

As such, science writers make the most use of the vehicle, deeming everything in or from space, made or conceived by man or God to be about the size of a Bug. The VW-size Mars Global Surveyor looked down at the planet with cameras capable of resolving VW-size objects such as the "nearly" VW-size Spirit and Opportunity, which themselves captured images of VW-size rocks in their travels.


Soyuz capsules are the "Volkswagen Beetle of the space program" due to their size and workhorse longevity, Gemini capsules had the seating room of a Volkswagen, and Apollo capsules were "Beetles from the 1960s, cramped but useful."

For a time, you could experience the thrill of the VW-size International Space Station capsule as projected by the advanced VW-size IMAX projector.


Beloved Jalopnik writer and Bug owner Jason Torchinsky once suggested to me that so many spacecraft share the VW size because of the commonality of the delivery system — the cargo bays of the launch craft are similar in dimension. Why the cargo bays would be the size of a Volkswagen he didn't explain.

It doesn't matter. As seen in the table, people writing on every topic compare their subjects to the Volkswagen. The comparisons are pervasive, diverse, and at times inappropriate, useless, and forced — leading to the impression that many writers feel the examination of a subject would be incomplete without a Bug comparison.


Some subjects even appear to require it. With hundreds of thousands of Google references to the size of a blue whale's heart being that of a Volkswagen, I think I would have to be a genius or a fool to attempt describing it any other way.

This intense desire to make the comparison manifests itself most plainly when an author, struggling with an object impossibly out of line with the VW's scale, makes do by referring to only a portion of the vehicle, turning the Bug into a divisible unit of measure.


You already think about manatees as about half the size of a VW. Who doesn't? But do you think of mounted bison heads the same way? Well, you should. Find those references helpful? All right, but is "half the size of a VW glove box"really a known quantity? Is "the size of a VW bucket seat" especially useful, as opposed to some other bucket seat?

When divisibility doesn't work, writers switch to weight to find equilibrium with the Bug:

"Each of the [USS Wisconsin's] dozen 16-inch/50 caliber guns can fire a 1,900-pound projectile, equivalent to the weight of a VW Beetle, 23 nautical miles."


These weight comparisons prove less common, presumably because a limited number of people can heft the weight of a Beetle in their head, as you would, say, a bowling ball.

So why the persistent need to describe objects in Bug-terms? Is it the fan-boyish love of the brand (possibly found more prominently in free-spirited "writer types")? Is it just the iconic stature of the car? Is it the snowballing popularity of the metaphor itself?


Maybe it's all of these. Or maybe something more is going on. Perhaps we're missing a unit of measure. Maybe the size in question is particularly useful for illustration and classification— an expression of the Goldilocks Principle as applied to measurement. The Bug is not too big or small. It's just right. It filled a descriptive void.

If this is true, why not bestow upon it the status of a formal scientific unit, the vw? No less arbitrary than our current measures, it's already proven to be enormously relatable.


Consider these hypothetical uses: "Office space for rent! 7.5 vw," or "The largest brewery in the East Coast, its fermentation tanks can hold a quarter kilovolkswagen of refreshment," or "Researchers are experimenting with a new artificial liver, only 3 mvw in size."


Infinitely more important than these everyday descriptive uses would be the advances likely to occur in serious thought and science. Philosophers suggest that without the vocabulary to express an idea, we have a difficult time even conceiving of that idea. Human development may have been hamstrung due of the lack of the vw. Since the Bug's inception in 1938 and its de facto but still limited use as a measure, the pace of human invention has accelerated. If the vw was used universally, who knows what we can achieve?

Selection of Things "The Size of a Volkswagen"

Leatherback turtles

Hitler's "Columbus Globe"

King Kong's artificial heart

A death wish of a fictional yakuza boss

The world's largest bomb, the "daisy cutter"

Nomad, a meteorite seeking robot

Mature lace-leaf Japanese maples

Armadillos living 2.5 million years ago

A DJ's rig in a Polish restaurant

Tarantulas in the movie TARANTULA

The testicles of Paul Bunyan's blue ox, Babe

Shells of "Big Bertha," German WWI Cannon

A "humming blue box" treating human waste

A computer disk drive circa 1968

A CAD workstation circa 1979

The head of Russian pugilist Nikolai Valuev

The mighty bluefin tuna

Artichoke-like treetops on an extinct volcano

A mound of methane hydrates

"Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima

A boil sprouting on your back

A super-sized nest of yellow jackets

An overpriced one-bedroom apartment

The cannon on the tank killing A-10 Warthog

Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors

An unidentified orange sphere over Texas

A Few Things "The Weight of a Volkswagen"

Leatherback turtles

A cubic yard of ocean

A portion of a 911 Memorial

The Red Bull Stratos Capsule

Guns held by chesty comic book women

Tumors for which Irish men seek doctors

The Hubble Telescope

An old Western Electric telephone

A bus transmission

A vintage trolling reel

(Chris Boznos is an old friend of Jason Torchinsky — he once pulled down a barn with him in a Honda Accord. Chris now runs the finest miniature golf in America.)