The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle
Bernhard Rieger examines culture and technology, politics and economics, and industrial design and advertising genius to reveal how a car commissioned by Hitler and designed by Ferdinand Porsche became an exceptional global commodity on a par with Coca-Cola.
Excerpted from The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, (chapter 5, 'An Export Hit', footnotes omitted), by Bernhard Rieger. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2013, The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Although the 28,907 VWs sold across the Atlantic in 1955 amounted to far less than a 1 percent share of the American car market that year, mainstream publications including the New York Times, Business Week, and the Nation devoted detailed articles full of praise for the West German vehicle that year. “The Volkswagen enjoys a glowing reputation for stamina,” Business Week found. Time and again, owners praised this feature, noting the car’s ability to traverse waterlogged fords “during unusually heavy rains,” to climb “bunch-grass hillside[s] … with deep cow trails that ... even stumped four-wheel drive vehicles,” and to “grip the road like a determined ant.” Its reliability and its commendable driving characteristics reflected the Volkswagen’s high technical standards. “Everything about this car is top notch. Those Germans are real craftsmen,” stated an early VW fan. That VW offered this vehicle at the comparatively modest price of $1,495 enhanced its appeal, as did its advantageous rates of depreciation and fuel consumption. In 1956, over two-thirds of drivers surveyed by Popular Mechanics named “cheapness of operation” as the VW’s “best-liked feature.” Volkswagen had entered the world’s leading auto market with a reliable and affordable quality product.
After decades of austerity caused first by the Depression and prolonged by the Second World War, the fifties turned into a “golden age of the American automobile” that saw car registrations jump from 25.8 million in 1945 to 52.1 million in 1955. Lifestyle changes underpinned demand for cars. As the postwar suburban population grew by 43 percent between 1947 and 1953, daily routines, not least those of women who wished to visit the new suburban shopping malls and plazas, increasingly relied on access to individual transport. The car and the housing booms were intimately linked, with average individual expenditure on these items tripling in real terms between 1941 and 1961. By the end of the fifties, 40 percent of American drivers were female—a far higher proportion than anywhere in Western Europe. As a dealer told a journalist investigating why Americans bought Volkswagens in 1955, the car “‘was just the thing for the wife to run around town in.’ Two-car suburbia is where Volkswagen has made its biggest inroads.” Market surveys from the fifties and early sixties also revealed that, while over 60 percent of Beetles registered in the United States served as second cars, about two-thirds of the customers who signed a purchase contract in a dealership had attended college. In short, Volkswagen attracted a foothold among the materially secure, white middle class whose members made up the bulk of suburbanites in the fifties.
Many drivers undoubtedly chose a Volkswagen for practical reasons, but from the outset the Beetle’s appeal transcended its immediate use value. VW owners self-confidently displayed their vehicles, and not only as practical quality products. Many drivers established a deep emotional attachment to their new, small possession—behavior that took observers by surprise. To be sure, car ownership in fifties America frequently created highly personal bonds between man and machine, not least because many sizable vehicles served as prominent status symbols. Yet this small, modest, relatively inexpensive German car did not function as a conventional status symbol. Rather, this automobile possessed a charm that cast a uniquely enchanting spell over drivers, leaving them infatuated with an inanimate object whose shape contrasted sharply with America’s automotive mainstream.
“Owning a VW Is Like Being in Love,” Popular Mechanics titled an article in 1956 after readers had responded to a poll in “the most enthusiastic” manner “ever.” Drivers’ “replies are unbelievable. These owners have actually fallen in love with a car.” The car conveyed none of the aggressiveness widely associated with the Nazi regime to which it owed its existence. On the contrary, people found it “real cute,” comparing its form to a “bug” or a “ladybug.” From the early fifties, the VW’s American appeal derived from its unusual shape. Nicknames also testify to how much VW owners cherished their vehicles. Upon completing a lengthy trip in 1955, one female driver simply christened her car with the German words for “little love” (kleine Liebe). Indeed, Americans welcomed the VW as a lovable material object with innocent, childlike traits. Women drivers took the lead in ascribing an endearing aura to the Volkswagen, casting the car as an object soliciting female impulses of care and devotion. Although they did not feminize the car in outright terms, the prominence of female drivers among early VW fans underlined the unthreatening and friendly air that surrounded the car. Women handled this car with enthusiasm and self-confidence. “I’ll try anything in the ‘bug.’ It lets me be boss when I’m behind the wheel,” explained one “Ohio housewife” in her declaration of love for the Volkswagen.
The appeal of the “Bug” in America derived not only from its unique shape but was also directly linked to its size. While West German drivers praised the car for its reliability, Americans were far more likely to draw attention to its diminutive proportions, as the anecdotes of a woman who drove a VW from New York City to Florida for her winter break in 1955 bear out. The sound of the vehicle’s air-cooled back engine was a technical trait that caught the driver’s attention, reminding her not of a solid piece of automotive engineering but of a “hard-worked sewing machine.” In addition, she reported how the Volkswagen’s small dimensions elicited curiosity. When she checked into a hotel in Richmond, the “doorman asked: ‘Shall we unload her here, or will you take her to your room?’ ” while attendants in Savannah, who had cleaned the vehicle, refused payment because “they couldn’t charge for bathing a baby.” In West Germany, small vehicles dominated the car market, but in the United States, the VW’s modest proportions struck drivers and observers as deeply unconventional. In fact, some Americans struggled to acknowledge it as a fully fledged automobile.
The Volkswagen occupied a special place in the American automotive landscape from the very beginning. Beyond its size and distinctive silhouette, the car’s air-cooled rear engine marked the VW as an unorthodox automobile in a country where Detroit’s increasingly large and expensive vehicles provided an overpowering technical and aesthetic backdrop. Commanding a 95 percent share of the 7.9 million sales of new cars in 1955, Detroit owed its dominance in the decade after World War II to ever more spectacular vehicles, whose average price rose from $2,200 to $2,940 in the first half of the fifties. By the middle of the decade, V-8 engines generating over 150 horsepower, automatic transmissions, soft suspensions, and air conditioners counted among the standard features with which U.S. car manufacturers competed among themselves. In this context, the Volkswagen appeared as a positively harmless arrival that posed no significant threat to domestic producers. In fact, Detroit displayed supreme confidence in its own models. Unlike in Great Britain, where auto manufacturers called for protectionist measures, American car manufacturers counted among the most vocal industrial supporters of free trade, actively pushing for the reciprocal abolition of import tariffs.
The new aesthetic that transformed the American automobile in a highly conspicuous manner during this decade indirectly added to the Volkswagen’s harmless appearance. U.S. manufacturers followed the lead of General Motors’ Cadillac range and introduced two-tone pastel paint jobs, ample chrome detailing, elongated bodies, and, most famously, tail fins. Detroit’s increasingly baroque creations, then, provided the lavish context that marked the small “Volks” with its rounded body and thirty-six-horsepower rear engine as a “cute” car. The VW’s charming and unthreatening image was further enhanced because it posed no overt danger to the American auto industry. Retailing at a price much below that of average American cars, the “Bug” had entered the U.S. auto market as a niche product, a fact underlined by the high number of Americans using it as a second family vehicle. Its highly visible yet marginal position in the world’s leading auto market, as well as its size and shape, stamped it emphatically as a foreign, distinct, and unconventional object within America’s commodity landscape.
As a matter of fact, a significant minority of Americans did not feel comfortable in the “monsters” that emerged from Michigan’s auto plants. A female Beetle owner claimed to be “scared to death to drive our full-size car.” Outright annoyance that U.S. manufacturers chose to ignore the small-car market provided a further motivation to buy a VW. “Ah, Detroit. They’re too complacent; they may be missing the boat,” concluded a distributor of import vehicles. The author of an incandescent letter mailed to the New York Times Magazine in 1955 positively balked at Detroit’s offerings and characterized his decision to acquire a VW as a form of consumer protest:
There is much more to the Volkswagen than the engineering that results in the ease of parking, driving, fuel economy, safety, and downright comfort, not to forget the workmanship. Even my synchromesh floor shift is far more satisfying and safer than all the super-hydra-dyno-automatic power gismos. I’ve owned them and I know. Until Detroit finds out what the lowly Volkswagen is all about, it won’t see another dollar of my money.
The German company capitalized not only on demand for an affordable second car among the white, suburban middle class but also on growing disenchantment among American motorists about Detroit’s product policy. The Volkswagen’s success was connected to a nascent, middle-class consumer reform movement that began to articulate itself in the mid-fifties and castigated conspicuous consumption as wasteful. While exuberant hedonism and colorful excess undoubtedly left a striking and joyful mark on American consumer culture in the fifties, economizing had not disappeared. Thrift and prosperity were by no means mutually exclusive in American culture at the time, not least because notions of frugality survived from the Depression. Simultaneously, a new consumer ethos gained momentum in the second half of the decade, a growing scrutiny of the mechanisms through which big corporations allegedly manipulated consumers in what increasingly came to be known as the “affluent society.” Beyond John Kenneth Galbraith’s eponymous best seller from 1958, a host of writers and activists, including Vance Packard and Ralph Nader, made names for themselves in an ongoing critique of contemporary capitalism in the United States.
From early on, these critics trained their sights on Detroit. Beyond singling out body and engine size as well as purchase price, they denounced the annual model changes that made U.S. vehicles depreciate rapidly by rendering them stylistically obsolete. Moreover, the widespread realization that many pricey consumer products, including American cars, had been designed intentionally to restrict their life span and were therefore “made to break” compounded accusations of calculated wastefulness. Next to the artificially ephemeral and costly automobiles from Detroit, the “Volks” looked more reliable not only because of its high quality but because of its unchanging appearance over the years.
Above all, Volkswagen attracted none of the charges of consumer manipulation that were often directed at the automobile industry amid growing suspicions about market research and advertising. That the public relations initiatives of American automobile manufacturers became a target of consumer reformers was hardly a coincidence. After all, no other company splashed out as generously on Madison Avenue as General Motors with its $162,499,248 advertising budget in 1956. Detroit’s promotional campaigns saturated the American media landscape, employing celebrity endorsements, tightly choreographed launch ceremonies of annual models, corporate sponsorship of TV and radio shows, and countless ads in newspapers and magazines. Nothing appeared to demonstrate more glaringly the disingenuousness of Detroit’s hype than the $10 million advertising extravaganza that accompanied the introduction of the Edsel line in 1957, which Ford had to withdraw amid public ridicule within two years because of technical problems and an uncompetitive price policy.
Next to such Hollywoodesque showmanship, the fact that Volkswagen expanded its sales while refraining from Detroit-like advertising for years underscored the car’s budding mystique. “An uncanny word-of-mouth campaign has helped raise sales,” found a journalist in 1956. “Each guy that buys one is good for another,” confirmed a Volkswagen dealer. Rather than Madison Avenue’s professionals, the consumers themselves spoke for this product, which appeared devoid of pretensions: “I love it because of what it is—a VW,” explained one driver. According to Fortune magazine, the Volkswagen was that rarest of commodities: “an utterly honest car.” Put differently, where other cars were deemed to hold out empty promises, the VW struck drivers as a trustworthy object because it delivered what it pledged.
Volkswagen’s early customers did not simply consist of white middle-class Americans in search of an affordable second car to complement their larger American-made vehicle. The German company capitalized on spreading disenchantment among middle-class motorists about Detroit’s product policy. Unlike in West Germany, where its low price, quality, and durability stood for a new postwar normality, in the United States the Beetle’s characteristics lent it a profoundly unconventional air in a car culture dominated by size and showmanship. In a culture of ostentatious display, acquiring a small, inexpensive automobile, whose distinctive shape neighbors were bound to notice in the driveway, amounted to an act of conspicuously inconspicuous consumption that demonstrated a driver’s eye for a reasonable product. Although the expanding suburbs attracted much hand-wringing commentary for their supposed social and cultural conformity, they provided an ideal environment to cast the Beetle as a marker of individuality.
As much as it stood out, the Volkswagen did not strike American drivers as altogether alien. To many observers the VW radiated a diffuse sense of historical familiarity—and not just because its rotund shape harked back to the streamlined automotive aesthetics of the thirties. More important, commentators penned articles entitled “Herr Tin Lizzie” to praise the Volkswagen as “the postwar Model T” because its purchase price, technological simplicity, robustness, and economy reminded them of Ford’s automotive legend. For some Americans, then, the arrival of the Beetle resembled the return of earlier, more constrained forms of consumerism.
The Volkswagen’s origins in the Third Reich, which were common knowledge in the United States, did little to disturb its budding reputation as an unconventional middle-class vehicle. That the VW constituted a failed Nazi prestige project facilitated its commercial success after the war because the car required far less denazification than would have been necessary had the Nazis actually mass-produced it. While memories of the war in Europe as well as of German atrocities persisted in the American public sphere, Volkswagen profited immeasurably from the recent incarnation of Germany as the Federal Republic that came to be seen as a Cold War ally.
Bernhard Rieger teaches modern and contemporary history at University College London