The strange history of the Volkswagen Beetle
“Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle” (Ballantine Books), by Andrea Hiott
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
The Volkswagen Beetle has a unique and colorful history, with principal characters that include the Nazi dictator who personified evil, the legendary designer of Germany’s most celebrated race cars and the Jewish advertising executive who pioneered a creative revolution on Madison Avenue.
It’s a story whose twists and turns over four decades eventually gave rise to the oddly shaped small car that came to symbolize America’s 1960s counterculture and went on to become the world’s top-selling car model.
Author Andrea Hiott transports readers through the most turbulent decades of the 20th century, from the rise of Adolf Hitler to the Allied victory that left postwar Germany in ruins, to that nation’s economic rebirth epitomized by the success of the Volkswagen plant at Wolfsburg.
A car enthusiast who never drove an automobile or held a driver’s license, Hitler had a vision for a “people’s car” that would extend to Germans the same mobility that Henry Ford’s Model T gave Americans. The dictator set out to build a network of autobahns and erect a massive factory in a pasture to build what he decreed to be The Strength Through Joy Car.
The genius chosen as its designer was Ferdinand Porsche, who was told to produce a prototype by 1935 so that 1 million cars would come off the line within three years. But with Hitler bent on war, the plant’s mission shifted to arms production, and output shifted to mines, bazookas, V1 flying bombs and jeeplike utility vehicles.
Among the surprises in Hiott’s comprehensive account is the importance of the plant’s location in the British occupation zone to its ultimate success. Another big “what-if” is the 1947 decision by Ford to pass up the chance to acquire Volkswagen. The reason, according to the author, was the plant’s proximity to the Soviet Bloc at a time when the Cold War was taking shape.
As Wolfsburg started turning out Beetles in increasing numbers, Volkswagen sought to market it to American motorists in an era of bigger cars, dazzling chrome and outsize tail fins. To challenge that mindset, they teamed up with Bill Bernbach, whose quirky ad agency launched a campaign that prompted a significant number of car buyers to “Think Small.”
The book also features the role of Heinrich Nordhoff, a veteran of General Motors’ Opel division before the war. It was his organizational and managerial talents that helped put Volkswagen on the path to prosperity as a key element of postwar Germany’s “economic miracle.”
Hiott’s account should appeal to history buffs, car enthusiasts and readers who delight in a fascinating story. The release of the book coincides with the debut of the 2012 Beetle that marks the second time the much-loved car is brought back by popular demand.
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