“Owning a VW is Like Being in Love,” Popular Mechanics announced after polling its readers in 1956. “These owners have actually fallen in love with a car.”
Popular Mechanics wasn’t alone in marveling at the U.S. reception of the small “made in Germany” car. The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Business Week, Road and Track and the Nation added to a buzz that was vastly disproportionate to the vehicle’s market share at the time. Of the 7.9 million new automobiles sold in the U.S. in 1955, Volkswagen AG had accounted for just 28,907.
Nonetheless, the excitement elicited by the “Volks” in the mid-1950s foreshadowed the car’s subsequent success. Annual U.S. sales rose to 120,422 in 1959 and peaked at 563,522 in 1968. The affectionately nicknamed “Beetle” or “Bug” became a lasting fixture of the cultural landscape.
For a product that started out as an initiative of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist dictatorship, this is a surprising trajectory. Commissioned in 1934 as the Nazi “people’s car,” the vehicle owed its rounded shape and defining engineering traits -- most notably its robust air-cooled rear engine -- to Ferdinand Porsche, who oversaw its development. Even so, the car’s historical lineage did little to dampen its budding reputation in the U.S. during the 1950s, partly because the Nazis never mass produced it.
In the early years of the Cold War, West Germany came to be seen as a political ally. Scores of U.S. journalists visited the VW plant in Wolfsburg, and portrayed the thriving company as a “Klein Amerika” (Little America), emblematic of West Germany’s postwar transformation. As they assured the American public that the VW was made by a company run in accordance with U.S. business principles, they erased the cultural barrier presented by the car’s Nazi past.
When Volkswagen expanded its export business, it profited from the booming U.S. economy of the 1950s. Rapid suburbanization fueled demand for a dependable and modestly priced second family car. The VW cost just $1,495 in 1955, and soon gained a commercial foothold.
Frustration with the Detroit automakers also prompted Americans to acquire a VW. In the first half of the 1950s, the average price of a car rose to $2,900 from $2,200. Eight-cylinder engines generating more than 150 horsepower, automatic transmissions, air conditioners and lavish designs (most famously the tail fin) defined the American automobile. For some drivers, adopting the mechanically simple, ultra-reliable VW was a form of consumer protest.
Detroit’s baroque creations made the diminutive “Volks,” with its 36 horsepower rear engine, distinctive. Some buyers -- and women in particular -- were attracted to its shape, its unthreatening air and its size. For some, buying a VW signaled a rejection of the status games that energized the car market. The VW emerged as a marker of individualism by the late 1950s.
Updated repeatedly, the car maintained its commercial appeal and cultural salience in the 1960s. In part, it owed its good fortunes to irreverent advertising campaigns orchestrated by Doyle Dane Bernbach. The agency played fast and loose with Madison Avenue’s rules, presenting the Bug as an amusing, lovable and curious vehicle whose owner had chosen a reasonable product in a materialistic society abounding with false promises. The agency once produced a full-page ad that didn’t feature the car, and stated that the VW model that year simply had nothing new to show.
The vehicle increasingly became part of U.S. culture. Beginning in the early 1960s, thousands of American owners acquired engineering kits that allowed them to turn their Bugs into inexpensive racing cars and competed in “Formula Vee” contests. The emergence of Dune Buggies placed the VW in California’s surfer scene and its youth culture.
And while suburbanites continued to drive Beetles, members of the counterculture were also drawn to the car. They often enhanced its unconventional appearance by adding psychedelic swirls and daisies.
The Americanization of the VW reached a pinnacle with its starring role in Walt Disney’s “The Love Bug” in 1969. The movie features a Beetle named Herbie, a small, lovable outsider who beats superior automotive opponents.
Hitler’s erstwhile mass-produced “people’s car” had become an icon of unconventionality and individualism. It was taken off the market in 1980. “As the Beetle chugs its way out of our lives,” the CBS Evening News nostalgically commented, “a part of our lives goes with it.”
That obituary proved premature. Volkswagen introduced the New Beetle in 1998, a nostalgia-fueled retrocar.
(Bernhard Rieger teaches modern and contemporary history at University College London. He is the author of “The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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