Volkswagen Beetle 07.02.14

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The Volkswagen Beetle crawled out from its dark origins in the Nazi era to travel the world, go bananas on the big screen, and truly live up to its name

Commissioned by Adolf Hitler and designed by Ferdinand Porsche, the National Socialists presented the Kraft durch Freude Wagen – "Strength Through Joy car" – with much fanfare, at the Berlin Auto Show in 1938. While this rotund automobile with an air-cooled rear engine and a torsion-bar suspension system was indeed to become the "people's car" – or Volkswagen – that fulfilled the dream of car ownership for millions, it did so under circumstances the Führer never anticipated.

In 1939, the regime shelved plans to mass-motorise Germany (and suspended autobahn construction). The new gigantic factory the Nazis had erected for the production of Porsche's brainchild became part of the war effort. During the war, thousands of forced workers from across Europe turned out a military version of the KdF-Wagen and other equipment from the plant.

It was the British, in whose occupation zone the works came to be located after the Nazi downfall, who first put Porsche's design into serial production to remedy the severe vehicle shortage. After the factory's handover to German management in 1948, the car, now renamed Volkswagen, soon towered as the undisputed symbol of the recovery that the Germans have since revered as the "economic miracle". As incomes rose in the 1950s and 60s, West Germany turned into a car society.

The Volkswagen quickly gained a reputation for reliability and low maintenance costs. Commanding a market share of up to 40 percent of the country, the VW embodied the advent of the federal republic's affluence like no other product. Somewhat ironically, the vehicle's Nazi pedigree indirectly supported its status as a new national icon – the VW's ubiquity underscored in contemporary eyes West Germany's superiority over the dictatorship that had promised the vehicle but left the country ruined. Driving Volkswagens en masse, West Germans experienced the freedom of the autobahn and gradually made their peace with democracy.

Much to the surprise of VW, the United States emerged as the most successful export market in the 1950s and 60s. As the post-war expansion of the suburbs prompted the rise of the two-car family, many white suburbanites adopted the Volkswagen as an economical and dependable form of transport. In America, the Volkswagen morphed into the "bug". Next to Detroit's voluptuous, baroque creations with their two-tone pastel paint jobs and tailfins, the diminutive, roundish import came across as decidedly cute and unconventional.

From the late 50s, irreverent and humorous advertising campaigns by Doyle Dane Bernbach ensured that the car retained the aura of a "duck that stood out in a tiger's cage", as an underground cartoonist remarked. Whether it was adorned with psychedelic swirls and daisies or starring in Disney's hit movie The Love Bug (1968) – a first outing for Herbie – the Beetle sank deep roots into US popular culture as a marker of plucky individualism.

While falling profits prompted the car's departure from markets in Western Europe and the United States in the 1980s, it continued its journey across Latin America. All over Mexico, it is known as the vochito. Produced in Puebla from 1967 onwards, its robust features proved a match for the country's tough road conditions.

For several decades, the Beetle entered Mexican everyday life like no other vehicle – and not only because its comparatively low price brought it within the reach of ordinary citizens. Countless Mexicans who never owned a vochito are likely to have ridden in one of the green and white Beetle taxis that were a common sight everywhere until recently. Even VW's workers revered the vehicle – despite tense industrial relations at the Puebla plant that could explode into violent strikes. It was the one car workers could buy on their wages.

When the company pulled the plug on production in Mexico in 2003, a wave of nostalgia swept the country and the workforce. After the last vochito had rolled off the line to the mournful tunes of a mariachi band, the workers christened the final production site "the hall of tears". Irrespective of its ugly Nazi birthmark, the Beetle had developed into a truly global icon.

The People's Car by Bernhard Rieger is published by Harvard University Press.



Bernhard Rieger



Damián Ortega

quotes story

The VW's ubiquity underscored in contemporary eyes West Germany's superiority over the dictatorship that had promised the vehicle but left the country ruined

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