The Strange Mutations of the World's Most Famous Automobile

By Phil Patton
(Simon & Schuster, Hardcover, 9780743202428, 256pp.)

Publication Date: September 2002

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback

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A VW ad in the 60s described the Beetle and the Coke bottle as the two best-known shapes in the world. It is hard to imagine any other object whose bio-graphy includes as vital players Adolf Hitler, Henry Ford, Charles Manson, Walt Disney, and Woody Allen. As much a character as a car, a hero and an antihero, the Bug has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing again and again on the main stage of history. The car that was first built as a tool of Nazi propaganda was, in the postwar years, transformed by American salesmanship into a counterculture icon, then finally into a product of global marketing.

In his first year as German chancellor, Adolf Hitler described publicly his desire for a real car for the German people, mass-produced and affordable to everyone. By 1938, the vast new factory at Wolfsburg was turning out the Beetle, called the "KdF-wagen," designed by the great race-car engineer Ferdinand Porsche and his team and financed by the German Labor Front, the Third Reich's labor union. "It should look like a beetle," Hitler apparently advised him. During the war, supplied with labor from concentration camps, the factory manufactured ordnance and tanks. After the war, under British control, it turned out 1,000 cars a month, but they were noisy and lacked heat, and many Germans were eager to put the car behind them.

In America, the few Beetles on the road were those shipped over by GI's. The U.S. auto industry saw no need for a small inexpensive car when there were so many large inexpensive used ones on the market. But in 1959, when VW hired the innovative ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach to build a campaign, the car's greatest liability was diffused: a Jewish firm wouldsell Hitler's car. Small was beautiful. Souped-up racing Beetles were cool enough for Steve McQueen to drive. Herbie the Love Bug made Walt Disney hip.

In the 1980s, the Bug lost its popularity to the better-engineered and -designed cars from Japan. To reinvigorate the American market, VW in 1998 unveiled the New Beetle, a car far removed from its German roots -- created in a Southern California design studio and built in Mexico. VW's senior executives made pilgrimages to the brand pavilions of DisneyWorld and Niketown and returned to Germany to build Autostadt, a theme park and museum near the site of the old slave-labor factory in Wolfsburg. The Bug's transformation into a global product was complete.

"Bug" is the fascinating story of the automobile that became as famous as Mickey Mouse, not just as a means of transportation but as a critical artifact in the cultural history of the century.

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