The descendents of Ferdinand Porsche might want to see if any of those prizes for the creation of a perpetual motion device are still outstanding. In the Beetle (or Bug), he created a car that survived the Nazis, the fifties, and Ralph Nader. If not a prize, that achievement at least has to be worthy of some kind of recognition. To call him the car's "inventor," however, might be pushing it.
As British automotive journalist Phil Patton explains in his engaging new book, Bug: The Stranger Mutations of the World's Most Famous Automobile (Simon & Schuster), it's a miracle that the car got off the ground in the first place. It was conceived of and championed by Hitler (and engineered by Porsche) as "the people's car" over and against German auto manufacturers, who carped at his unrealistic price ceiling of 1,000 marks, and its production was delayed by the war.
After the Bug was put into production in the postwar years, it had to find some way to surmount its tarnished past. Patton reminds us that the first two salesmen that Volkswagen hired to sell it in the U.S. failed utterly. People were just not interested in a funny little German car that You Know Who had dreamed up.
In fact, it was only about a decade after World War II had ended and people had settled back into their lives that the little car began to catch the American public's fancy. At first it began to be "discovered by word of mouth, like a good restaurant" but, seeing the growing interest and growing sales, then-VW boss Carl Hahn decided to try to goose sales by hiring an upstart Jewish public relations firm by the name of Doyle Dane Bernach (DDB). While their ethnicity was no doubt a factor in VW's choosing them—Patton argues that hiring "Jews to sell Hitler's car brilliantly disarmed its greatest liability"—the marketers at DDB had a different approach than most of their contemporaries. This would prove a godsend for the car and its manufacturer.
DDB's campaign sold the Bug as a way of life at odds with the striving fifties and early sixties. It adopted the slogan "small is beautiful" as a slap in the face to the ever-larger U.S.-made cars and presented the Beetle as an "honest car" that wouldn't go out of style because it transcended style. The advertisements consistently portrayed the Bug as unchanging, in spite of the many mechanical improvements that were being made along the way—thus fulfilling Hitler's demand that the car should draw its design from the efficiency of nature itself.
The implications of this campaign were not lost on the counter-culture of the late sixties and early seventies. The Bug and its close cousin, the VW bus, became a smart statement against the supposed crass materialism of the older generation and a badge of baby-boomer identity. By the time Ralph Nader's puritanical auto-safety crusade bore fruit in the mid-seventies (the last year the classic bug was on the American market was 1978), the vehicle was already well entrenched in the American cultural landscape. Disney made a series of Herbie the Love Bug movies. In California, the vehicle spawned multiple mutations, including the Dune Buggy, the vehicle of choice for Charles Manson's famous cult. A generation of strife and bruised arms has resulted from that barbaric game Slug Bug.
I emphasize the American market not to slight the many other nations that have hosted the Beetle, but because it is here that the Bug has achieved an unparalleled, almost cult-like, following. Bug owners in the U.S. continue to acquire the rolling fossils and to spend thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of man hours restoring and remodeling them and displaying them at shows.
Patton makes clear that it was these fanatics who brought the new Beetle into existence. The VW brass had wanted to put the car behind them and move on to newer, better things. But a few upstart engineers, along with a passionate ad hoc campaign by American VW fans and dealers, managed to convince—nay, force—the company to go forward with the design and manufacture of a new model, one compatible with current U.S. auto safety standards.
This has, of course, prompted intense rivalries between the purists—who insist that, with a water-cooled engine in the front, a thicker shell, and a price comparable with most mundane U.S. cars, this new model "ain't the real thing"—and the plain vanilla baby boomers, whose argument in favor is roughly, "Cool, they brought the Beetle back!"
The Bug itself meets these arguments, and this attention, as it always has: with a broad deep smile.
Jeremy Lott is co-author (with Rev. Dr. Lawrence VanBeek) of the forthcoming The Case For Enoch.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)