A peppy, perspicacious cultural history of the Volkswagen.
It was the people’s car: simple, durable, easy to repair, with a shape appealing to the child in all of us. It was also loaded with Hitler’s ideological baggage—when it rolled off the production lines, it was called the Strength through Joy Auto—but it managed to shed those unsavory associations through the witty and guileless advertising of the firm Doyle Dane Bernbach, of Levy’s rye-bread fame (that it was a Jewish company went a long way toward distancing the car from its evil memories). As the car’s populism melded with the evolving zeitgeist, DDB tapped into it. Small was beautiful, and the cool anti-car struck at the pomposities of status symbols, epitomizing the countercultural revolt against the mainstream ethos of consumption, the culture of the new and improved product, and planned obsolescence. Zeitgeists change, but the bug didn’t. Status and personal expression returned; Ralph Nader pointed out the vehicle’s dangers; Japanese cars, with the beetle’s strengths of low price and dependability, washed ashore. Sales dropped and the design went into mothballs, yet the beetle’s shape and personality were as iconic as the Coke bottle, and it wasn’t long before a new beetle arrived, this time without the innocence. Designers might have tried to “channel the soul of the beetle,” but there was no doubt that this was an “upscale lifestyle vehicle,” a product of visual positioning, brand management, and chic fin-de-siècle retro packaging—manipulation, in a word—far from the bohemian and trustworthy. The new car plays on emotions and archetypes yet, unlike its ancestor, is neither a technological nor social innovation. If Woody Allen found it in a cave 200 years from now, it wouldn’t start right up.
With brio and dash, Patton (Dreamland, 1998, etc.) charts the long strange trip of the little bug that became a grand cultural totem.