It’s hard to think of any small car–or, indeed, any car–that’s had such an outsize cultural presence. From the ugly associations of its past to its role in advertising history and its multiple rebirths, the Beetle transcended its role as conveyance, or even brand, and became a cultural icon.
The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, is a thorough and compelling new chronicle of the distinctive Bug. The book, by Bernhard Rieger, a professor at University College London, traces the car from its Nazi origins to its postwar resurrection, through its breakthrough among young counterculture Americans in the ’60s, to its popularity in Mexico in the ’70s and ’80s, and finally to the revamped Bug that hit U.S. shores in the ’90s. Along the way, Rieger focuses on the advertising that accompanied the Beetle’s ascent, and the car’s accompanying cultural impact.
It’s impossible to talk about the Volkswagen without mentioning where it came from: a division of Hitler’s Third Reich called Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude). KdF’s mission was to encourage leisure among the German people in part by creating an affordable, well-engineered car for working families. The company that manufactured the Beetle was called Volkswagenwerk, and it was created in 1938. The distinctive round shape was inspired by a Hungarian engineer named Bela Barenyi, who had sketched something similar for a French car magazine in 1934. Early ads and propaganda for the KdF Car–the original name for the Beetle–showed “scenes of family and friends relaxing in forest clearings or next to their tent by the lake shore, enjoying the countryside.”
Rieger does not gloss over the horrors of the war at the Volkswagenwerk factory. Nazis installed political prisoners and forced laborers in the factory and treated them like slaves. Babies born to female forced laborers were sent to an orphanage, where they were so malnourished and mistreated, they all ultimately died. But he also describes the fascinating cultural resurrection that the Volkswagen experienced in the postwar period. As part of the rebuilding effort in the late ’40s, British forces oversaw the Volkswagenwerk factory and kept the car industry alive in West Germany.
By 1949, there was a new and improved Volkswagen ready for the market, and the company’s management was deliberately trying to move the car away from its appalling roots. The Beetle had a new glossy paint job, and a swankier interior. According to Rieger, Volkswagen’s general director saw that new paint job–which was available in pastel green, medium brown, and Bordeaux red, as more than just an aesthetic improvement. The car had received a “paint job absolutely characteristic of peacetime.”
At the end of the ’50s, Beetles were selling well in West Germany among the middle class–from 1957 to 1963, sales rose from under 100,000 to almost 400,000. By 1963, almost every third car on the road in West Germany was a Beetle. At this point, the company’s Nazi past had been largely forgotten by consumers, Rieger points out. Volkswagen’s corporate strategy during this time was to stay simple, thereby differentiating itself from American carmakers, whose vehicles were hulking things full of unnecessary add-ons. This strategy served the car well in the United States. Though VW started selling cars in North America in the ’50s, in the ’60s, the car exploded in popularity, thanks in no small part to an iconic campaign by the ad agency DDB, which played up Volkswagen’s uniqueness. “Think small,” “Lemon” and “Impossible” all presented the Bug as “an amusing, lovable, and curious automobile that signaled a quality product in a materialistic society abounding with false promises,” Rieger explains. By the end of the ’60s, the Bug had become a hippie symbol, thanks to its unconventional look and groundbreaking ad campaign.
Just as the Volkswagen’s fortunes were turning sour in the U.S. and West Germany in the ‘70s, Mexico emerged as a new market for the Bug. In 1971 Mexico City introduced Beetle taxis–known locally as el vocho and el vochito, Rieger notes–and that was the beginning of the Volkswagen’s positioning as a “typically Mexican automobile” says Rieger. Though there were many labor issues with Mexican Volkswagen factories and periods of economic instability, 1.4 million Bugs left the factory in Puebla, Mexico, between 1967 and 2003. The Bug proved particularly popular among the urban middle class in Mexico.
Sales of the old Beetle ended in the United States in the late ’70s. But the new Beetle–which was physically reminiscent of the old Beetle with a cute, rounded shape—was introduced in 1998 to huge fanfare. “The public greeted the new arrival with affection reminiscent of the warmth that had characterized the reception of the original in the fifties,” Rieger says. The car was so in demand, customers got on long waiting lists to be able to own one of these cheerful Bugs. It was particularly popular among twentysomethings, who worshipped all things retro. The association between Beetles and nostalgia continues to this day, with ads like the 2010 “punch buggy” Super Bowl commercial, where people of all ages play the childhood game in which you punch someone every time you see a Bug.
Click through the slide show above to see historical images from the book and highlights from Beetle advertising.