In the first half of the 1950s, the future of the American auto industry was bright. But later in the decade, those with sharp ears could hear a buzz of trouble - a warning that life was going to get tougher for Detroit. By 1959, the buzz was too loud to ignore.
The buzz was the distinctive exhaust note of the Volkswagen Beetle's horizontally opposed, air-cooled, rear-mounted four-cylinder engine.
Just as some think of the Ford Model T as 'the first car,' the Beetle lives in American legend as 'the first import.' Both are myths. There were cars before the Model T, and there were imports before the Beetle, but the ugly little Volkswagen is the archetype of the import phenomenon and what it meant to the U.S. industry.
The import story begins with British sports cars, which established a toehold here even before World War II.
The war gave many Americans direct experience with European cars. An export drive encouraged by the British government helped make British cars a certifiable phenomenon in America by 1953. That year, MG was the best-selling import car in America. It was a sports car, and it dominated a segment that constituted far less than one percent of total U.S. auto sales, but it was making a lasting impression.
Other British sports cars were big news, too. The Jaguar XK120 and the Austin-Healey 100-4, both first displayed in 1948, and their successors made enough of a dent in the American psyche that Detroit took a sort of haughty notice.
Those cars and others like them, tapping a market segment of people searching for 'something different,' inspired the Chevrolet Corvette of 1953 and the Ford Thunderbird of 1954. If some trendsetters want cars like that, Detroit seemed to be saying, we can provide them, too.
But what Detroit didn't see any need to reply to, right away, was 'those funny little foreign cars,' as they were known at the time. A prime example was the second-best-selling import of 1953: the Hillman Minx.
The Minx was a dowdy sedan whose primary benefit over American cars of the day was not price (it sold for as much as a standard-sized Plymouth) but its tiny size and relatively good fuel economy. There were already those who thought American cars too large and too much concerned with conspicuous consumption; that group would become the core market for the VW.
The Minx piqued those people's interest, but could not hold it. It wasn't suited to American driving conditions, and parts and service were hard to find. That also was true of early VWs, but Hillman seemed to turn a deaf ear to the complaints.
Among the British companies selling family sedans in America, that attitude was not the exception but the rule. Distributors and dealers of the Morris Minor and the Austin Seven found the factory unresponsive, at best, to owner complaints.
Often the reply from Britain was that the owners must be doing something wrong; the cars did just fine in the United Kingdom and its colonies.
In stark contrast was the attitude at Volks-wagen, where responsiveness to customer and dealer comments about the early Beetles reached a critical point in 1953, the year that the MG and the Minx were dominant in the U.S import market.
While British firms were sniffing that Americans didn't know how to care for their cars, and Detroit was promoting horsepower and chrome, VW Chairman Heinz Nordhoff was insisting that his company would keep improving its product and would not restyle it for the sake of restyling it. He also was determined that if the British could sell European cars to Americans, his company could, too.
VW sales in America started with two Beetles in 1949 and 328 in 1950, despite the efforts of import impresario Max Hoffman. But when VW customers complained, someone listened and acted.
Hydraulic brakes replaced the original Beetle's cable-operated variety in 1950; modern telescoping shock absorbers replaced the prewar standard lever-style shocks the following year.
In late 1952 and early 1953, VW made changes that would serve it well in Amer-ica. The top three gears were synchronized; vent windows were added; the turn signal lever was moved from the instrument panel to the steering wheel, and the door windows wound down with only 31/2 turns of the handle vs. 101/2 the year before.
But Beetle sales in this country totaled only 887 in 1952 and 1,139 in 1953. Factory production exceeded 180,000.
Hoffman and Nordhoff parted in late 1953, and VW wound up with two distributors, one east and one west of the Mississippi. In 1955, more than 25,000 Beetles were sold in this country, and the car dominated the import sector.
With Beetle sales leading the way, imports were ready for explosive growth from a mere two-thirds of 1 percent of the U.S. car market in 1955 to nearly 10 percent by decade's end. In 1959, about 580,000 imported cars were sold in America.
The immediate spur was a 1958 recession that caught Detroit out of step, offering ever bigger, plusher and more expensive cars just as the public was becoming concerned about price and running costs.
Domestic automakers prepared new cars to appeal to the changed market. The first were from the marginal U.S. makers: the 1958 Rambler American and the 1959 Studebaker Lark. The recession was over when, in March 1959, the announcements of the Plymouth Valiant, the Ford Falcon and the Chevrolet Corvair gave notice that the Big 3 would compete with the small imports in the 1960 model year. When they arrived, those compact domestic cars were smaller than Detroit norms, but larger than the imports.
Detroit's compacts fought off some of the import penetration - the imports did not get back to a 10 percent car share until 1968 - but competition among European carmakers for a chunk of the rich American market was growing hotter. By 1959, VW had made West Germany the leader, pushing Britain to second place. France was third, on the strength of the briefly popular Renault Dauphine. New Swedish arrivals for the 1959 model year put that country fourth on the chart, ahead of Italy.
Perhaps an awareness of the rising competition was responsible for the next chapter in VW history. With VW's U.S. car sales at 88,019 in 1959, U.S. chief Carl Hahn (later to become VW chairman in Germany) took the step that firmly ensconced the Beetle in the popular imagination: He decided word-of-mouth was no longer enough.
Hahn turned to a tiny creative shop called Doyle Dane Bernbach. It was an inspired decision. DDB came up with one of the great auto ad campaigns of all time, composed of simple photos of the homely little car set off with clever copy and headlines that have become pop culture icons. Remember 'Think Small' and 'Lemon'?
The campaign hit its stride in 1962, and sales started to skyrocket. Americans bought 240,000 Beetles in 1963, and the model reached its U.S. sales peak of about 420,000 in 1968. That year is remembered today as the height of the counterculture movement.
VW was the counterculture's car because the Beetle was the antithesis of everything Detroit was telling Americans about cars. Where Detroit said Bigger Is Better, Carl Hahn's VW said Small Is Good. If Detroit was selling excesses of horsepower, VW was talking about its engine's adequacy to its mission.
Most significantly, perhaps, Volkswagen had established itself as a company that listened to its customers and improved its product accordingly.
The VW lesson was slow to dawn on Detroit (and most British, French and Italian makers, for that matter), but it was one that a new wave of importers took to heart in the early 1960s.
The first of them were named Datsun and Toyota, and they were followed by one named Honda, and they came from yet another country Americans had fought against in World War II.
Like VW's, their products were unpromising at first, but they studied what VW did, emulated it and built upon it. Just as Nordhoff saw the British succeed and thought VW might, too, the Japanese were emboldened by the Beetle's success. Just as Volkswagen did, the Japanese automakers caught Detroit napping.