We all know the story of the Volkswagen Beetle: It was Adolf Hitler's idea, Ferdinand Porsche designed it, and sales in the United States soared because of advertising headlines such as "Lemon" and "Think Small" from Madison Avenue's Doyle, Dane, Bernbach.
Oh, and it would still be selling like tax cuts had VW just kept building the lovable bug.
Well, sort of.
The Hitler part is true; the rest historians disagree on. It's well established that Porsche had help, and lots of it, though he headed the project intended to put cheap cars in the hands of the German populace.
By the time Doyle, Dane, Bernbach's first ad appeared in 1959, VW already was selling nearly 90,000 Beetles a year. VW had become the world's fourth largest automaker in 1954. And, as a former Doyle, Dane, Bernbach writer recalls, "Most people forget that demand for the Beetle was far outstripping supply well before the first Doyle, Dane ad appeared."
From its introduction in 1949 -- when only a pair of Beetles were sold in the United States -- through 1959, VW had sold 265,944 Beetles, 12,357 convertibles and 86,169 light trucks, the familiar VW Transporter variants, mostly vans and buses.
Beetle sales rose from 1,139 in 1953 to 32,662 in 1955 -- when VW established VW of America -- to 52,221 in 1958 and finished the next year with sales of 84,677.
My first time at the wheel of a Beetle stands out with the clarity of an appendix removal. Two of the car's qualities remain fixed in my memory: the silly wheezing noise its air-cooled engine made, and the astonishing quality of its fit and finish.
There were no gaping spaces between panels, exterior or interior; the painted instrument panel and door sills were utterly free of orange-peeling or paint runs; and the doors were so tightly fitted that they really did close more easily if you cracked the window.
The spindly gearshift lever felt as if you could snap it off with a wrist flick, but it worked smoothly enough -- as did the rest of the car, Never mind that only 36 horses awaited in the rear compartment.
Lima bean on wheels
The time was early 1957, and we were in what passes for winter in Jackson, Miss. The car, a 1956 model equipped with a fold-back sunroof, belonged to the three McNair brothers, sons of a local doctor. The youngest brother, David, had read about Beetles in Popular Science and persuaded his dad to buy what was then a strange and exotic vehicle. Dr. McNair bought the pale pea-green sedan straight off the transporter for $1,628. It looked like nothing so much as a big lima bean on wheels.
"There was already a lot of mythology about the car," David McNair recalls. "It was supposed to float. The rear engine configuration was supposed to be great in snow and ice. It was supposed to get great gas mileage. The mileage part was true."
Much earlier, when I was 9 or 10, my parents gave me a wind-up toy Beetle for Christmas. World War II was not long over, and the outlook at the VW factory in Germany lay between hopeless and bleak, but I had no knowledge of that. My 8-inch Beetle was red, and it was fascinating to know that it represented a real automobile from faraway Europe, a car unlike anything I'd ever seen.
Indeed, Beetles were not like other cars. Art Railton, who came to VW as its public relations boss in 1959, described Beetles in an essay published in The Origin and Evolution of the VW Beetle. He wrote: "So old-fashioned as to have running boards, it broke all the rules: it was noisy when cars were supposed to be quiet; anemic when cars were supposed to be powerful; it had no luggage space, no gas gauge, a heater that didn't heat and wipers that didn't wipe."
Stuffing into a Beetle was great fun for young people in the 1960s. It was possible for a Bug to hold more than 20 people -- with their shoes off, of course.
None of this kept a certain segment of the American public from embracing the Beetle with the enthusiasm of Holy Rollers. VW owners, generally conceded to be members of the intelligentsia, were though to be tweedy, well-educated and more likely to smoke pipes than cigarettes.
Popular with the Navy
I can say with conviction that the cars were popular with U.S. Navy officers during 1960-63, when I served. Most of the officers drove VWs, while the flashier crowd bought Triumph TR3s and MGs. The VW's great attraction was that you could put it in the garage, disconnect the battery and go to sea for seven months. Upon your return, it would welcome you without incident or deterioration, something not always true of British or American cars.
I owned three VWs, the first being a 1961 Karmann Ghia, which I bought after wrecking my TR3. The other two were Beetles, a 1963 and a 1970.
Beetle ownership taught you several things, one being patience. This was particularly true in passing situations on two-lane highways. During overtaking maneuvers in your Beetle, overeagerness and a lack of careful planning could get you killed.
Another thing I learned was that car dealerships could be pleasant places to visit. VW was a groundbreaker when it came to treating customers like something other than bumpkins in the back tent of a carnival sideshow.
I learned discipline. There was no fuel gauge in early Beetles, meaning that the first warning that you were about to run out of gasoline came when you ran out of gasoline. You then turned a handle on the firewall, freeing up the last 1.5 gallons of gasoline in the reservoir. When the odometer had turned over another 30 or 35 miles, you stopped and bought gasoline.
As Railton correctly noted, the Beetle heater didn't heat. This naturally went double for the defroster. On a trip to New Orleans in 1964, an uncharacteristic freezing snap frosted my windshield. To preserve my forward vision, I came up with the tactic of rapping smartly on the glass. This would crack the ice, which then fell away allowing me to see. Unfortunately, it also cracked the windshield.
Always, never changing
An awareness of customer preferences led to the VW doctrine of constant if not revolutionary improvement. The basic silhouette of the Beetle remained essentially unchanged until the appearance of the larger and more powerful Super Beetle in 1971.
The Super Beetle was 3 inches longer than the standard version and weighed 155 pounds more. Increasing luggage capacity that previously had existed mostly in owners' minds, the Super Beetle's 9.2 cubic feet of cargo room represented an improvement of more than 80 percent over the basic Beetle.
In 1968, U.S. buyers took home 390,079 Beetles, that nameplate's sales apex. That same year, the Disney Studios movie The Love Bug appeared, and was wildly successful. Sales remained in the 318,000 to 360,000 range until 1972. Also, total global production of the Beetle surpassed the 15,007,033 Model T's built by Ford, a record that had stood since 1927. In all, VW built 21,529,464 Beetles globally before phasing out production in Mexico in 2003.
Age took its inevitable revenge. The Beetle remained cute and cuddly, but the public finally realized what an anachronism it was. Two-digit horsepower figures did not light fires. Also, the Beetle was no more likely to meet increasing federal safety regulations than a buckboard.
The pride that VW took in surpassing the Model T in sales was richly deserved. Less deserving of praise was VW's failure, mirroring that of Henry Ford a half-century earlier, to have a replacement ready.
VW had led the import invasion and led it with vigor. But Japanese automakers had overtaken and outdone the Wolfsburg team, and the domestics were selling some adequate small cars.
VW's total U.S. sales sank from a high of 569,182 in 1970 to 260,704 in 1977, the Beetle sedan's last year. A decade later, VW sold fewer than 200,000 cars and light trucks. Beetle sales, meanwhile, had fallen from 390,079 in 1968 to 0 nine years later.
In 1999, VW's New Beetle appeared. But all of the New Beetle hoopla was based on nostalgia and offered nothing like the thrill of being different that so appealed to early Beetle buyers.
In the 1960s, a college professor who owned an early Beetle defended his purchase by saying, "It needs me."
But by 1977, after it had become a household word, a movie star and one of the world's all-time best-selling cars, the car-buying public no longer needed the Beetle.