Over the years, many cars have acquired an iconic status, but the Volkswagen Beetle has maintained that status for decades. In tracing the vehicle’s history, Bernhard Rieger’s The People’s Car conveys how inextricably 20th-century politics, culture and economics are linked.
At the core of the study is the tale of the car in three countries, beginning with its German origins and moving on to the US and finally to Mexico. Its pre-war beginnings were marked by failure. Hitler, responding to a desire for an affordable car and a motorised national community, commissioned its design, but it proved difficult to meet his exacting specifications. A savings scheme for advance finance from 1938 onwards never got off the ground and those who did pay into it never received their car. Once in production, the Volkswagen factory owed its wartime survival to forced labour. After the war, production of the Beetle, now in the British occupation zone, was a struggle against the odds: poor provision of materials, the impact of denazification and strong local leanings towards right-wing parties did nothing to improve the situation. Yet neither this nor the National Socialist regime’s role in the design and wartime production of the military version, the Kubelwagen, hampered the Beetle’s long-term success.
The town that was to play a key role in Germany’s economic miracle became known as Wolfsburg or “Volkswagen City”, and by 1955 the company was able to celebrate its 1 millionth car produced there. This turnaround was due in part to promotional initiatives, but Rieger shows how, amid a lack of federal symbols and certainties, “the Volkswagen appeared as the embodiment of - unpretentious - core values that defined the new country” that Germans were building. Accordingly, in the 1950s and 1960s, Wolfsburg came to stand for West Germany’s boom years, and for this part of the story alone it was worth setting aside my prejudices against a book about cars.
By the 1950s, the Beetle was more than a means of transport: mobility afforded unheard-of personal liberties and made possible adventurous, if modest, trips abroad. Unavoidably, personal memories come into play here: some 1950s photographs of my mother and her siblings grouped proudly around my grandfather’s Beetle at Lake Maggiore epitomise a generation of Germans exploring foreign countries near and far. In reality, however, my grandfather’s preference owed more to the sturdy reliability of the car on post-war Germany’s bumpy country roads.
On “leaving home”, as Rieger puts it, the Beetle underwent adaptations that made it fit for the wider world - albeit with exceptions. When the Daily Mail proclaimed in 1953 that “Hitler’s people’s car is here”, its success in the UK was bound to be limited. This stands in marked contrast to the US, where for practical reasons - including a much-neglected small- car market - the car eventually came to equip the counterculture of the late 1960s with its means of transport.
By the 1970s, the car’s fortunes changed again. It lost its appeal in Western Europe and North America only to enjoy a third life in Latin America, and in Mexico the “Vochito”, perceived as genuinely Mexican, came again to symbolise a country’s way of life.
The story of “the people’s car” is, of course, interesting in its own right - its commission, design, post-war production and worldwide success. But what is most intriguing is how a consumer commodity became an icon that, over decades, represented something different for a variety of countries and generations. Rieger shows this to informative and illuminating effect.
The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle
By Bernhard Rieger
Harvard University Press, 416pp, £20.00
Published 25 April 2013