AMERICA'S ROMANCE WITH A PLAIN JANE
On land or on the water the Volkswagen automobile is an inelegant, squatty, lumpy-looking piece of machinery that is not very big, does not go very fast, has very little chrome, makes too much noise and does not cost enough money. It has its engine in back, a pouty, hurt-feelings expression in front and a bottom so tight that the whole contraption is almost, but not quite, amphibious (see box opposite). In a country that has always bought cars on styling—not price or performance—Volkswagens in the U.S. have been laughed at, mocked, abused and insulted, one baffled owner calling it "not really repulsive" and the rollicking New York Times calling it "breathtakingly ugly." Judging from appearances, it is easy to see that this baseborn orphan of Nazi Germany is as out of place on Route 66 as a soapbox racer at Sebring. Still, pretty is as pretty does, and since the postwar emergence of the car and its square-shaped sister, a station wagon that inherited the family's plain looks, certain things have happened to suggest every car should be so homely.
The Volkswagen, for example, is seen in the best of circles, here and all around. Bobby Kennedy campaigned for Jack through the sun roof of a VW station wagon. The proprietors of the Volkswagen agency in Bangkok are two princes, cousins of the King of Siam. Their highnesses' first sale was to the keeper of the royal zoo who, after washing the sacred white elephant, likes to maneuver his sacred VW under the elephant's trunk for a reciprocal hosing down. Belgium's King Baudouin tools around Europe in a sunroof sedan, and Princess Margaret has driven a '62 station wagon, which pretty well answers the question once raised by a Volkswagen advertisement: "What year car do the Joneses drive?"
"Owning a VW is like being in love," a magazine poll-taker once concluded, and the car often winds up in some stickily sentimental situations. In Florida not long ago, a bride stuck a miniature VW in the confection atop her wedding cake, a Kansas couple sent out birth announcements when their VW was delivered by the dealer, a Long Island man built a house for his, complete with shutters, weathervane, eagle over the door and geraniums in the window boxes, and an Iowa man gave his wife a Mother's Day present of a VW station wagon, which she thereupon filled to capacity with their nine children.
The Volkswagen has found a home in American culture. A "beetle," says the Dictionary of American Slang, getting with it, is "a Volkswagen automobile, ...from its appearance." A man in Maine, making the most of the unavoidable fact, has a license plate that reads A-BUG, and a myopic American eagle attacked a German beetle in New Mexico last fall. In California a station wagon was bought with 1,501,500 Blue Chip trading stamps, a New Jersey group commutes to work in a station wagon whose appointments include a bar and bridge table, and 18 college boys once crammed into a sedan to prove—well, just to prove.
The Volkswagen is highly adaptable. Cowboys in Texas ride fence in the car, a horse trader in Rhode Island carries Shetland ponies in the back seat, a Nashville man delivers money in a bulletproof Volkswagen, bank robbers in Los Angeles snaked through a traffic jam to make their getaway in a Volkswagen and the New York Volkswagen distributor has a plan to convert the little cars into taxicabs. His logic is perfect: ordinary cabs carry 1.7 people on the average, he says, and a Volkswagen can carry 1.7 people just as well as the next car.
The Volkswagen is probably the most easily recognized car on earth—so much so that some VW ads don't even name it. It is a vehicle commonly employed by editorial cartoonists to symbolize European economics, and it and the Coke bottle are "2 shapes known the world over," another Volkswagen ad boasts. No one has challenged that statement except a nettled VW dealer in West Virginia, who has a fat account with the Pepsi-Cola people, and the producers of the movie Cleopatra, who recently protested in Variety: "You're wrong, gentlemen—there are three!"
Finally, the VW is the butt of some of the sorriest jokes since they told your grandfather he auto get a horse. A drunk, for a sample of the kind of humor that convulses Volkswagen owners, was knocked down in the street by a Saint Bernard, then hit by a VW as he struggled to his feet. "The dog didn't hurt so much," he told onlookers, "but that tin can tied to his tail mighty near killed me." In Texas, they claim the VW ads say, "Take home a six-pack today." And there was the farmer loading watermelons in a VW's front-end luggage compartment. "This here's the first car I've ever seen," he said, "that runs on melon. What's it do with the seeds?"
The worst joke, of course, is the one on Detroit, which is stuck with the knowledge that the foreign VW is the most remarkable automobile since the heyday of Henry Ford's beloved Model T. Crawling from under the bombed-out wreckage of a military vehicle plant in Wolfsburg, Germany after World War II, the beetlish Volkswagen has in 15 years metamorphosed into the third best-selling car in the world, second only to Chevrolet and Ford, and, as the 10th best seller in the U.S., ahead of Cadillac, Chrysler and Studebaker. On that basis, it possesses today about 3% of the U.S. market altogether and a whopping 60% of the country's imported car market.
The Volkswagen, along with a clutch of other small foreign cars—the Renault, the Fiat, the Peugeot and the like—got the drop on America's tinseled, mobile living rooms in the 1950s. The explanation commonly accepted is that U.S. drivers suddenly became fed up with the high cost of gasoline, the increasing traffic congestion in cities and the rising cost of American cars—as one writer puts it—"dipped in chrome batter." Detroit answered with the compact. That was a move that proved bad news for most of the foreign cars, particularly those with weak service organizations, some of whom had the habit of selling mail-order spare parts at a tidy 1,000% markup. But for VW there was not the slightest hitch in its steady climb, then or later, when even the compacts themselves began to fall off in popularity. Said a recent VW ad, "Maybe most small cars are going out of the picture. But there's one small exception." A VW dealer, speaking for most of his fellows, said not long ago: "It's still true that the hardest thing we have to sell around here is the waiting period"—a condition that has prevailed, at one time or another, in the 136 countries where the car is sold. France's Renault tries bravely to put VW's success in perspective by saying that among imports it sells second only to "the clever Volkswagen." Renault is telling the truth, but the point loses something when one considers that Volkswagen is first with 200,000 sales last year, Renault second with 30,000. There is another zesty story they like to tell around the VW offices. Vainly seeking someone to take over the semidemolished car factory in Wolfsburg after the war, the British (in whose zone it lay) suggested the Ford Motor Company might be interested. Said Ernest Breech, then board chairman, to Henry Ford II: "What we're being offered is not worth a damn."
That, to be sure, was one way of looking at the Wolfsburg rubble, which had once been a gleam in Adolf Hitler's eye. Proposing a "people's car" at an auto show in Berlin in the early '30s, Hitler commissioned Germany's car-designing genius, Ferdinand Porsche, to create it. The car, as Hitler saw it, would put transportation within the reach of anyone able to scrape up a few hundred dollars. It made a pretty good political speech, and to Porsche it made absolute nonsense. But the F√ºhrer was the F√ºhrer, and Porsche eventually wrought a car calculated to fill the bill. If the contemporary VW makes you laugh, the prototype produced in 1938 would have made you cry. But, ugly as it was, it had Hitler's blessing—if no rear window. Maybe nobody really minded that only 210 of the original models were built before the war broke out and the new company was diverted to production of military trucks.
At the end of the war the plant, however, was two-thirds in ruins and was up for grabs. English, American and Russian car builders, all given a chance to claim it, turned it down, and in some dismay the British, late in 1947, decided to put a German named Heinz Nordhoff in charge, if only to see what the hell. Nordhoff, who before the war had worked for General Motors' German subsidiary, the Adam Opel A.G. and had made Army trucks in Berlin during the war, said later his first impression of the VW was that it "was a poor thing, cheap, ugly and inefficient. I wanted nothing to do with it."
Nevertheless, Nordhoff moved to Wolfsburg, slept on a cot in the factory, shook rats out of his shoes in the mornings and went to some pains to get the car back into production. "The most important job," he has said, "was to take the car out of the atmosphere of austerity. People said, 'We like it technically, but we can't afford to be seen in it.' Austerity touches neither the heart nor the pocketbook." To relieve the gloom of the car, Nordhoff and his designers touched the VW with makeup and redid its hair by cutting a hole for a rear window, a major breakthrough. Since then, although the car's basic lines have remained virtually unchanged, it has been continually improved mechanically, and the company (now owned by stockholders) has introduced a line of convertibles, trucks, station wagons—copied later by Ford and Chevrolet—and the Karmann Ghia sports car. The spiffy shell of the Karmann Ghia covers the same engine and chassis as the VW sedan and, with the exception of the Corvette, outsells all other two-seater sports cars in the U.S. A larger, more expensive and totally undistinguished-looking sedan is now being sold in Europe but is not yet available in U.S. showrooms.
As a result of Nordhoff's direction, people still like the VW technically, and nobody worries about being seen in it. Heinz Nordhoff worries least of all. His Wolfsburg factory is the largest single automobile plant in the world (44,000 employees), and the company has five other production plants in Germany, Brazil and Australia. As London's Daily Express once summed it up: THEY'LL BEAT YOU YET, THESE GERMANS.
In 1949 Volkswagen sold two cars in America; by 1955 the figure was 29,000. Once it became apparent they had tied onto a good thing, company officials began trying to determine just who was buying the VW, and why. The quest appears formidable, and there is good reason to believe it will never fully succeed. How do you plot on a graph, for example, such attitudes as these? A woman in Chicago once said she bought the meek little car because she felt "it needed me." A Dallas man has said Volkswagen owners have "no secret handgrip, we just have the car tattooed over our hearts." And an industrial designer of good repute in the Midwest said last fall that the car had been such a success because "it is lovable." Its virtues, he added, compare to those of "the woman you are glad you married 20 years later."
R. L. Polk & Co., the automobile industry statistician, has made some broad generalizations about who buys the VW. In a study it compiled for Volkswagen of America (or VWoA, the American subsidiary of the parent company), Polk concluded that VW owners tend to come from upper-income groups—the poor shun the VW, it is thought, not because it is prohibitively expensive but probably because it costs too little to represent status. Owners also tend to have two or more cars, to live in the suburbs, to have college educations, to be younger than the average car buyer and to be slightly more inclined to outdoor sports than to bowling or going to the movies. Asked at another time to be a shade more specific so that VWoA could intelligently prepare a small magazine for its customers, Polk made depth studies of a number of owners. After much work it admitted dismally: "We find the singular denominator to be possession of a Volkswagen."
Owners' occupations, said Polk, can be anything from lawyers, to prison-guard lieutenants, to bartenders to advertising executives. They like to do everything from skeet shooting, to skiing, to gem cutting. They read The Wall Street Journal and Mad magazine. In short, they "defy identification by any conventional criteria," whether by personality—VW owners range from introverts to phony glad-handers, says Polk—by number of children or by number of trips to Europe. About all Polk was able to tell the magazine people was that fewer owners than expected worked on their VWs, and fewer owners than expected "indicated that their tastes were aesthetic or highbrow." Polk took this fact to mean that the magazine "might be wise to favor tennis over quoits as a sports subject."
One other survey not given much weight around VW headquarters, but interesting all the same, was made by a Good Neighbor committee in Washington, D.C. People who live in white colonial houses with Cadillacs in the driveways tend to be picky about the national and racial origins of their neighbors, the Washington surveyors said, while more tolerant types live in contemporary houses and park Volkswagens in the driveway. Toleration, indeed, would seem to be indicated for anybody buying a car inspired by the likes of the genocidal Hitler. But the matter has never given VWoA any trouble. Says Carl Hahn, the German-born general manager of VWoA: "I admit we were not sure what our reception would be in the U.S. when we first began to import them. We proceeded, you might say, on tiptoe and we were pleasantly relieved to find ourselves welcome."
If the million-odd VW owners in America have resisted precise classification, the company considers itself on surer ground when it explains what probably prompted their choice. Volkswagen's greatest appeal, says VWoA Public Relations Manager Art Railton, has to be the car's distinctly excellent workmanship coupled with its overall economy, which can be measured in diverse ways. In the first place, a new VW sedan costs $1,600, a price hard to match by current U.S. standards. Secondly, VWs unchanging body lines ("the most advanced styling idea of all," says the company) make it difficult to tell a 1953 model from a 1963. Without the style obsolescence common to most other cars, the VWs resale value remains high year after year. It depreciates at a rate of about $200 a year compared to $500 a year for, say, a Ford. The VW's four-cylinder, no-nonsense, air-cooled engine gets around 30 miles per gallon of gasoline, and tires last for about 40,000 miles. "I think mine runs on the exhaust fumes of other cars," one overwhelmed owner has said, and if you really crave mileage, say some who have lived to tell about it, the Volkswagen can be sucked along free in the vacuum created immediately behind speeding highway buses and trailer trucks. Then, too, Railton says, the VW is one of the most maneuverable cars anywhere. "You don't aim it, you drive it. Getting out of a big car and into a VW is like taking off boots and putting on sneakers. I heard about a man who called a VW salesman a liar because he was making so many extravagant claims for the car. Then the guy got in and took it for a test. When he got back he said, 'The car's a liar, too.' "
Finally, not the least of the VW's assets is in its appeal to the so-called reverse snob. Owning a Volkswagen is a chic, done thing, because it does not stamp you as nouveau riche, and it does not suggest you are strapped for funds either. Among other things, it says you are above striving—and that maybe you have a swimming pool in the backyard anyhow. For the nonstrivers, one dealer has lyrically asserted, "A Volkswagen offers assuagement to the rider ego," and a VW ad not long ago had an assuasive message for the strivers as well. At $1.02 a pound, the ad pointed out, the VW "costs more than practically any car you can name."
Does all this puffery leave room for some people to dislike the Volkswagen? Well, the windshield wipers are not much good when it's raining—ask anybody—the car has the absolute minimum of passing power and luggage space, and a priest has complained that women look indecent getting in and out of the station wagon.
Without benefit of precedence, early Volkswagen owners did not know, of course, what they looked like in a VW. A lot of people thought they resembled nuts, and they were rewarded for their courage by the sneers of other drivers who regarded them with envy mixed with contempt. "I'd say our first customers were faddists," says Long Island's Arthur Stanton, the largest VW distributor in the country who, appropriately enough, is connected with the toy business. "I was so convinced it was a fad," says Paul Lee, a onetime Chevrolet dealer, "that when a friend came to me and suggested I invest $5,000 and open a VW agency with him, I talked him out of the whole thing. There was just no reason to believe the car would last." Lee has since readjusted his thinking and is now the irrepressible marketing manager of VWoA. As for the friend, he's a thwarted millionaire, says Lee, "and when I see him coming nowadays, I cross the street."
One of those early faddists was a man named Helmut Krone who bought a VW in New York in 1950, one of 157 Americans daring to make such a move that year. Krone, whose parents were born in Germany just 20 miles from Wolfsburg and who later became—entirely by coincidence—art director and principal idea germinator for Volkswagen's U.S. advertising, bought the car, he says, for no better reason than "my wife and I like to do silly things." All set to buy a VW station wagon not long ago, the Krones abandoned the idea after a neighbor outsillied them and got one first.
Another faddist of the day was a man named Alvin Outcalt, who had just graduated from Columbia University. "I was about to get married in the spring of 1952," says Outcalt, "and I needed a car, a cheap car. So I walked over to Park Avenue in Manhattan and saw this sign in a window: a new Volkswagen could be had for $1,295. It had mechanical brakes, a 30-hp engine and not much status. But everything fitted, everything worked. My fiancee was a little shocked at the looks of it, but she liked those little flippers they used to have as turn indicators and, such is love, she let me buy it." Such is Outcalt's love of the VW, as it has turned out, that he is now on his fourth and has, in the meantime, worked a spell for the Volkswagen company as sales promotion manager.
More indicative of Outcalt's enthusiasm is the fact that he was one of half a dozen founders of the Volkswagen Club of America, an organization hard to describe except to say its members venerate the Volkswagen and like to share their transport with one another. The club got its start in 1954, back in those days when there was something terribly lonely about being the first in your block to own the beetle. A VW owner's first reflex, when the extent of his isolation began to sink in, was to strain to catch sight of another, then to wave and honk his horn like mad. "Of course, a lot of foreign-car owners were waving and tooting in those days," says Outcalt, "but with us it went deeper somehow. You just didn't wave; you stopped and crossed over and shook hands with the guy and asked him how many miles he was getting and did his heater keep him warm like yours didn't. You felt a kinship, you know? But can you imagine doing that kind of thing today?" Outcalt says as his voice becomes wistful. "Maybe you glance at the VWs that pass, but if you tried to wave every time, you'd get stiff joints or be arrested for reckless driving."
Rather than stop all the time to shake hands, Volkswagen owners found it more convenient to organize and, says Outcalt, "We were amazed at the response we got." The response that amazed the club founders most came from the Volkswagen company. It threatened to sue the club for appropriating the name of the car. "They didn't say what their beef was," says Outcalt, "they just said we couldn't call our club the Volkswagen Club of America. I figure they thought we were a bunch of hot rodders, if you can imagine Volkswagen hot rodders, and they were afraid we'd spoil the family-car image they were trying to promote." Whatever the company's logic, the club didn't pay it any mind, went right ahead with their plans and nothing more was said. VWoA, meanwhile, has come around to contributing cars and station wagon door prizes for the club's annual conventions, and Heinz Nordhoff's daughter Barbara regularly attends in the name of patched-up public relations. (Entrenous, Miss Nordhoff drives a low-cost Karmann Ghia—with a high-cost, high-powered Porsche engine in back.)
Today the club has some 3,000 members who sometimes take trips to Wolfsburg where, in the words of one who has gone, "we stand around in that factory like pilgrims in a cathedral and think reverent thoughts." More regularly, the faithful get together in regional meetings, tack the club flag on the wall and talk about taking trips in their VWs and having rallies in their VWs and watch movies of people driving their VWs. Other times members like to read The Autoist, the national club's official monthly magazine. The editorial slant is strong on how to fix your Volkswagen, how to put out your own club newspaper, how to help your club grow and how to get to the national convention. "Naturally our membership hasn't kept pace with VW ownership," Outcalt says sourly. "We did the spadework, and now just anybody can buy the car and not give it a second thought. They don't realize there ever were pioneers." (Another Volkswagen-inspired club doomed to shrinking membership is the Red Wolf Club, made up of souvenir collectors who for years have been prying a $3 medallion off the hoods of unattended VWs, then fashioning the baubles into belt buckles and brooches. Based on replacement orders for them, the Red Wolf Club once flourished at the rate of 3,000 new members a month, but the company discontinued the medallion on the 1963 models and that club will soon be that.)
Although the Volkswagen company is very much appreciative of the good work done by the faddists during the 1950s, it was acutely conscious that it just might need a less whimsical clientele in the years ahead. In 1959, therefore, despite the fact VW sales had been galloping upward year after year and most dealer agencies still had three-to-four-month waiting lists, VWoA began to advertise its product for the first time. (It does not deny that Detroit's decision to produce its compacts in the same year spurred VWoA on, if ever so gently.)
What a happy day for Volkswagen it turned out to be. The pioneer faddists considered the move a bow to cheap commercialism, naturally, but just about everybody else considers the VW ad campaign the most successful ever to run up the flagpole or to get off the 5:25 to Westport. Volkswagen ads have won a list of prizes longer than an account executive's expense account; they are talked about at cocktail parties, read aloud at the office water cooler, analyzed and dissected in college term papers. A teen-ager in Manhattan named Kitty Brown cuts them out and frames them to decorate her 4-year-old brother's bedroom, and first-graders in California, where everything blooms early, have invented their own in a class competition. Creative supervisors at other advertising agencies regularly harass their staffs by asking, "Why can't you guys think up stuff like this?" and one agency in Mexico took the boss at his word and copied a VW ad scrupulously except for rewriting the copy and substituting a picture of a Fiat. A recent ad run in the U.S. shows a man sitting on the bumper of a Volkswagen and asking, "What's low in upkeep, high in mileage...air cooled...with 42 hidden changes to date but looks the same every year?" The answer this time was a London Fog raincoat. Says a man who works on the account at Doyle Dane Bernbach Inc., the Volkswagen's ad agency, "When you go out and people find out what you do, they act like you're Vaughn Meader or Cassius Clay or somebody. Frankly, it's getting a little wearisome."
Happily for Volkswagen, weariness is the furthest thing from the advertisements, which, for almost four years now, have sustained a freshness that has taxed the talents of five copywriters and reduced Helmut Krone, the art director, to a state of semishock. But perhaps it has been worth the effort. Daniel Starch, Inc., a firm that surveys the readership of advertisements, has statistics that show Volkswagen ads are consistently read by twice as many people as read other automobile ads, and that some ads are noticed by more than 70% of the people reading the magazine, an amazingly high percentage. "It may not sound very graceful coming from me," says Bill Bernbach, president of the ad agency, "but I think we've pretty well succeeded in what we set out to do."
What Doyle Dane Bernbach has always had in mind concerning the Volkswagen, says Bernbach, "was to tell the truth about the car and to tell it artfully enough so that people would believe it. Telling the truth is easy, but convincing the people you're telling the truth in an advertisement is hard." To be sure it knew the truth, Bernbach and members of his firm went to Wolfsburg in 1959 and inspected the car firsthand. "We asked why the engine was in the back, why the rear wheels were crooked and how many bolts were used to hold on the fender," says Bernbach. "We were impressed by the honest answers we got and by the honest way the car was put together. It seemed clear that what we ought to do was go home and write honest advertisements."
Volkswagen ads, nearly all of which depend on simple, unadorned illustrations of the sedan or station wagon, have been so honest they have often made executives at VWoA choke. Under a glaring blank space an ad once said: "No point showing the '62 Volkswagen. It still looks the same." "Then they showed us the one that said 'Lemon.' " says Paul Lee. "I almost dropped my teeth." The car was a lemon, the ad said quickly, because an inspector named Kurt Kroner had found a blemish on a piece of chrome trim on the glove compartment and he could not, in good conscience, okay the car for export to America. One ad faced a fact there was no escaping: "Do you think the Volkswagen is homely?" it asked. Another ad (for the station wagon) took the beetle by the pinchers when it said, "We also make a funny-looking car" (shudders at VWoA).
Making a case for the boxy station wagon has sometimes called for even more drastic measures of honest self-appraisal. DDB has suggested that, like a turkey with four drumsticks, it's nice but "it looks a little strange at first," and a TV commercial has a station wagon owner say: "Back in '51 we had a Volkswagen sedan. People looked at us as if we had two heads. Now we have a station wagon. People still look at us as if we had two heads."
The agency has also addressed itself to the station wagon's principal opponents: women. "Why won't your wife let you buy this station wagon?" said an ad that hit males where it hurt, and on a softer line offered women a bus-driver's cap for $2,655 with the station wagon thrown in absolutely free. "Now," says Paul Lee, "people are gradually coming around. We admit it looks like a bus. We admit it takes courage to drive one. And once we've admitted to all the objections people have, they start paying attention to the positive things you can do with a station wagon." He meant, for example, that a station wagon, according to a recent ad, can be stuffed with "a package containing 8 pairs of skis, the complete works of Dickens, 98 lbs. of frozen spinach, a hutch used by Grover Cleveland, 80 Hollywood High gym sweaters, a suit of armor, and a full-sized reproduction of the Winged Victory of Samothrace."
Because they sell cars and because of the felicitous phrasing and guileless thought that pervades them, it might be assumed no fault could be found with Volkswagen advertisements. But, some is found, and it is prompted by an unexpected reason. "Some people around here simply think the advertising is maybe too winning, too ingratiating," says a VW executive, "that maybe they convey a feeling that a VW is an infallible machine. Say a man who reads the ads finally goes out and buys a VW. And say he drives it for 40,000 or 50,000 miles, and it breaks down. You know what he may think? He may think he's been betrayed by his best friend. He didn't think a VW could break down. He goes to the man who sold it to him and raises all kinds of Cain. We even had a man call Heinz Nordhoff in Wolfsburg all the way from Kansas. His VW had broken down. It was the middle of the night, he said, and he was stranded. So he called Nordhoff and blessed him out."
So every so often Doyle Dane Bernbach, always thinking, jerks its Volkswagen readers back to reality. Not long ago it showed a VW with a flat tire. The headline—felicitous and guileless—said, "Nobody's perfect."
THE BEETLE EVENTUALLY SINKS
The photograph on page 58 was made in Homosassa Springs, Fla. after a Volkswagen was lowered gingerly onto the water by a crane. Tony Triolo then took the picture with a split-image, over-and-under-water camera. We do not recommend this experiment to others. The beetle floated, all right—but after 29 minutes and 12 seconds it sighed and slipped under. Sadly, Triolo snapped the picture above.