The People's Car
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The People's Car

A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle

Bernhard Rieger

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eBook - ePub

The People's Car

A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle

Bernhard Rieger

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About This Book

At the Berlin Auto Show in 1938, Adolf Hitler presented the prototype for a small, oddly shaped, inexpensive family car that all good Aryans could enjoy. Decades later, that automobile—the Volkswagen Beetle—was one of the most beloved in the world. Bernhard Rieger examines culture and technology, politics and economics, and industrial design and advertising genius to reveal how a car commissioned by Hitler and designed by Ferdinand Porsche became an exceptional global commodity on a par with Coca-Cola.Beyond its quality and low cost, the Beetle's success hinged on its uncanny ability to capture the imaginations of people across nations and cultures. In West Germany, it came to stand for the postwar "economic miracle" and helped propel Europe into the age of mass motorization. In the United States, it was embraced in the suburbs, and then prized by the hippie counterculture as an antidote to suburban conformity. As its popularity waned in the First World, the Beetle crawled across Mexico and Latin America, where it symbolized a sturdy toughness necessary to thrive amid economic instability.Drawing from a wealth of sources in multiple languages, The People's Car presents an international cast of characters—executives and engineers, journalists and advertisers, assembly line workers and car collectors, and everyday drivers—who made the Beetle into a global icon. The Beetle's improbable story as a failed prestige project of the Third Reich which became a world-renowned brand illuminates the multiple origins, creative adaptations, and persisting inequalities that characterized twentieth-century globalization.

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Year
2013
ISBN
9780674075757
1
Before the “People’s Car”
“[We] call for fundamental measures facilitating the purchase and maintenance of small cars, so auto ownership comes within the reach of every German,” the Small Car Club of Germany demanded in October 1927. Founded six weeks earlier in the Berlin suburb of Oberschöneweide, the association lacked neither ambition nor a sense of mission. Rather than pursue the cause of a small minority, it self-confidently claimed to campaign for affordable automobiles in nothing less than “the interest of civilization’s progress” so to “raise the social levels of the German people.” Most Germans, on whose supposed behalf the group propagated the “idea of the small car,” appear to have paid little attention to this high-minded, idealistic rhetoric, however. Only the lonely opening issue of its magazine Mein Kleinauto (My Small Car) survives in the stacks of the Berlin state library. Started with high hopes, the Small Car Club of Germany soon faded from the scene, leaving hardly a trace.1
That this association remained an ephemeral episode is symbolic of the state of German automotive affairs in the second half of the 1920s. In the year that witnessed the inauguration of the small car club in Oberschöneweide, automobiles remained a rather rare sight on German roads. To be exact, registrations stood at merely one car for every 196 Germans. When one excluded trucks and buses, this ratio fell even further, to one passenger vehicle for every 242 inhabitants. With these figures, the Weimar Republic trailed Western industrial nations by a wide margin. In France and Great Britain, by comparison, the count (including trucks and buses) stood at 1:44 at the time, more than four times the level of Germany’s motorization. A comparison with the United States produces the starkest contrast. In 1927, American statisticians calculated a rate of 1 automobile per 5.3 inhabitants, making the United States the most motorized nation in the world by far. Under these conditions, the German public could be forgiven for not paying too much attention to calls to bring the motor vehicle within reach of the average citizen. Such demands possessed a positively utopian ring that contemporaries most likely met with skepticism or ironic smiles.2
For a country whose engineers had played a prominent role in the automobile’s early days, it was bound to be a source of irritation that mass motorization remained an unrealistic prospect. Not least, the issue rankled national pride. After all, it had been Wilhelm Maybach, Gottlieb Daimler, and Carl Benz who, in the 1880s, had produced the first horseless carriages that were propelled by the combustion engine Nikolaus August Otto and Eugen Langen had developed in the 1870s.3 When Carl Benz died in 1929 at the age of eighty-five, a German car journal celebrated him as a “genius” who had given the “civilized world … a means to conquer time and space.… Through [this feat], he became one of the co-founders of a global industry … that now ranks among the highest and most prestigious” branches of manufacturing. As the obituary detailed Benz’s contribution to the development of the automobile before World War I, it found few achievements to play up for the time after 1918. After World War I, the German car industry failed to live up to its pioneering promise.4
In the twenties, even the most benevolent commentators would have struggled to portray Germany as a car nation. While the public was well aware that Germany lagged far behind other countries in terms of the automobile’s proliferation, the topic never rose to the top of the public agenda. Debates about car matters were pushed into the background by the repeated social, political, and economic crises and conflicts that afflicted Weimar Germany. The country’s low car ownership levels attracted limited public note because the issue itself elicited little public controversy. Among analysts, a broad consensus existed regarding the numerous material obstacles that made mass motorization a prospect far beyond Germany’s horizon. As a result, calls to remedy this situation, for instance by designing a car for the wider population, surfaced merely intermittently. The idea of a “people’s car” never gained sharp public contours in the Weimar Republic but remained a rather fuzzy notion.
German observers assessed their country’s potential for mass motorization skeptically not least because they were aware of the profound differences between conditions at home and in the United States, where the automobile had become a means of transportation for the wider population as early as the 1910s. America’s global supremacy in automotive affairs was beyond doubt in the interwar years. In 1927, Americans owned no fewer than 80 percent of the world’s cars, while Detroit’s automakers set standards in manufacturing, design, and marketing methods worldwide. German visitors to the United States in the twenties found that, in car matters, a gap as wide and deep as the Atlantic Ocean separated America and the Weimar Republic. It wasn’t simply the sheer number of cars that stunned German observers. Commentators also drew attention to the new forms of industrial production, as well as the social consequences that accompanied mass motorization. Long before anyone took concrete measures to make a “people’s car” in Germany, the idea, for all its fuzziness, possessed a transnational pedigree. For this reason, our story begins in the United States before turning to Germany, a country that was a very unlikely candidate to give birth to a “people’s car.”5
America’s leadership in the automobile sector highlighted a wider shift of the global economic center from Western Europe to the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Since the late nineteenth century, the American economy had consistently posted higher growth rates than European nations; production figures of key industrial materials indicated the extent to which the United States outpaced Europe. Between 1900 and 1928, the annual output of America’s coal mines more than doubled, from 193,208 to 455,678 metric tons, while the production of raw steel shot up from 10,217 to 51,527 metric tons. Britain and Germany, Western Europe’s largest and most dynamic national economies, found it impossible to keep up with this expansion. By 1928, annual coal output stood at 241,283 and 150,876 metric tons in the United Kingdom and the Weimar Republic respectively, while British and German steel companies, which produced 8,637 and 14,517 metric tons in 1928 respectively, were positively dwarfed by American concerns.6
Above all, the United States’ industrial ascendancy derived from domestic factors. In addition to the availability of vast supplies of raw materials in the form of fossil deposits, as well as iron ore, the influx of millions of immigrants swelling the ranks of the workforce before the end of World War I fueled America’s economic expansion. Despite calls by the Progressives for the enforcement of antitrust laws, the American legal frameworks favored the formation of large-scale companies that achieved economies of scale and commanded the financial resources to sustain high investment levels. Industrial growth also profited from rapidly expanding domestic demand as the United States turned into the world’s largest internal market, in which an unprecedented range of commodities came within the reach of broad sections of society.7 While a short recession from 1920 to 1921 accompanied America’s adjustment to a peacetime economy after World War I, this temporary contraction soon gave way to the boom of the Roaring Twenties. The economic gap that opened up between the United States and Western Europe in the decades surrounding the First World War contributed not only to contrasting car ownership levels on either side of the Atlantic; it also helped turn the motor industry into one of America’s most dynamic business sectors. Citing official statistics, a German trade unionist visiting the United States reported that in 1924, “as an outcome of developments in the last decade,” one in ten American jobs was directly or indirectly tied to the car sector.8
Of course, Ford Motor Company was the first auto giant to burst onto the American business scene, as the famous Model T became an unprecedented best seller. Launched in October 1908, the Model T realized Henry Ford’s ambition to build a “universal car” that, according to his authorized biography, My Life and Work, “would meet the wants of the multitudes.”9 Above all, the Model T distinguished itself through a rugged dependability that allowed it to function in a transport environment not yet tailored to the requirements of the automobile. “Model T” quickly became a synonym for sturdiness, steadiness, and reliability, gaining its reputation as a car that, as Tom McCarthy has written, was “ready to take a beating and come right back for more,” owing to the simple engineering that characterized its design. Powered by a comparatively strong, trustworthy four-cylinder, twenty-horsepower engine, the Model T possessed ample ground clearance to maneuver in rough terrain, including dirt roads that frequently turned into bottomless mud tracks in the fall and spring. The car also profited from the extensive use of heat-treated vanadium steel in its chassis components. This material allowed for the design of a 100-inch wheelbase that resulted in a light and tough automobile sufficiently big to transport four people as well as heavy loads. While drivers welcomed that Ford had taken the as-yet rare step of placing the steering wheel on the left to make it easier to spot oncoming traffic, they considered the vehicle’s low running costs its vital virtue. These moderate operating expenses derived from a gas mileage of twenty-five miles per gallon, infrequent breakdowns, and, in the case that something did go wrong, low repair bills.10
“Real simplicity,” My Life and Work proclaimed, “means that which gives the very best service and is the most convenient in use.” Since automobile technology was still in its infancy, necessity was the mother of simplicity, because technical solutions with complicated components only increased the likelihood of breakdowns. The Model T’s character as a straightforward technological object put drivers in a position to perform many repairs themselves. In keeping with this ethos of basic functionality, the Model T was undoubtedly an eminently practical automobile, but a comfortable one it wasn’t. While the company decided to add electric headlights in 1915, it never made a heating system part of the standard equipment in the vehicle. Although a components manufacturer developed a serviceable button-operated electric starter as early as 1912, Ford decided for cost reasons to fit the device only in 1926. Before then, drivers either had to have an electric starter installed as an extra by a service station, or start their cars by forcefully turning a hand crank, an operation that was not just a tedious chore but one fraught with physical danger. At times, the engine backfired while being started, sending the hand-held crank back in a violent jolt that could easily lead to broken wrists and thumbs. To prevent such injuries, drivers were advised not to grip the crank firmly but push it with an open palm.11
Americans clearly considered these deficiencies as minor. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford made over fifteen million Model Ts, a global sales record that was only to be broken by the Volkswagen Beetle in 1972. The Model T was produced and sold in unprecedented numbers from the outset. Annual output already reached almost 35,000 by 1911 and surged to 533,706 in 1919. By the time the brief postwar recession interrupted the first great car boom in American history in 1921, two-thirds of all cars on America’s roads were Model Ts. While PR stunts like long-distance races demonstrated the car’s reliability, Ford profited even more from a word-of-mouth campaign in which satisfied drivers recommended the vehicle to friends and acquaintances interested in acquiring a car. At a time when most cars were notorious for their erratic performance and the public was bound to regard a manufacturer’s full-mouthed promises with skepticism, informal and independent endorsements from ordinary citizens were highly effective in establishing the Model T’s credentials as a trustworthy product. In 1911, a survey of two thousand drivers revealed that 85 percent of them had bought their Ford based on another owner’s personal recommendation.12
Beyond the car’s technical virtues, the fact that per capita real income increased by 85 percent in the United States between 1890 and 1925 provided a crucial precondition for the Model T’s triumph. As more and more Americans in the early twentieth century came to command the disposable means to acquire and maintain a low-priced motor vehicle, Ford was first in targeting a massive market at the lower end of the automotive spectrum. While other auto manufacturers pursued luxury buyers with vehicles costing in excess of $1,000, Ford aimed his product at customers well below this threshold. Introduced at a price between $825 and $850 in 1908, the car retailed at less than $450 in 1920, a dramatic drop opening up new sales territory. To consolidate the company’s customer base, Ford Motor Company also extended its nationwide network of dealerships, which held spare parts and offered competent repair services.13
Rising paychecks and falling vehicle prices undoubtedly help explain why unprecedented numbers of Americans could afford a car like the Model T in the 1910s. Yet the pent-up demand that fueled the early car boom also speaks of a harsher side of American life at the time. Making up almost 60 percent of the population in the early twentieth century, rural Americans constituted the largest group among Ford’s customers. Life on the farm may not have been short, but it was often brutish and nasty, involving long hours as well as much drudgery. Domestic amenities in the countryside remained primitive, as most households still lacked the central heating and indoor plumbing that city dwellers increasingly took for granted. Rural Americans embraced the Model T as a vehicle with many functions, turning Ford’s creation into a versatile tool that did far more than move people and goods. Fixing a belt to the rear axle or crankshaft, farmers employed their cars to drive grindstones, pumps, saws, butter churners, and more. Given the vehicle’s ability to keep going in difficult terrain, it also served as a precursor of the tractor. “In the fields,” recalled a historian whose family had used a Ford on their farm, “the Model Ts pulled hay rakes, mowers, grain binders, harrows, and hay loaders.”14
First and foremost, the car recommended itself as a source of individual mobility that alleviated the social isolation of America’s rural population. Beyond rendering chores such as buying supplies and selling produce in rural towns far easier, it opened up new opportunities for sociability. With a Model T, country folk could visit relatives and acquaintances as well as drive to town for dances and movies much more quickly and frequently than by horse-drawn buggy. Men were by no means the sole beneficiaries of this new mode of transport. Women greeted the expansion of their social horizons with a mixture of relief and enthusiasm. “Your car lifted us out of the mud. It brought joy into our lives,” the wife of a farmer wrote in a personal letter to Henry Ford in 1918. By 1920, 53 percent of farm households in the Midwest owned a car, while the rate stood at 42 percent in the Far West. Ford himself took pride in the popularity of his car among country folk—and not just because this development generated great profits for his company. Having grown up on a Michigan farm, he had firsthand knowledge of the harshness of country life.15
Middle-class urban and suburban Americans also embraced the Model T, albeit on slightly different grounds. Since they had readier access to public transport than country folk, urban car owners put their automobiles mainly to recreational use on weekends and during vacations. As a result, city residents made up the bulk of the clientele for the many touring accessories ranging from awnings to tents to collapsible beds that soon became available and converted many a Model T into “Hotel Ford.” Irrespective of the car’s strong appeal as a leisure item, urban demand did not keep pace with sales in rural areas during the Model T’s first decade. Some professionals, including doctors and lawyers, bought cars for work-related reasons, but on the whole, city dwellers found fewer uses for the Model T as a work tool than did farmers. Compared with rural residents, they also faced higher outlay for garages, as well as maintenance, because they tended to be less adept at fixing their vehicles.16
Whatever their place of residence, drivers quickly established close, highly emotional bonds with their automobiles. “In its original state,” a journalist commented in 1915, “a Ford” was not well suited to “express your individuality … for Fords are all alike.” Such uniformity, of course, derived from a product policy encapsulated in Ford’s famous quip that “any customer can have a car pa...

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