Mr. Carl H. Hahn is a German who makes a handsome living selling beetles to Americans. Beetles are also known as Volkswagens. As the Bismarck of beetledom in this country, it is Hahn's custom to launch a spring offensive each year at the time of New York's International Automobile Show. And each year the Volkswagen pokes its homely, but evidently lovable, nose a little deeper into American life.
As the 1963 show opened last weekend for a nine-day run (through April 21) in Manhattan's capacious Coliseum, the Volkswagen was clearly supreme among the imports. Spectators strolling amid the gloss and glitter of 500 cars from 10 countries may have lingered longer over the highfalutin Rolls-Royces from England. They discovered greater novelty in the elegant German Mercedes 230SL and France's Simca 1000, a new starter in the economy car stakes.
But when it came to sales figures, the Volkswagen was incomparable. (This assessment naturally excludes Detroit cars, which, although heavily represented, yield pride of place to the imports at the New York show.) "We are," said Hahn matter-of-factly, "everybody's enemy No. 1. We expect to sell more than 250,000 Volkswagens here this year. That would be a new record and an increase of about 12% over the 222,740 [including 30,170 trucks and buses] for 1962."
When one reflects that the American sales of all foreign cars added up to only 339,160 for 1962, it is easy to see why the beetle makes other foreign builders nervous.
Nevertheless, the New York show always brings forth brave, even defiant, talk of beetle-battling. The most voluble beetle-baiters last week were Vincent Grob, U.S. chief for France's state-owned Renault factory, and H.J.L. Suffield, the British Motor Corporation's man in America. "Without question," said Grob, a tall, intense individual, " Volkswagen has installed a kingdom here. But we feel completely ready to attack again."
It was in the rosy year 1959, when the imports reached a peak of 614,000 U.S. sales before beginning a steep decline, that Renault was indeed attacking—Scoring sales of 85,000 as compared to 114,000 for Volkswagen. But as the Volkswagen rolled ahead the Renault went into reverse—down to 30,000 for 1962. Even so, that figure took second place among the imports.
Last week Grob was in approximately the position of Marshal Joffre at the Marne in 1914—under extreme pressure from a German force, yet preparing to counterattack. Joffre had, among other things, his famous taxi army as succor. Grob has an improved Dauphine as his basic weapon, plus the roomier, more powerful Renault R-8 and the sporty Caravelle.
...and automatic transmission, too
The Dauphine most closely approximates the Volkswagen and at $1,495 (East Coast P.O.E.) costs $100 less. Like it, it is small and rear-engined and has a top speed of about 72 mph. "We have added," said Grob, "more than 100 improvements to the Dauphine since 1958 or 1959. Now, for $130 extra, we are offering a fully automatic transmission.
"In terms of product, sales and service, I am sure we can meet American requirements. In my opinion, the imported-car market will grow again to the 600,000 sales it enjoyed in 1959. But only the major European manufacturers will have the resources to stay in it significantly. We hope to increase our sales to 40,000 this year and go ahead from there."