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�hrer was the F�hrer, 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."