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."