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."