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Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle

How Hitler's dream car became a top seller and symbol of American counterculture

Less sinuous but no less curious is Hiott’s account of how the VW came to be the countercultural car of choice in 1960s America. She describes how it grew into an icon: elevated to standout roles in movies by Woody Allen (Sleeper), Walt Disney (The Love Bug) and Stanley Kubrick (The Shining); the controversial center of a tasteless gag ad in the pages of National Lampoon that played upon the car’s ability to float ("If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today”); and a fixture in the garage of John Lennon.

Credit that assimilation to a brilliant ad man, one of the few real heroes in Hiott’s “dark history” of the Vee Dub. Bill Bernbach plied his trade in a New York advertising agency that was often dismissed as a quirky place outside the American mainstream. Strait-laced himself — but surrounded by mad beatniks who concocted slogans such as “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” — Bernbach figured out the formula that would banish any lingering stigma surrounding the vehicle’s origins. In 1959, when his own staff went from calling the VW “the little Nazi car” to “a little beetle,” Bernbach realized the Bug would be embraced by American buyers. Indeed, within a few months Advertising Age was extolling the “clear and direct” campaign Bernbach devised to sell the car in this country.

The rest is the stuff of history, with Hiott deftly weaving the many strands — social, economic, cultural — that made the VW part of the American fabric. The Beetle — or Bug, or Pregnant Roller Skate, or whatever favorite nickname comes to mind (mine is “VeeWee”) — has come and gone a couple of times since its 1960s heyday in the United States, but it has been manufactured continuously somewhere in the world ever since then. Last April the 2012 New Beetle was unveiled simultaneously at auto shows in New York, Berlin and Shanghai, adding timeliness to Thinking Small. Anyone who has ever owned (or merely ridden in) a clatter trap from down Wolfsburg way will want to read it.

Gregory McNamee, a writer based in Tucson, owned a succession of Volkswagens from the 1970s until the 1990s. He is thinking he might just be ready to get small again.

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