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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

Born in 1889, Adolf Hitler was a member of the first generation of boys to conceive a passion for the newfangled contraption called the automobile. His sketchbooks abounded with drawings of cars, buses and other motor-powered vehicles — machines that were steadily remaking the world at the turn of the 20th century.

As an adult, Hitler came to power with a packed agenda, as history learned to its sorrow. On his list was the fulfillment of a long-held dream: an automobile of his own design, mass-produced like those of his American idol, Henry Ford. The Führer also envisioned building the greatest superhighways the world had ever seen, designed to whisk citizens of the Third Reich to the remotest reaches of their newly seized Lebensraum in Volkswagens, or “People’s Cars.”

Born 14 years before Hitler, Ferdinand Porsche showed his brilliance as a thinker and mechanic early on. But Porsche’s father had decreed that Ferdinand would follow him into his tinsmithing business, so he forbade his son from tinkering with the machinery and electricity that so clearly riveted him. Porsche senior changed his mind only after Porsche junior arranged for the family homestead to be the first house in the Bohemian backwoods with electric lighting: It flowed from a generator that young Ferdinand had built in his own garret laboratory.

How the evil genius crossed paths with the engineering prodigy forms the chassis of Andrea Hiott’s vigorous Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle. The history of successful technological innovation, Hiott observes, is one of “thinking strange,” and Porsche’s thinking was laudably outside the box. By the time Hitler commissioned him to manufacture the Volkswagen, in 1934, Porsche possessed all the necessary ingredients, both technical and intellectual, to build the utilitarian contraption the Führer had in mind. (Porsche would become much better known for his high-performance racing machines.)

Hitler put an entire town at Porsche’s disposal. Though it is known as Wolfsburg today, back then it bore a much more ominous name: “The Town of the Strength Through Joy Car.” In time, Hitler would “staff” Porsche’s factories with slave labor.

Fast-forward to the late 1950s: Postwar Germany is still largely devastated, but in the western sector of the occupied and defeated nation the factories of Wolfsburg are slowly coming to life again. Many players were involved in that rebirth — among them a clear-sighted British administrator and some barely reconstructed Nazis — but the main impetus was the simple need of people to get back to work. As a result, the People’s Car began rolling off production lines once more. In retracing the politics and intrigue required to achieve that feat, Thinking Small sometimes resembles the improbable subplot of a John Le Carré novel.

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.