The Volkswagen Beetle – also affectionately known as the Bug – has had more lives than a cat. These animal references are appropriate: the car’s design is actually based on nature. Its original intention was meant to emulate the beauty and efficiency of streamlining and seamless movement, as practiced in the animal kingdom.
That it’s based on nature does not mean the car is perfect; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s noisy. It rattles. The heater doesn’t satisfy. Yet the flaws and the quirks are what have endeared millions of fiercely loyal owners – and now hobbyists and preservationists. In other cars, flaws are intolerable; in the Volkswagen, it’s simply part of its unconventional personality.
The Bug: The Life and Times of The People’s Car documents the odd story and many lives of the most recognizable car on the planet. From its sinister beginnings in Nazi Germany to its cultural high point as a hippiemobile in the late 1960s, the tale would not be believed if it were fiction.
The Beetle’s ironic story may have been told more than that of any other car, but the chronicle is often a victim of its own awesome mythology. The Bug documentary aims to put the many-layered account on the straight and narrow, and capture the essence of what has made the tale – and the car itself – forge a separate path.
Most importantly, the story is ultimately not about the car – it’s about the people who love it. A subculture has emerged around the Volkswagen Bug, encompassing generations of owners, each one with their own impassioned connection to it.
One of this cast of millions, seen here in the film, is actor Ewan McGregor. He recounts his own first Bug as a teen in Scotland (tunes on the tape deck courtesy of Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark), and his VW obsession that followed.
Below is our rough timeline of the VW Bug. Although there seems to be a beginning, middle and end to its history, the film shows that the story guns well past the car’s expiration date.
The Volkswagen Beetle Timeline
1930s: Adolph Hitler, who never drove a car nor owned a driver’s license, plans a “people’s car” for Germans of the Third Reich. Hitler’s hero is Henry Ford; he wants to produce a car much like the Model T. He builds a factory in Wolfsburg.
The idea for the people’s car had been around even before the Nazis took power; its concept has evolved through various incarnations. The final result is called the “Strength Through Joy” car. Most Germans do not own automobiles or even garages, but the Autobahn superhighway is planned specifically to make Germans mobile.
1938: The New York Times refers to the Volkswagen as a “Baby Hitler.”
1945: Wolfsburg , Germany – and the VW factory – fall to the British when World War II ends. The Brits decide to keep the factory going, and for the car to stay alive – perhaps to introduce jobs and some semblance of stability.
1946: 10,000 VWs are produced, under poor working and living conditions in postwar West Germany. Most of the world still do not trust Germans, and wouldn’t consider buying a German product of any kind.
The factory remains damaged from the war’s air raids (gaping holes in walls and roofs), and the winter is brutal. Starvation and supply shortages persist; the factory also suffers from high turnover and low morale.
1947: The first VW export is sent to the Netherlands.
1949: The British give the Wolfsburg plant back to Germany. Ford considers partnering with VW, then rejects the idea, not seeing any real reason to do so. The first VW import comes to America.
Unlike other German car companies, VW is debt-free. VW is ready to become a proud, strong symbol of the new republic of West Germany.
Early 1950s: Because of its association with the Third Reich, VWs are hated so intensely in England that early imports are vandalized. Nevertheless, the car begins to be imported throughout Europe.
1950: The first VWs in America have a 25 horsepower engine, equal to that of a lawnmower. They’re seen as homely and bizarre. America is at the height of big-car fever, complete with tailfins and chrome. Conformity is the norm. Small, odd economy cars are barely a consideration.
1953: Only 2100 VWs are sold in America.
1955: A quirky, scrappy, offbeat VW dealership network develops in America. A foreign-car distributor in Queens, NY plans to take sales to the next level.
In Wolfsburg, West Germany, the millionth VW Beetle is produced, sparking a three-day celebration. The car becomes an international star, on par with any product from Detroit. One-third of the VWs produced are sold outside of Germany.
55,000 VWs are sold in America. VW contemplates opening a factory in the United States, but settles for a small office, VW America, in Englewood, NJ.
1957: The first imported auto show is held in LA. Most Americans don’t even know that the Japanese and the Germans make cars. The Toyota Bluebird is seen as a laughingstock.
1958: Average sticker price for a VW: $1545. The plan is to sell a thousand in America, but 50% more are sold.
Later 1950s: The VW increasingly becomes normalized and slowly lets go of its association with The Third Reich. A new generation – the Baby Boomers – are coming of age, and have no memory of the Nazis. The VW becomes simply a product unto itself, without the baggage.
Quirky college students, surfers and educated suburbanites discover its appeal. It becomes a huge seller as a second family car, for housewives and teens.
1960: VW goes public, part of the West German economic “miracle.” The Beetle becomes the biggest-selling car in Europe. It’s simple and durable; its dependability and stability are welcome and appreciated by a continent that had been nearly destroyed by war and chaos. Buying the car becomes a sign of entering the middle class.
An anti-roll bar is added to the VW; something that the Chevrolet Corvair, VW’s first serious American competition, should have considered. An anti-roll bar is necessary for cars like the VW, with engines in the back. The inequity of the car’s weight brings extra pressure on the back tires and a tendency for the car to oversteer.
The lack of an anti-roll bar contributes to a number of deaths and injuries of Corvair drivers and passengers, including the comedian Ernie Kovacs. The demise of the Corvair will be sealed thanks to the gory details included in Ralph Nader’s book, Unsafe At Any Speed.
An upstart New York advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) creates a groundbreaking campaign for the VW, called “Think Small.”
The idea: yep, the VW is smaller than American makes, but it’s a simple, honest, dependable car – a real car for real people. The “Think Small” campaign – like the car — makes no outrageous claims, unlike other Detroit manufacturers. The content and tone of the ads are low-key, unpretentious and humorous.
The print and TV promotion cause a sensation, creating a new advertising genre and igniting sales of the VW. The additional irony: most of the DDB crew is Jewish, marketing a car that was created and championed by the Nazis. Much of the campaign’s content is derived of quirky, self-deprecating Jewish humor.
The creative team at DDB longed to break away from the traditional advertising of the day, which was loud, abrasive, corny, clichéd, condescending, and overstated. The team sought advertising content that could bring more truth and a deeper meaning to what it was selling. The revolutionary goal was to treat the prospective customer with more respect.
We take this for granted today, but at the time, it was a stunning concept. DDB was as scrappy and unconventional as the VW, and both were revolutionizing their respective businesses.
Early 1960s: Detroit suddenly gets nervous about VW’s growing success. Ford introduces the Falcon as its version of an inexpensive, no-frills car. It sells well but has no personality. Plymouth markets the Valiant, which is also a hit. However, Americans don’t yet pay much attention to gas mileage or safety features.
1964: In Germany, $25 bonds are given to any baby born in a Beetle. They’re called Beetle babies. By 1969, 125 babies are born in Beetles.
Later 1960s: The VW becomes the unofficial car of the hippie movement, and becomes closely associated with the counterculture. The well-understood irony, of course: a product of an evil empire now becomes a huggable, lovable symbol of freedom, self-expression, and flower power.
1969: Walt Disney’s The Love Bug, about a VW with human qualities, is a huge hit at the box office.
1972: VW beats the historic Model T sales record. This is the peak year for the VW Beetle.
1974: The VW’s appeal begins to recede. The global oil crisis and competition from Japan makes the car suddenly seem outdated and stale. Japanese imports, like the Honda Civic, are prettier, sturdier, and offer better handling and gas mileage. The Japanese imports are the right cars at the right time. The Bug’s sales begin to fall.
1978: The last Beetle is produced in America. Manufacturing shifts to Mexico and Brazil, where operating costs are lower.
1998: The VW Beetle is reintroduced, but the thrill is gone. There is a slight resemblance, but it’s too sleek, too powerful, too…not the original VW. The reborn car is a mild success, but not embraced by the world in the same way. Lightning does not strike twice.
1999: Advertising Age names the VW “Think Small” campaign of the early Sixties to be the best advertising campaign of the previous hundred years, beating, among others, Coke, Nike, McDonald’s and Marlboro.
2003: The last official VW Beetle rolls off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. This omega Bug, nicknamed El Rey (The King) is delivered to the VW museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.
Click here to find out more and to screen The Bug: The Life and Times of The People’s Car.