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.
The car that saved Gina Grad’s life? A Corolla, of course.
Gina is a co-host and news director of The Adam Carolla Show podcast. Though spelled slightly differently, it still an apparent stroke of serendipity that ACS would become her new home. She’s also the co-host of Andy and Gina In the Morning on LA’s KSWD-FM, 100.3TheSound.
The Toyota Corolla incident takes place about a decade ago, Gina tells us. Although based in LA, she’s back home in Kansas for a wedding (third time being a bridesmaid). She’s riding her 2000 Corolla on the open highway, on her way to The Plaza (fancy!) in downtown Kansas City. In the backseat: her beautiful Vera Wang bridesmaid dress.
Here comes trouble: a car sidles up on her right – way too intimately — almost slamming into her. Gina reacts quickly, reflexively jerking her steering wheel to the left. As a result, she hits the median. The car rolls – twice. Yep, Gina does a double flip. And she lives to tell the tale.
She explains, “I am a terrified person in general, but for whatever reason, I felt super calm, somehow safe. I felt myself saying, ‘You’re okay.’ It felt like it was happening in slow motion. Thank God, the car landed right-side up.”
The unintended stunt draws a crowd, including, Gina notices, a “super-hot medic.” (This is, after all, Kansas, where they grow them easy on the peepers.) “My first thought is ‘I don’t have insurance,’” Gina says, “and my second thought is, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it to this wedding.’”
At the hospital, the doctors gather around her, baffled. They wonder how this survivor survives. They tell her, “You should be very, very hurt.” Yep, Gina is Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, but with better hair. She isn’t totally in one piece, though. If you look closely, there’s a tiny scratch on her chest where some glass hit her. With a shot of ibuprofen, the doctors send her on her way to the wedding.
“The only thing that was not destroyed in the car was me and the dress,” she says. “Everything else was like Godzilla put his hand down and smashed it. The Vera Wang dress should have been ripped to shreds, but it was perfect.”
Third time being a bridesmaid is clearly the charm. “I hobbled down the aisle that night, and was in the wedding,” she says. “I remember the rabbi saying a prayer for me and letting the entire congregation know that I was single.”
No Viking funeral for the ol’ Corolla, although it’s clearly a hero for navigating Gina through harm’s way. Her mom gets to identify the car, or what’s left of it. “It absolutely shook her to her core,” Gina says. “I can’t imagine the feeling of my mom thinking, ‘My child was in this.’ She’s a saint for doing that.”
Astoundingly, this was not Gina’s first nightmare with a hard pull to the left. As a teenager in Kansas, she and mom buy a used car from a shady dealership. “A friend of a friend of a friend,” Gina recalls. “I could smell a rat the second we walked in.”
The used car: a 1988 Nissan Sentra, cobalt blue with a Pepto-Bismol-pink racing stripe. Gina says, “If you gave a kindergartner a crayon and asked him, ‘what do you think your car would look like?’ This is what you would get: a boxy, children’s drawing idea of a car.”
The test drive takes place on another Kansas open highway. Gina lets go of the steering wheel for a millisecond – the car pulls so hard to the left that it almost slams into the median. “I got scared and I looked at the salesman,” Gina says. “With a little flop sweat and a little stutter, he said, ‘Oh, it’s supposed to do that. If it pulls to the right, it will pull you into traffic.’ I’m just a teenager, but I know that doesn’t make sense. I also don’t question authority because I’m a young girl.”
She buys the car – reluctantly – and it works fine, for a bit. Then, after a short honeymoon, it begins its stalling and heartbreaking and disappointing, but you already anticipated that part.
What Gina’s driving now: a Subaru Crosstrek, through a sweet endorsement deal with her terrestrial radio station, 100.3TheSound.
“It’s – by far – the best car I’ve ever owned,” she says. “From what I’ve experienced, this is my favorite car.”
We continue to flip for Gina on a daily basis. Fortunately for her and the rest of us, her life on the road is now on the straight and narrow, free of any unexpected pulls to the left.
The high-performance Ford GT40 is the dream child of Ford Motors, conceived in America and birthed in England. The GT stands for Grand Touring, and the 40 refers to its overall height in inches. It was produced from 1964-1969, and has since become an American racing icon.
In the early 1960s, Henry Ford II is jonesing for a Ford at Le Mans (France), the world’s most famous race. He and Enzo Ferrari sniff at each other, but their courtship is doomed. Hear tell, Enzo jilts Henry’s buyout offer, and this means war.
A number of other couplings and uncouplings add to both the frustration and determination for Henry II to build and produce an American racing dream car.
Adding fuel to the fire: GM and its child prodigy, Corvette, are kicking Ford’s ass in the showroom, on the racetrack, and on the books.
The final hookup: Ford teams with Lola Cars, a British auto manufacturer. Its manager, Eric Broadley, lends his expertise to the project, along with ex-Aston Martin team manager John Wyer (not too shabby).
Lola is no stranger to Ford, already using some Ford technology in its own GT and prototyping a beautiful babe that exceeds 200 mph in 1964.
Ready to take on Ferrari and the world, the GT 40’s coming-out party happens at Nurburging (Germany) in 1964. After that, its parents throw it right back into the pool: 24 Hours of Le Mans, the international pinnacle of racing. Talk about growing up fast.
In both competitions, the car comes up short – can’t finish. The machine is surely beautiful but heartbreakingly vulnerable. It still needs some tough love.
Back to the drawing board. Enter Carroll Shelby. This Texas-born Renaissance Man is an auto designer and a racing driver himself (he wins the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, so he has the grasp and the grit).
During the Big One – World War II – he’s a test pilot and flight instructor; he understands speed. Ford gives its GT40 over to his company, Shelby-American, for fine-tuning and reworking. The makeover results in the GT40 Mark II.
Spoiler alert — by 1966, Ford makes history by winning over Ferrari at Le Mans (Exhibit A when explaining how revenge is sweet).
It continues to astonish, winning the race over four consecutive years, from 1966-1969, becoming the first four-time winner in Le Mans history. The world removes its sunglasses and says, “Goddam!”
The GT40 legacy is the undisputed truth: the first and only American car to win at Le Mans, and the first specific chassis to win more than one Le Mans.
Fast-forward: The GT40 wins more big-time race events than any other racecar in history.
The story has given the car larger-than-life status. Get the whole story by screening The 24-Hour War. Adventure’s waiting just ahead — click here.