The international automotive industry has foisted many products on this car-crazy world, yet nothing has ever registered as vividly or as memorably in the public's imagination as the Volkswagen Beetle. Yes, it was small and funny-looking (some would say downright ugly), you could hardly see out the back window and traveling in a crosswind was always an adventure. But what the Beetle (or Bug") did best was run. And run. And run. Efficiency was its main selling point, followed closely by its rock-bottom price tag. The story of the Volkwagen's birth and development is a fascinating one, and veteran television reporter and New York Times writer Phil Patton does a super job of telling it in his new book Bug. Patton digs deeply into the Bug's origins in the 1930s, when, as the proletariat dream-car brainchild of Adolf Hitler and Germany's Third Reich, no less a designer than the renowned Ferdinand Porsche (of stylish race-car fame) set to work bringing the Fuhrer's vision to reality. There were snags, of course primarily World War II.
It wasn't until the postwar era that the Volkswagen idea was brought to fruition, and the Bug became a symbol of Germany's economic and industrial renewal. Then the worldwide Bug infestation began.
America went Beetle-happy in the late '50s and early '60s, spurred on by perhaps the most famous advertising campaign in history. The Doyle Dane Bernbach agency developed print and television spots that made buying a VW absolutely de rigueur for eggheads, unassuming idealists or anyone with an iconoclastic or countercultural streak (or a wobbly bank account). By the time the Beetle ceased production in the late 1970s, it had become the best-selling car of all time. Patton relates all of these episodes with authority and style, offering interesting glimpses into the personalities, creativity and philosophies of the principal players. He also provides an account of the late '90s rejuvenation of the Bug, whose pedigree as a product of the global economy is a far cry from the utilitarian, Cold War-era atmosphere from which its legendary forebear sprung. This first-rate blend of business and social history should hit a chord of nostalgia with many readers.
Martin Brady writes from Nashville.