Book Review: Thinking Small by Andrea Hiott
The Volkswagen Beetle’s journey from Nazi People's Car to hipster accessory
Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip
of the Volkswagen Beetle
By Andrea Hiott
$26; 492 pages
After decades of getting short shrift, compact cars are now poised to outsell their larger rivals in America. What’s driving this change? According to industry analysts, it’s mostly fear: of an inevitable escalation in fuel prices, or of being saddled with unaffordable monthly payments. It’s also generational: Twentysomethings, who grew up riding in their parents’ SUVs, view large vehicles as unsustainable. Today’s compacts also require far fewer tradeoffs than their predecessors. While a 1980s Chevrolet (GM) Cavalier was cramped, tinny, and featureless, the new Chevy Cruze Eco is attractive, solid, tech-laden, and gets 42 miles per gallon. Then again, it’s also wider, taller, and heavier than a mid-’90s Mercedes (DAI:GR) E-Class midsize sedan. All of which is to say that small cars don’t suck anymore. Nor are they small—a far cry from the original compact calamity, the Volkswagen (VOW:GR) Beetle.
When the Beetle was first conceived in the early 1930s, it represented a radical vision of what a small car could be. But with all the pesky production delays (read: WWII), it didn’t reach the civilian market until the late 1940s, and by the time it began really rolling into the States in the 1960s, its technology was outmoded. It was noisy, unstable, underpowered, and offered about as many creature comforts as a pauper’s coffin. This was precisely what made it popular.
Or so claims Andrea Hiott, whose new book, Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle, attempts to unfurl the riddle of this wheezy jalopy and its unlikely ascent from visionary’s reverie, to fascist transport, to countercultural icon, to retro simulacrum. She halfway succeeds.
The book is strongest in its detailed chronicling of the paradigm-shifting vehicle’s creation. Untangling this story is no small task because, unlike other people’s cars that came before or after it, the volkswagen (it was a lowercase concept before becoming an uppercase brand) was the bizarre product of an autocratic strategy, a state-controlled industry, and two men’s dreams of a motorized populace. One of those men was an allegedly naïve engineer, the other a ruthless dictator.
The engineer is Ferdinand Porsche. Born into an era obsessed with harnessing power to create motion, Porsche displayed his first car at the Paris Auto Show in 1900 before landing jobs with emerging automotive giant Daimler in Austria and Germany and founding one of the first vehicular design and engineering consultancies in 1931. From there he refined his unorthodox vision of a compact, rear-engined, affordable automobile. After successive rejections, he landed a contract with Germany’s new national transportation initiative, endowed by its charismatic patron, Adolf Hitler.
The Führer naturally makes a credible villain in Hiott’s book. Porsche, however, receives too generous a portrayal as a compulsive savant so besotted with his creation that he’s blinded to its conscription for nefarious purposes—even while the factory for his Strength Through Joy Car is being outfitted with bomb shelters and staffed with forced labor from conquered lands.
Hiott positions the car itself as a pawn, particularly following liberation. With Porsche in prison as a wartime collaborator and the Allies on the verge of razing his factory as part of a punitive plan to de-industrialize Germany, the Beetle comes close to never existing. As the Cold War warms up, West Germany is seen as a necessary industrial bulwark against creeping Communism. And as VW Bugs begin rolling off the former munitions line and onto European roads, the cars are portrayed as a triumphant icon of the Marshall Plan’s capitalist transformation of the German economy.
It’s with the Beetle’s arrival in the U.S. that the author could have offered more. She means to document how the Volkswagen became a signifier of the unconventional amid the consumptive conformism of midcentury America. Yet this thesis ends up being both obvious and poorly demonstrated. The fault lies with Hiott’s decision to focus on Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the advertising agency responsible for the famous “Think Small” VW ads that give the book its title.
While DDB’s tactics, as Hiott describes them, were innovative and clearly effective, it’s a stretch to say a group of advertisers ushered in the anticonsumerist counterculture. In zeroing in on DDB, Hiott loses sight of the car as a protagonist. We learn almost nothing about how the Beetle gained its foothold, the spread of the brand’s American organization, the resistance the car met and overcame, or its fit into the daily lives of its varied supporters. Aside from a few easy pop-culture references (Woodstock, Warhol) Hiott offers almost no meaningful investigation of the car’s social penetration and emergence as a cultural icon.
Instead of an examination of why the Beetle began to decline in popularity in the U.S. in 1969—10 years prior to its ultimate demise—or any glance toward the recent reemergence of small cars, the last chapters consist of exposition about the retro-styled “New Beetle” of 2004 and nostalgic contemporary sketches of key players from VW’s and DDB’s past.
The Bug’s deep burrow into the American psyche is a fascinating and enduring one—witness the attention being paid to (and Super Bowl advertising being paid for) the 2012 update of the New Beetle. And Hiott’s book is rich and rewarding in its historical detail. But it falls somewhat short of plumbing the very strangeness to which she alludes in her title, and which the car and the brand represented for so long in American life. A diary of that trip would still be delightful.