Motor mouth - no immunity to the bug

Motor mouth - no immunity to the bug - A classic book on Doyle Dane Bernbach's pioneering campaigns of the '50s and '60s that mixed knowing irony with clear-cut art direction and helped establish VW as a quality brand was entitled Remember Those Great Vol

by STEPHEN BAYLEY, an author and design consultant
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A classic book on Doyle Dane Bernbach's pioneering campaigns of the '50s and '60s that mixed knowing irony with clear-cut art direction and helped establish VW as a quality brand was entitled Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads. Now we can recall those great Volkswagens themselves, thanks to an ironical revival of the Beetle.

There's not much in business more interesting than the Volkswagen case study. Built to an original design of Ferdinand Porsche, the original Beetle suggested itself to Hitler as a better means of mobilising his hitherto stationary Volk than motorbikes, and snappily christened it the Kraft durch Freude-Wagen (the Strength- Through-Joy car). After the war, Ford, among others, had the opportunity to acquire the rights to produce the Volkswagen but saw no future in it. The Beetle was saved for the Fatherland by the intervention of a British army captain called Ivan Hirst.

The first Volkswagens were exported to the US in 1953, a sort of expeditionary force of what was going to become the Wirtschaftswunder. Americans cracked up, slapped their knees and hooted at the sight of this ludicrous little car. The entire Volkswagen engine was not sufficiently powerful to drive the air conditioning unit of a native swank tank, yet word of mouth did what word of mouth does and soon the car's unburstability, economy, integrity and toughness made it America's favourite second-hand car and the first choice of spliff-toting Californiacs.

The great ads reinforced what the consumer had already sussed, and by the time it went out of production the Beetle had achieved mythic stature to rival the Model T, although technically antiquated.

From being a single-product company, Volkswagen reinvented itself in the '70s and started producing a huge range of neatly designed, technically advanced front-wheel drive cars. The success of this strategy, latterly under the wacky Ferdinand Piech, a member of the Porsche family, has made the Volkswagen Group the world's number four auto maker and number one at exploiting shared componentry.

It's this componentry, shared by machines as apparently different as the Audi TT and Skoda Octavia, that produced the New Beetle. It's not a Beetle in any other than a mystical sense because it is fundamentally a re-bodied Golf. Dr Porsche's signature puffing, rear mounted, air-cooled engine has been replaced by a smooth transverse, water-cooled engine driving the front wheels. There is nothing in common with the old car - except its claim to a cultural inheritance expressed in the evocative shape.

This is where it gets really interesting.

The New Beetle appeared as a conversation piece about five years ago as 'Concept One'. The ingenious and assured Concept One was the work of J Mays, then at Volkswagen-Audi, now Ford's international design veep.

Critics adored it, admiring its charm and extraordinary aesthetic finesse.

The lazy ones called it 'retro' but that implies antiquarian copyism.

Concept One was no such thing: line it up against an original Beetle and you can see how little they have in common. Instead, with devilish artistry, Concept One conveys an impression of the old Volkswagen without being an imitation of it.

The New Beetle is very much, as the French say, tendance, of the moment.

We have a special nostalgia for the decade in which we were born and for J Mays (b 1956) the '50s brings to mind an innocent age of motoring pleasure.

There are waiting lists for the New Beetle as long as Volkswagen's design history. As a driving proposition, it is terrific. The quality of construction (in Mexico, Adolf) is so good it brings tears to your eyes, and just the daily enjoyment of those curves is more than adequate a receipt for your pounds 15,000. It's not a fast car, but handles as well as the current Golf and puts a smile on your face that might only be removed by invasive surgical procedures. Sure, the packaging is not good and you would not want to spend time in the back seat: all that cuteness eats space and between the driver and the windscreen are - as well as a little period detail flower vase - grand cavernous volumes that do nothing. But that's not the point: enjoyment is. Beetles are in the entertainment business.

Familiarity may turn pleasurable smiles wan, but for the time being the confident New Beetle is unambiguously the Strength-Through-Joy car.

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