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The Nazi creation that charmed the world

New book offers history of the VW Beetle

By Adam Dunn (Special to CNN)

New book offers history of the VW Beetle

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Behold the Bug: created by Nazis, scorned by Detroit automakers, loved by millions.

The history of the Volkswagen Beetle, or "Bug" as it is known colloquially, is littered with the sorts of ironies that only someone -- or something -- whose life spanned the turbulent majority of the 20th century could have. From its Nazi beginnings as a "People's Car" to its current niche as Mexican-made status symbol, the Bug continues to endure and enthrall, the mobile embodiment of humdrum efficiency surrounded by the glossy tentacles of a vastly successful marketing enterprise.

The Bug's wayward course through the decades has been brought to life by journalist and self-described cultural historian Phil Patton in his new book "Bug" (Simon & Schuster). Patton, who has written on American consumer culture ("Made in the USA") and popular culture ("Dreamland"), now turns his attention to chronicling a special kind of car culture.

Because "Bug" is not just the story of a car, says Patton.

"There are a lot of tellings of this story," Patton says. "I think people think they know this story, but once they look a little more closely at the full picture ... [It's a] perspective of telling [a] biography not just of the car, but the idea."

Hitler's idea

The Bug's genesis, as the warped brainchild of Adolf Hitler and designer Ferdinand Porsche, was the first and most infamous dose of irony in the Bug saga. Patton doesn't sugarcoat that bit of history. Indeed, given the amount of archival material culled from VW itself, it seems surprising at first that the company would have even gone along with the project at all.

"They're very split about that, and several years ago they tried to come to terms with this, and commissioned an 800-page book from Dr. Hans Mommsen, who's one of the most respected historians in Germany," Patton says.

"But that was commissioned under the previous CEO, before Dr. Ferdinand Piëch -- who is the grandson of Porsche and the son of the man who was actually in charge of the factory during World War II -- came to power," he continues. "And under him there was much less openness about coming to terms with this legacy. I mean, it's a difficult PR problem when the key force behind your chief product is one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century."

start quote It's a difficult PR problem when the key force behind your chief product is one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century.end quote
-- Phil Patton, author, "Bug"

VW has since pulled back from addressing those historical issues, Patton says, though the company set up a memorial and a fund for the surviving slave laborers from the war years.

The book details the initial meetings between Third Reich brass and Porsche (and includes a 1934 sketch of a prototype Bug drawn by Hitler himself, along with a discussion of the May beetle, which Patton claims was the Führer's inspiration for the car and its enduring name).

Patton draws readers through the Bug's ingenious and enduring engine and chassis design, its mutation into military vehicles for the Reich (including the famous Kübelwagen, which later inspired the vehicle known as "the Thing"), and the appalling reign of the SS over the Wolfsburg factory during the war years.

Politics, Manson, and Herbie

The little car has always seemed to have a political side. After the war, the Bug became a major German export -- and a tool in the propaganda wars.

"The division of Germany suddenly meant that VW was both an economic and a propaganda weapon in the Cold War," Patton says. "Once the border became firm (and the border ran very close to Wolfsburg) ... the efficiency of the factory became a showcase for what capitalism was doing in West Germany, as opposed to East Germany, where the automobiles were the legendarily dreary Trabant and other shoddy products."

Politics, Manson, and Herbie

Perhaps the biggest contribution to the Bug's popularity -- and yet another irony to its story -- is the legendary ad campaign mounted by the Jewish-founded firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach. The ad agency's "Think Small" and "Lemon" print ads -- along with a TV campaign that won awards for its humor and cleverness -- gave the Bug an image of reliability, thrift, and cuteness, and helped send sales soaring into the 1970s.

The car was also adopted by the American counterculture as a symbol of frugality in the face of Detroit's bloated excess. Even then, there was a twist: Charles Manson was obsessed with the Bug, and his helter-skelter vision included marauding patrols in modified long-range dune Bugs, his so-called "Horses of the Apocalypse." And meanwhile, Disney was making films about Herbie, the Love Bug.

In most of the world, the Bug was dropped in the late '70s, to be replaced by the Rabbit (or Golf). But in the mid-'90s, a new Bug emerged. The vehicle was the creation of top designer J Mays, and it helped revive VW's fortunes.

Seems you can't keep a good car down. That might be because the Bug is more than a car, it's a cultural artifact, says Patton.

"We often talk about certain objects or designs as having personalities," he says. "One of the things I liked [about the Bug] was the way it kept popping up on the center stage of history, like Zelig or Forrest Gump ... it was around at all kinds of critical junctures throughout the 20th century."

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