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"Herbie." "Punchbuggy." "Beetle." The world's most recognizable automobile goes by many noms de plume. But did you know that the "Love Bug" was originally conceived as Hitler's "car of the people," or that it was the Manson "family"'s car of choice? Tapping into Americans' continuing obsession with the VW Bug, Phil Patton has written a kaleidoscopic history of the car from the 1950s to the 2000s. He describes the genius marketing strategy used in America to rid the car of its Fascist associations (VW hired a Jewish marketing team), and explains
"Herbie." "Punchbuggy." "Beetle." The world's most recognizable automobile goes by many noms de plume. But did you know that the "Love Bug" was originally conceived as Hitler's "car of the people," or that it was the Manson "family"'s car of choice? Tapping into Americans' continuing obsession with the VW Bug, Phil Patton has written a kaleidoscopic history of the car from the 1950s to the 2000s. He describes the genius marketing strategy used in America to rid the car of its Fascist associations (VW hired a Jewish marketing team), and explains why designers are obsessed with its shape (the Bug, like the Pantheon, fits the Greek "golden ellipse" ideal of dimension). Patton posits that the Bug was the first car to cause Americans to "wrap themselves in a brand as an extension of their ideology," and turn up their noses at the huge, showy cars produced in Detroit. Amazingly, it worked, and, based on the Beetle's continuing status as an American cultural icon, it still does. As Jonathan Yardley asserted in the Washington Post Book Review: "The original Bug was more than a car, it was an experience."
At the end of the twentieth century the largest city on the planet is Mexico City, an immense sprawl of some 30 million inhabitants. From the air, glancing through the yellow-gray haze punctuated by two volcanoes, one sees not people but seven or eight million mobile metallic objects -- automobiles. Coming closer, one can even distinguish the dominance of a single model, a buglike shape in a vast variety of colors, the majority green. These are the famous Volkswagen Beetle taxi cabs of Mexico City. Numbers and letters are painted on their roofs so they can be tracked by helicopter, but together, the characters seem to spell out some complex, secret message for the aerial visitor.
There are more Beetles here than anywhere in the world -- nearly two million. The Vocho, Vochito, the Mexicans call the car, or "the navel," because everyone has one. In the thin air at 7,500 feet, their motors run at half power and despite fuel injection and unleaded fuel, many of them emit twice the emissions of modern cars. Reconfigured as taxis, with their front passenger seats removed, they run almost twenty-four hours a day.
Warned against the dangers of robbery in these taxis, most American tourists avoid them, and few of the tourists know that the original Beetles are still being manufactured in Volkswagen's factory a hundred miles from the capital. The 1998 high-tech, high-style New Beetle, a homage to the original, is rarely spotted in Mexico City's traffic and few owners of the car know that it is built, not in Germany, but only in Mexico, almost side by side with the old car.
Once tens of thousands of Beetles were produced in Germany, Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, and other spots around the globe. More than 22 million have been made since 1941. Mexico City is like a tidepool where the species has lived on long after the great wave of its success has receded. In this weird ecological microsystem the Bug survives, brand-new ones alongside ancient ones, in varying degrees of repair and in rich colors: wine, handpainted house white, lustrous silver blue, mineral green -- and a rust brown rich as chocolate.
The Bug is not only the most produced, but the best-known car of all time. Its history is usually told as a glossed and gilded tale, glowing with nostalgia. But as in the story of Poe's gold bug, the insect itself is only the inspiration. The physical bug points the way to another, shadowy image of a beetle and a code, a secret language of wider cultural meanings.
The Bug's mental life far exceeds its metal one. It played many roles: poster logo for Hitler's National Socialist ideology, symbol of economic miracle in the Cold War years, paradigm of no-nonsense utility in the face of Detroit excess, icon of 1960s do-your-own-thing individuality, and -- in the New Beetle -- chic embodiment of fin de siècle retro.
The Bug's biography is a story of the way history can be forgotten, reshaped, and revived.
The Bug was contagious; it spread all over the globe and has kin in many countries: in Italy, the Fiat Topolino, or Little Mouse, in France the Citroën 2CV, in the U.K., the Mini, each with its own national characteristics. Even the Jeep, named for a Popeye character, has many of the same qualities the Bug acquired. More recent vehicles such as Chrysler Neon, Ford Ka, Renault Twingo, and Fiat Brava have attempted to build Beetle-like affection among the public. Each presents itself as the true heir to the Bug.
The Bug's direct descendant, the New Beetle of 1998, exaggerates the shapes and colors of the original like a cartoon. Although built only a few feet apart and sharing a rough common shape, the old and new Beetles are culturally as well as mechanically very different. The old has an air-cooled rear engine, the new a water-cooled front one. The old is driven by the rear wheels, the new by the front.
The original Beetle was a universal product of minimal ability, built to be cheap above all. The New Beetle is an object of style and pop culture. What the two share is a shape, a gestalt, a logos, as simple and winning as a cartoon or a popular tune.
The old and new cars share a childlike appeal. The re-creation of the old car's shape in the New Beetle brought with it the revival of a 1960s children's game. "Punch buggy" was one of those pieces of children's folklore, a game that called for a child who spotted and "called" a Beetle to strike another, exempt from retaliation. "Buggy" suggests either a horse-drawn vehicle or a baby's pram and even adults often colloquially refer to both old and new Beetles as "punch buggies."
Within a couple of years of being introduced the New Beetle became an icon of hip prosperity, a star in one of the Austin Powers films, which parodied the James Bond vision of 1960s gadgetry. It was the top prize in numerous sweepstakes, a familiar prop in advertisements and fashion shoots. It was inevitably included along with the Apple iMac computer in time capsules of the artifacts of the late twentieth century.
The two models provide an object lesson in the way images and ideas mutate through culture. They form a half-century-long parable of form and function, shape and association, a meme greater than the people who built and designed them, a complex of ideas and concepts and affections. The story involves a key paradox: how an impersonal universal design becomes an object of such personal attachment.
The Bug's history is not just the story of a single model of car, or even of the automobile in general, one of the two or three most profoundly influential pieces of technology to reshape daily life, but a parable of how the things we buy reflect the character of the culture. The Bug stands as proof that images and ideas swing through culture as if by their own power, evolving, adapting to new environments, latching on to new human champions, infecting human beings with enthusiasm. In some places and at some times, the Bug wore a self-deprecating mode of the servant, in others the personality of the émigré, the visitor, the friend and adopted guest.
Part of the universality and persistence of its appeal was the car's harmony between the two sides of design -- the functional and the aesthetic. Its engineering and styling shared a common modesty and cleverness. Even the sound of its engine and the sensations of its movements on the road contributed to this. It crystallized the idea of the universal design with a human face. The Bug was cute and lovable, and soon electronic devices, appliances, even kitchen tools, aspired to be cute, cartoonlike friends: the smile on the Macintosh screen, the elfin character of the Kodak Brownie. The IBM standard PC "clone" was once described as "the VW Beetle of computers" and Steve Jobs pushed the Apple Macintosh as the "volkscomputer." A mouse looks more like a beetle than it does a rodent.
The Bug was a shape, a set of ideas -- and a selfish meme.
The term meme is the creation of Richard Dawkins. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins applied Darwinian theory in a fresh and startling way, arguing that not species, not individual specimens, but genes were the real actors on the stage of life. The individuals that carried the genes were merely vehicles whose purpose was to sustain the code for the species. "We are survival machines," he wrote, "robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." Almost as an afterthought, he introduced the idea of the meme -- the cultural equivalent of a gene.
In addition to genetic inheritance, wrote Dawkins, human beings have an adaptive mechanism that other species don't have: they can pass their ideas from one generation to the next. These memes, "ideas, songs, stories, images, concepts that passed from one generation to another, moving through culture and time," functioned like genes. Dawkins's meme sounded a lot like the Platonic eidos, the Jungian archetype, or the German Gestalt. The difference was that in Dawkins's theory, memes transcended individual minds the same way genes transcended biological individuals. Memes, like genes, were "selfish."
But this suggested that a meme had human emotions -- as if it were a character with a personality.
Dawkins provided an almost perversely fresh perspective. (No wonder he said that his book resembled "science fiction.") The selfish meme invited startling new ways to look at the questions: how and why do ideas and images and shapes persist through time?
But memes could not be charted like the genes of a fruitfly or human being. The meanings and identities of a meme would change in the way words change, taking on new meanings in new contexts, shifting from high speech to slang and back again. The Beetle was a meme that mutated this way, a shape and a set of ideas that fit Dawkins's description of selfishness.
The names Beetle and Bug for the car sprang up spontaneously not just in German but in every language -- Käfer in German, Coccinelle in French, Fusca in Portuguese, Vocho in Spanish -- inspired not only by the car's shape and buzzing engine but by its insectlike ubiquitousness. Bug, a common slang term for anything abundant and expendable -- easily squashed -- carried an air of informality befitting the car's character.
The word bug has a rich history and aura of meanings. Today a bug is most often used to mean something in electronics -- a goof in the circuitry or any kind of small electronic device, most often one for surveillance, but it also refers to any human obsession, a fascination that grips a person like a disease, e.g., "He's got the bug."
At the beginning of the nineteenth century in England, bug meant bedbug and was not used in polite company. It flourished in the U.S. in slang -- there were "tariff bugs" for instance -- even before the Gold Rush of 1849 brought "gold bug."
Edward Tenner in Why Things Bite Back notes that the term bug was established by the middle of the nineteenth century as a term for an error or problem in a technical system. It seems to have been a familiar term in the world of telegraphers, when Thomas Edison began. A particular kind of telegrapher's key was already known as a bug in the 1850s, according to H. L. Mencken. In 1878, describing his method of invention, Edison used the word bugs to refer to all the "little faults and difficulties" that emerge to dog the inventor as he refines an idea.
The most famous application of the term computer bug came in the late 1940s. The chief programmer for the Mark II computer was Admiral Grace Hopper, whose name could have come out of a Disney film. One day after the computer failed, Hopper located a physical bug, a moth, near one of the computer's relays. She preserved it by taping it to a note card. With the arrival of personal computers, "software bug" entered popular language.
"It's not a bug, it's a feature" is an established joke of computer programmers facetiously justifying some eccentricity in software.
But isn't that the nature of the evolutionary mutation: that a bug turns out to be a feature, a mistake that benefits? In many ways the Beetle began as an aberration that turned into a triumph. First, it's a bug, then it's a feature.
While we usually think beloved, iconic products grow integrally from the cultures that produce them, the Beetle shows how shifting the culture around a product can change its meanings -- and how a product can alter a culture.
It is an assumption of most cultural history that artifacts crystallize out of societies as neatly as rock candy out of a warm glass of sugar water, and that they are as characteristic and specific as Clovis spear points, Louis Quatorze chairs, Neapolitan espresso makers, hot dogs, Fabergé eggs, longbows, tail fin Cadillacs, and transistor radios. But the Bug suggests that designs, images, and ideas do not remain identified with the cultures that create them. They change as they move from one culture to another and alter the new environments that have altered them. Rolling through history on wheels of irony, the Bug lives a life somewhere between Woody Allen's Zelig and little Oskar, the protagonist of Günter Grass's novel The Tin Drum, and like them, it is a character that has managed to find itself at the center of key moments in history, including the very darkest.
Copyright © 2002 by Phil Patton