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Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle

Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle

4.6 8
by Andrea Hiott

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Sometimes achieving big things requires the ability to think small. This simple concept was the driving force that propelled the Volkswagen Beetle to become an avatar of American-style freedom, a household brand, and a global icon. The VW Bug inspired the ad men of Madison Avenue, beguiled Woodstock Nation, and has recently been re-imagined for the hipster generation.


Sometimes achieving big things requires the ability to think small. This simple concept was the driving force that propelled the Volkswagen Beetle to become an avatar of American-style freedom, a household brand, and a global icon. The VW Bug inspired the ad men of Madison Avenue, beguiled Woodstock Nation, and has recently been re-imagined for the hipster generation. And while today it is surely one of the most recognizable cars in the world, few of us know the compelling details of this car’s story. In Thinking Small, journalist and cultural historian Andrea Hiott retraces the improbable journey of this little car that changed the world.
Andrea Hiott’s wide-ranging narrative stretches from the factory floors of Weimar Germany to the executive suites of today’s automotive innovators, showing how a succession of artists and engineers shepherded the Beetle to market through periods of privation and war, reconstruction and recovery. Henry Ford’s Model T may have revolutionized the American auto industry, but for years Europe remained a place where only the elite drove cars. That all changed with the advent of the Volkswagen, the product of a Nazi initiative to bring driving to the masses. But Hitler’s concept of “the people’s car” would soon take on new meaning. As Germany rebuilt from the rubble of World War II, a whole generation succumbed to the charms of the world’s most huggable automobile.
Indeed, the story of the Volkswagen is a story about people, and Hiott introduces us to the men who believed in it, built it, and sold it: Ferdinand Porsche, the visionary Austrian automobile designer whose futuristic dream of an affordable family vehicle was fatally compromised by his patron Adolf Hitler’s monomaniacal drive toward war; Heinrich Nordhoff, the forward-thinking German industrialist whose management innovations made mass production of the Beetle a reality; and Bill Bernbach, the Jewish American advertising executive whose team of Madison Avenue mavericks dreamed up the legendary ad campaign that transformed the quintessential German compact into an outsize worldwide phenomenon.
Thinking Small is the remarkable story of an automobile and an idea. Hatched in an age of darkness, the Beetle emerged into the light of a new era as a symbol of individuality and personal mobility—a triumph not of the will but of the imagination.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hiott, editor-in-chief of a cultural journal called Pulse, presents the history of the whimsical German automobile, unveiling an intricate saga that spans nearly 90 years and includes some of the most monumental shifts in politics, economics, and creativity in the past century. The story begins with Ferdinand Porsche, the Austrian car designer, who was unable to find a backer for his “small car” design until Adolph Hitler “got his idea for giving Germany a People’s Car,” or volkswagon. Given Hitler’s involvement, the story of Volkswagon is a tangle that interweaves combat, Nazis, war crimes, British occupation, the Marshall Plan, the division of the German state and mid-century economic reforms, but Hiott is able tie all the story lines into a compelling and revealing tale of inspiration, tragedy and triumph thanks to her in-depth research. Hiott, an American-born journalist who lives in Berlin, also illuminates the cultural significance of the Beetle, focusing heavily on how the Madison Avenue firm DDB created a revolutionary advertising strategy for Volkswagon that helped the car become not only a symbol of the ’60s counterculture movement but also a representation of American individuality and freedom. Woven together with a prose that is both serious and conversational, this thorough history of Volkswagon is a surprisingly substantial and far-reaching chronicle of “a car that belongs to the world.” (Jan.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Thinking Small
“I am definitely the kind of person who very much appreciates the difficulty and value of looking at something everyone is familiar with in a fresh, new way. Candidly, at first I had very little interest in this book because I am so familiar with the VW/Porsche story. But to my delight, as I looked through it I found a fascinating new perspective on the events. Also many untold stories, such as the beginnings of Doyle Dane Bernbach, the greatest advertising agency of all time. My congratulations to Ms. Hiott for a marvelous piece of work.”Jerry Seinfeld, comedian
Thinking Small is a delightthe improbable, wonderfully told tale of the Volkswagen Beetle, from its early days as Adolf Hitler’s dream car to the beloved symbol of freedom and fun for millions of Americans.  With her impeccable research and deep understanding of German and U.S. history and culture, Andrea Hiott does a superb job of bringing to life both the snub-nosed little car and the large cast of colorful characters who designed it, then made it one of the most coveted consumer objects in the world.”—Lynne Olson, author of Citizens of London
“From Hitler’s Germany to Woodstock, selling matzos to selling cars, and urban architecture to automotive design, in Thinking Small, Andrea Hiott takes readers on a wise and crafty ride over a wide and twisting narrative terrain. It’s a journey that is deeply compelling, thought-provoking, and, not least, great fun.”—Howard Blum, New York Times bestselling author of The Floor of Heaven and American Lightning
Library Journal
Here's the story of the little car that could, told by an American author who went to Berlin after college graduation and ended up cofounding a cultural journal called Pulse, of which she is now editor in chief. Coinciding with the release of the redesigned Beetle in December 2011; a big push to car buffs and history buffs, LibraryThing and Goodreads users alike. Pretty cool.
Kirkus Reviews
The well-researched story of an iconic car. Translated from German, Volkswagen means "people's car," an ironic moniker considering that the company was founded in 1937 by the Nazi trade union. Nonetheless, the company's signature product, the Beetle, became one of the most iconic autos in the United States. How? As Hiott writes, it was a felicitous combination of smart design, an affordable price point and savvy advertising and marketing. Even today, the company knows how to creatively raise brand awareness--the publication of this book was timed to coincide with the release of the newly designed Beetle. Hiott's debut is an assured, enthusiastic account of a company that, oddly enough considering its rich, controversial history, has yet to receive such in-depth treatment. The author goes beyond the cars themselves, exploring why the Beetles of the 1960s and '70s--certainly not the sexiest or most impressive automobiles--became hip. Since the majority of the action took place decades ago, there's very little in the way of conversation in the narrative, but Hiott's passionate authority makes for enjoyable reading. The sheer amount of detail may deter readers who have limited interest in the Beetle, but if you're a fan of fahrvergnügen, this is essential stuff. A must-read for hardcore car buffs and a must-skim for casual drivers and general readers.

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William Bernbach did not look like a revolutionary. His sober meticulous suits and conservative ties did not catch the eye or distinguish him from any of the other advertising men walking New York City's bustling streets in the 1950s. Thin and compact, with short dark hair neatly combed to one side, Bill had a small physique that was almost childlike. True, he was the creative head of his own advertising agency-Doyle Dane Bernbach, soon to be familiarly known as DDB-but he didn't come off as a typical executive of the time: his evenings were rarely full of expensive dinner parties or multiple martinis, he wasn't embroiled in a string of heated affairs, he didn't own a pristine country home, or live in a fancy penthouse uptown. Instead, for much of his life, Bill lived in an anonymous neighborhood in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, he took the subway into work each day, and he left on time every night to go home and have dinner with his kids and his wife.

Bill may not have looked like the kind of man who could catch the world's attention, but he was, and by the late 1950s, people were beginning to notice him. Unlike the rest of the cookie-cutter ad agencies on Madison Avenue, DDB had a fresh sense of purpose filling its rooms, drawing people in. Walking into their offices in those days, through the haze of cigarette smoke, past the ringing phones and the interactive rush of talented young men and women, one always found Bill Bernbach at the center of the buzz, his Brooklyn-tinged voice- simultaneously gentle and disarming-leaking out of his office and into the halls, his door always open. There was something alluring about his clear, blue-eyed gaze, and as the years passed, Bill rose to be known as the creative center of his agency, the person all the art directors and copywriters wanted to speak to about their work, the man who could get that work into print, or make it disappear without a trace. Bill was confident, and his confidence became DDB's backbone. It's what made so many want to be near him-his approval was a good luck charm of sorts-but it was also what made people hide from him at times, unsure or unready to face his clear and veracious eye. There were no rules with Bill; only vigilance.

The crew at DDB was a motley and roughish bunch, in no way typical of most advertising agencies in New York. In certain younger circles, DDB was considered one of the only ad agencies where a person could work on something different, something exciting, something "meaningful," if you dared to use that term. Whereas other successful agencies at the time were full of serious-faced men in expensive suits, DDB was more like an experimental powwow. Art and writing were respected as crafts within themselves rather than as the means to a financial end. DDB employees worked in teams; they communicated and sparred. Those who witnessed this process called it creative, in a way that the advertising world had never really seen before.

DDB was different, and different was exciting. But that didn't mean the agency was going to leave its mark. In the larger scheme of things, DDB was more likely to be beaten by the establishment than it was to change it. After all, in 1959, the majority of Americans had never encountered a DDB ad. When it came to the heavyweights of economics and industries, DDB was small: They didn't have any of the accounts that mattered-no car company from Detroit, no major tobacco brand, no national retail chain.

And there was something else, too. In business terms, DDB was often dismissed as a quirky place that did "ethnic" advertising, a crude way of saying that most people considered DDB a Jewish company that did "unabashedly, recognizably Jewish" ads. Most of their clients were Jewish. Bill Bernbach was Jewish. And many on the staff were Jewish as well. Thus DDB's success was a local success: advertisements for El Al airlines or Ohrbach's department store caught the eye but had a limited scope, catering strictly to Manhattan and its boroughs. Bernbach's shop was no more a threat to the established giants than were the strange beatniks and folk singers who had started congregating downtown.

Advertising was incredibly lucrative in those days though, and the big agencies were prospering. Their ads showed beautiful and successful people enjoying a product, and upon seeing such stimulation, customers were supposed to be stimulated too. This underlying equation of "consumption equals happiness" had proven appeal: America's culture of materialism was thriving, fed on eye-popping advertisements for big houses, big cars, big smiles, and big words. It was the decade of dazzle, and yet as that decade entered its final year, some began to wonder if any of it had been real. The country's foundations no longer seemed so solid. A recession eventually set in, and it wasn't solely economic. The spirit of the country began to change; there was a sense of disquiet. As poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in the Village Voice in 1959: "No one in America knows what will happen. No one is in real control." The country was begging for a shift in perspective, and that would mean taking risks and thinking strange.

And DDB epitomized thinking strange. Take Bill's newest choice of projects, for instance: a German car that, for more than one reason, looked like an impossible sale. Manhattan's major agencies were making millions advertising the cars of Detroit: Buick, Lincoln, Chrysler, Mercury, Oldsmobile, Ford-these were the brand names Americans craved and bought. One such advertisement for Pontiac depicted a large crowd chanting, "We're everybody_._._._and we want a Big Car_._._." Even the sound of the door closing had to be big. As the general manager of Chevrolet boasted in 1957, "We've got the finest door slam this year we've ever had-a big car slam._._._."

The Volkswagen, a car Americans would later nickname the "The Beetle," seemed to represent the opposite of such a desire. Though it had been trying to enter the market ever since that first transatlantic trip in 1949, its overall sales compared to the numbers coming out of Detroit were laughable, barely a blip on America's automotive map. Some at DDB couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Bill wasn't wasting his time with Volkswagen's little car. Foreign companies just weren't a market that big advertising agencies in the United States were courting in those days, and, lack of monetary gain aside, a Jewish advertising agency representing a German car just wasn't the most likely combination. Nevertheless, Bill wanted Volkswagen's business: He had a thing or two he wanted to say about the concept of bigness he saw many American corporations and advertising firms touting, and he had no qualms about flying overseas to Wolfsburg and visiting a German car factory in order to have that chance. He soon found out, however, that few others at DDB felt the same way. More than ten years had passed since the end of the war, but some wounds had not healed and the anger it had fostered still simmered. Feelings had been held in, papered over. After all, this was the car that The New York Times had referred to as the "Baby Hitler" in 1938, and while it's been said that no baby is ugly, this one certainly had a unique face.

Trekking to a country that Americans had once hated about as much as anyone could hate a place, meeting with former enemies who had fought on the side of the Nazis during the Second World War, having to find the good points about a car that, when people were being generous, was described as "a motorized tortoise" or a "pregnant roller skate"- needless to say, it wasn't the most attractive account that Bill could have offered his staff. Nevertheless, the men Bill eventually convinced to work on the account-a beatnik Jewish boy (Julian Koenig), a loudmouthed Greek who always seemed to be getting himself into hot water (George Lois), and a German American who had very unresolved feelings about his parents' German past (Helmut Krone)-would come together and, in a moment of seemingly fated timing, set a fire under Madison Avenue, and the entire nation beyond.


Adolf Hitler's eyes were reportedly "bright blue-bordering on the violet." In the psychological reports done on him in the 1940s by the OSS (a precursor to the CIA), there is mention of his "hypnotic glance" and the ability of his eyes to "bore through people." One policeman describes Hitler's gaze as "fatal," with an "irresistible glare." But by other accounts, his eyes are "dead" and "lacking in brilliance and the sparkle of genuine animation." Perhaps all of these descriptions are true. When I look at his portrait today, however, I have to admit that I don't see an incomprehensible monster: I see a man who sensed the power available to us all, and then violently abused it, brutalizing and destroying millions of lives, including his own. It's hard to imagine living in a city that was founded by such a man, but every citizen in Wolfsburg lives with that legacy. Without Adolf Hitler, their town would never have been born.

The town's original name wasn't even Wolfsburg. At the time of its official creation, the town was being made to house the factory for a car, and the entire project was being funded by a division of the Nazi German Labor Front (the DAF) called Strength through Joy. Thus, in May of 1938, Adolf Hitler christened Wolfsburg "The Town of the Strength through Joy Car," the town of the Volkswagen. Volkswagen was a generic term being used in technical and automotive circles at the time to mean a car for the common man, something still thought impractical and impossible in Germany by most. The idea of a Volkswagen carried a lot of power: To speak of motorizing the population was to speak of giving people more control over their lives, an idea that evoked both awe and desire. As one German automotive writer named Wilfried Bade proclaimed in 1938: "Until now the automobile has conquered the world. Now begins the true possession of the automobile by the people." The dream of the car, and the dream of the city being built for it, went hand in hand. Each spoke to the masses, each served as a symbol of unification, and each was directly linked to strengthening the nation through industry- all major aspects of the Nazi conception of power that was taking hold of the country then.

Hitler's Town of the Strength through Joy Car was originally created to be a "model German workers' city," an urban and residential center that incorporated the Third Reich's emphasis on unified work. Just as the People's Car was supposed to be a car that all Germans would drive, Hitler wanted its city to be a model on which all industrial towns could be built. It was to be a place of common purpose, where men and women worked together toward the realization of a singular goal, the ultimate point being the strengthening of Germany. Industry, alongside loyalty and labor, would structure the nation, make the Fatherland strong.

The hope for a People's Car had been rising in Europe for over twenty years. It was a kind of leitmotif, in fact, recurring regularly though never resolved; automobiles were driven only by the rich and elite. Hitler was the first person to come to power in Europe who saw the mass production of automobiles as an essential industrial and national aim. He envisioned a great motorized nation, a nation that could expand and expand and expand. Germany needed more Lebensraum, more living space, he told the citizens. The motor car was a natural part of that plan.

Hitler came to power in 1933 with cars on his mind and his agenda, but the process was full of twists and turns and it was only five years later, in the spring of 1938, that it began to look as if his goal might be achieved. The first steps toward Volksmotorisierung, motorizing the people, were being made, and the erection of the new auto city was proof. Land for the enormous car factory had been found, and Albert Speer, the Inspector General for Building in Berlin at that time, had approved the location. Plans had been drawn up, an engineer had been hard at work on prototypes of the car. It was time for the cornerstone of the factory to be laid, time to celebrate the coming wave of vehicles with pride, and on May 26, 1938, the Nazis planned an elaborate fête in The Town of the Strength through Joy Car on May 26, 1938.

The German Labor Front sent invitations to over 50,000 people, though they were not invited so much as ordered to attend. Trumpets blared. Long bloodred banners were unfurled. Twenty-eight special Town of the Strength through Joy Car-bound trains left from all parts of the country and carried the citizens to the grounds where they were promised the new industrial town was soon to rise. This place, the propaganda promised, would be better than any American city, and Germany's new car factory would be better than anything yet built by America's automotive hero Henry Ford. Members of the Hitler Youth and the SS marched. The workers were on show: Bricklayers were given pristine white outfits and black top hats to wear; carpenters were decked out in black velvet and corduroy. Everyone raised his arm as Hitler appeared, arriving in the front seat of one of the prototypes of his Strength through Joy Car. People pointed at the new automobile, and discussed it; perhaps they imagined owning one, too. For those who couldn't make it to the opening ceremony, a radio show was broadcast, one of the first of its kind, detailing Hitler's every move. It was supposed to be a day of triumph, but spectators who were there would later report there was a strange tension in the air, a kind of growing apprehension.

Perhaps it was the chancellor's aloofness that sent such an impression reverberating through the crowd. He certainly wasn't himself that day. In previous automotive events, Hitler had always been fervent, even joyful, as he talked passionately about this project's potential. On the day of the ceremony, however, the car was no longer at the forefront, or even close to the forefront of Hitler's mind: By the spring of 1938, a new reality was setting in and other parts of his grand scheme were now in motion as well. Hitler's focus was not on the People's Car that day because he was preoccupied with the war that he knew was imminent. His desired moment had arrived. Already Austria had been annexed, had come too willingly, some would say. And the pogrom of the Crystal Night (Kristallnacht) was only six months away-that horrific and incendiary evening in which hundreds of synagogues were set on fire, Jewish shops and homes were destroyed and plundered, the shattered glass of their windows littering the streets, and around 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps or killed. The political air in Germany was toxic, but few were aware of the noxious fumes that surrounded them. The celebration for the car was in many ways a perfect metaphor for the mood of the country: lush decoration slathered onto a deepening sense of unrest. People looked at the spectacle and tried not to notice the anxiety swelling underneath.

Meet the Author

Andrea Hiott was born in South Carolina and graduated with a degree in philosophy from the University of Georgia in Athens. She then went to Berlin to study German and neuroscience, and ended up staying and working as a freelance journalist. In 2005, alongside a group of international artists and writers, she cofounded a cultural journal called Pulse. She now serves as editor-in-chief.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Thinking Small 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
AdStudentMidwestern More than 1 year ago
This book is a call back to what really matters in the commerical world. I had to skip some of the parts about all the car details but those places were few and far between. The story of Bill Bernbach and the symoblic value of the Beetle Bug is really eye-opening and I had no idea of either of these things, or of the way it is possible for one little man and one little car to speak truth to power.
Quijote8464 More than 1 year ago
A fascinating read on Hitler's strong headed determination for developing the people's car and Porsche's design genius behind the dream. The story is well written and difficult to put down. I highly recommend.
AARP47 More than 1 year ago
"Thinking Small sometimes resembles the improbable subplot of a John Le Carré novel [with] Hiott deftly weaving the many strands -- social, economic, cultural -- that made the VW part of the American fabric." Gregory McNamee, AARP
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
But be warned it is quite comprehensive
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have owned a 1962 Karmin Ghia and a 1968 Porsche 911 and was eager to read the history of cars. Actually, the book does a great job on WW1 and 2 history but glorifies the VW and Porsche brands, ignoring that they embodied some rotten engineering, not that I did not enjoy the cars at the time. They were troublesome in their own way with air cooled engines that dripped oil and inadequate heaters with an oil smell. Also left out is Porsche's orphan engine used the Corvair. The world history made it a worthwhile read. It is hard to understand how or why the author ignored the bad aspects of early air cooled VWs and Porsches.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I bought this book for my husband who loves bugs, but has not been much of a casual reader. He loves this book and can't put it down. And, he is giving me section reviews and tells me that I need to read it when he is done. This book has made my husband a reader!
LoveBug47 More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend any story of the Bug!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
more about politics and world events before and after WWll. I did learn alot about the MISCONCEPTIONS I had about VW and how it FINALLY got built and related subjects about adverising. Highly rcomended to get what realy happened. A lot of things I assumed were WRONG The reserch had to be painstaking. I did enjoy it