Book review: The People's Car, by Bernhard Rieger

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 4:42pm

The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle

by Bernhard Rieger

Harvard University Press

In August 1955 the millionth Volkswagen Beetle came off the Wolfsburg production line. The ceremony was watched by 100,000 people, said one witness, while "scantily clad ladies from the world famous Moulin Rouge swung their legs, South African negro choirs sang spirituals, [and] 32 Scottish female highland dancers stomped around to the sound of bagpipes".

Bernhard Rieger's intermittently fascinating new book cannot in its latter half shake off the dullness of ideologically uncharged commodity history. The VW spreads around the world, briefly takes about 3 per cent of the US market as a "fun" second car, and then becomes obsolete.

However, the first half of the VW's existence, from its origins in the Third Reich until around the time those highland dancers turn up in Wolfsburg, sets it apart from mere fetishised machinery, and here The People's Car is most interesting.

The term "Volkswagen" is perhaps the most enduring vestigial remnant of Third Reich terminology - "the people's car" once sitting alongside "the people's radio" and "the people's tractor", the "people" being non-Jewish Germans. Its origins lay in the struggle to create a cheap German car, a consistent theme of the 1920s and 1930s.

Rieger gives an entertaining account of the failed attempts to come up with a successful cheap German car - the Hanomag (the "rolling bread loaf"), the Opel "Tree Frog", the BMW "Dixi" - but there was simply not enough money in circulation to make car ownership plausible. Everyone grew up with the stories of Daimler and Benz, but the future belonged to Henry Ford. Germans could turn out fabulous limousines and racing cars, but most roads remained nearly car-free in a golden age for bicycles, motorbikes and trams.

The German media was transfixed by US carmaker Henry Ford, and Adolf Hitler and his entourage warmed both to his production methods and his anti-semitism. Once he came to power, Hitler announced the goal of a "people's car", a four-door vehicle priced at 1,000 reichsmarks that could, at last, spread the joy of the open highway for ordinary families.

Part of the specification was that a machine-gun could potentially be mounted on it and so Volkswagen was saved by the army. The Beetle body was chucked away and the chassis toughened up to make the Kugelwagen, the German Jeep.

The eastern front and Libyan desert proved ideal laboratories for ironing out glitches and making it into the truly robust car viewed with such affection in the postwar world.

At the end of the war, the VW was turned out first as an Allied military vehicle and then, as it became clear the cold war required a healthy West Germany, as the cheerful Beetle.

The People's Car is filled with interesting and varied material about Weimar and Nazi attitudes towards cars, and the author is extraordinarily good at digging out curious pieces of information.

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