Friday, July 12, 2019

Different Strokes for Different Folks: The Volkswagen Beetle in its Different Cultural Contexts -- The Art Car Beetle

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In America it was named the Beetle; in Germany it was known as the Kafer; and in the last place it was made, Mexico, it was the beloved Vochito. The global popularity of the car lay in its ability to mean many different things to different people.  The Beetle's popularity transcended national borders and even conflicting national subcultures.

In the United States the Beetle morphed according to what its owners wanted it to be. To be sure, most owners were content with keeping the egg-like shape and stock performance as it came from the dealer. The car was a statement that countered prevailing post-WWII American values of status, speed, power,  planned obsolescence,  and personal bling. The Beetle was almost everything the vehicles of the Detroit Three were not. It was economical, reliable, well-made, and "cute." It was said to be so tight that one had to crack a window to close a door and it could float is driven into  lake. Over time, the notion that it was originally thought of as "Hitler's car" was increasingly overlooked.

But there were also many Americans who were not content with the Beetle as it came out of the box. In a 1968 Road & Track survey, while a majority of owners were quite satisfied with the car and indeed would buy another one,  a number of drivers complained that the cars -- especially those built before 1965 -- were underpowered and just too slow for American roads. Clutches failed, engines were only good to about 80,000 miles at best, the egg shape was susceptible to cross winds, handling with its swing rear axle could be tricky, heaters were inefficient, brakes were noisy and often needed service, and the once praised dealer service network was slipping in quality.  And for some, while the engine and chassis layout was acceptable, exterior looks would be greatly modified according to personal preferences. It is perhaps no accident that Harrod Blank's (perhaps the founder of the art car movement) quintessential art car was a Beetle.

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