- October 2016
Volkswagen Beetle -The People's Car
The Volkswagen Beetle is a two door production car that was made from 1938 to 2003. With approximately 20 million produced, the beetle is the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single platform ever made. Under Adolf Hitler’s orders, the car was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who would later create the Porsche brand of automobiles a few years later. Considered by many to be the most influential car of our time, this essay attempts to analyze the very flexible genres of historical, cultural and economical changes that made the Volkswagen Beetle achieve its status of “the people’s car”.
Historically, this car is important not because of its age or its popularity, but because of the purpose it was created for. Picture Germany in early 1930s, with its crippled economy after the great depression. Germany was devastated after the First World War, and the great depression in 1930 was the last nail in the coffin. Unemployment was high, and the economy was in shambles. This was the scene for the Beetle. Amidst political turmoil, economic collapse and war, the car was conceived. The political situation paved the way for creating a genre of automobiles that was more accessible to the people. It is important to note that Hitler did not have complete power in the early 1930s, so he wanted to prove to the German people that he wanted to make Germany great again by revamping the economy. So in April 1934, Adolf Hitler gave the order to Ferdinand Porsche to develop a ‘Volkswagen’, which literally meant peoples car. However, this was more of a political move for Hitler to boost the German economy, so that he could create millions of jobs in the manufacturing industry. He intended to reverse Germany’s poor economy by creating infrastructure projects which would require a lot of labor (hence jobs), machinery and resources. And for Hitler, his plan worked.He used Kairos to perfectly time his project. By definition, Kairos “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action, the opportune and decisive moment” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Hitler analyzed the scene and realized that if he proposed the idea at a different time the people would not have supported him. The situation and scene were ideal for the car to be successful. Hitler saw the opportunity and timing, and decided that such a project would work wonders. Post war Germans had little money to spend on cars, and hence many could afford the affordable Beetle (costing 900 Marks). The car played a crucial role in the economic setting and sold in the millions that gave Germany the economic stability it needed, drastically improving the economic scene and situation for the country. These results corresponded with the situation the preceded it. In this complex political mess, the idea of reaching out to the people with an affordable car seemed to be the most appropriate response.
Perhaps a different perspective would be the cultural impact in the international setting of the Beetle, focusing on its impact in the US. To analyze the interaction of genres (uptake), it is important to represent the context and tone of the era. In the US, the Beetle was famously associated with the hippie movement and surf culture. Because of its unique design and low price, it was truly a car for the masses. The media often portrayed the car in a good light, and the lemon advertisement was a fitting representation of the setting. The advertisement talks about the stringent quality checks in Volkswagen, and then says “we pick the lemons, you get the plums.” This is an important quote because it presents an interesting rhetorical situation. In the 60s, people were interested in thinking big. The American dream in the 1960s setting led people to believe that bigger is better, so people strived for big houses and big, ostentatious cars like Cadillacs. Volkswagen intended to compete with that mindset with a different tone. Volkswagen wanted people to think small, to think Beetle. The lemon advertisement reflected the practical and affordable persona that the Beetle represented. However, it was also a social statement, for those who could afford it in third world nations. For example, in India the Beetle was seen as a luxury vehicle, but in the U.S. it was seen as a symbol of German practicality over American decadence. This presented another interesting rhetorical situation. In the Indian context the car was seen as a representation of wealth, but in the global market it was seen as a cultural and artistic icon. It reflected the situation of the time. It featured in movies, paintings, music and other forms of media. Cars were spray painted with psychedelic designs, which created a new subgenre of street art. Spray painting was seen as a rebellious symbol for the hippies, and the car played a vital role in the genre of cultural expression. For example, used Beetles and Kombis (a VW Van) were transformed. The bland black and white colours were repainted with bold and bright colours, with psychedelic designs. Some cars even had slogans and murals. Hippies were known for their anti Vietnam War campagin, and they painted anti war messages on the car. Their interiors were upgraded too, with funky designs and colours.
In conclusion, by analyzing the interaction of genres (historical, economic and cultural) we can understand that the Volkswagen Beetle is truly an iconic car that has affected the lives of many people. Its birth from a political situation gave rise to multiple genres that in many ways shaped the way we look at motor cars today. In a nutshell, the Beetle's incredible flexibility gave rise to interesting rhetorical situations, and created the genres analysed in this essay. Born from Hitler’s political intentions, the car consistently transformed its persona starting from an affordable runabout, to a blank canvas adored by artists and enthusiasts. with ongoing situational changes and redefined the genre of automotive production.