America’s favorite Bug beats dark past

It was loud, slow and funny looking, a rattling lemon drop of a car with few amenities beyond steering and brakes. Open the hood, and there was no engine. That was in the rear. Air conditioning meant rolling down a stubborn window. An early postwar version featured glue on the interior trim made partly of fish byproducts. What’s the opposite of chick magnet?

And, yet, in the 1960s, America embraced the Volkswagen Beetle, making it the best-selling automobile of all time. Now this year, as Volkswagen America turns 50, and Disney chimes in with the release of a new Herbie movie (“Herbie: Fully Loaded,” opening Wednesday), the mystery of how the li’l guy seduced the nation invites some unraveling.

“Without a real car, I’m only half a man,” sighed Dean Jones at a turning point in the original Herbie movie, “The Love Bug” (1968). But Herbie doesn’t like to have his manhood slighted. He drives off into the San Francisco night feeling suicidal. With a moody musical score reminiscent of 1940s film noir, the producers milked the faux-seriousness of a man/car love story to maximum effect.

However, Hollywood knew what it was doing. Viewers would leave the theater with a feel-good message: It’s not what’s under the hood, it’s what’s in the heart. The movie gently teased the testosterone-soaked 1950s of V-8 engines and tail fins designed like turbojets, Greased Lightning street races and Detroit’s muscular mantra that bigger is always better.

The Beetle was the antithesis of Detroit — small, fuel-efficient, with a bubbly nonthreatening exterior. At the height of Vietnam and Haight Ashbury when all the “Leave It to Beaver” notions of manhood were being challenged, the Beetle represented an alternative vision: that of the spirited underdog, the one who gets the girl through sheer charm and panache, not brute strength.

Both Disney’s Herbie franchise and the Volkswagen ad campaigns of the 1960s gambled on that risky contrarian strategy. Accentuate the negative. With ad slogans like “Think Small” and “Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep,” Volkswagen plugged into an emerging undercurrent of rebellion, one that challenged the buzz-cut conformism of the Eisenhower years, or the notion that size equals power.

Of course, the company also understood the American consumer’s attention to nuts and bolts. “It may not be much to look at” ran the Ugly ad, “but beneath that humble exterior beats an air-cooled engine. It won’t boil over and ruin your piston rings. It won’t freeze over and ruin your life. It’s in the back of the car for better traction in snow and sand. And it will give you about 27 miles to a gallon.” Easy maintenance, simplicity, fuel-economy. And it worked. By 1965, Volkswagen America was selling 500,000 units a year. By 1973, it had surpassed 15 million in total sales, overtaking Ford’s Model T as the best-selling U.S. car of all time.

Perhaps Volkswagen America’s biggest coup was to package the Beetle as the little guy when, in fact, it had been designed as a mass production vehicle for the “Master Race.”

Fun loving? It was commissioned by Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s — and designed by Ferdinand Porsche — as a basic utilitarian vehicle to provide traffic for the Autobahn, the crown jewel of the Nazi modernization project.

Good in sand and snow? Yes, indeed. When the war started, civilian prototypes of the Beetle gave way to its military cousin, the Kubelwagen of the Wehrmacht, a workhorse jeep that worked wonders in the deserts of North Africa and the frozen plains of Russia.

It had other macho street cred as well. GIs stationed in Germany in the 1960s bought them in droves upon their return home. It was a memory car, a reminder of the good years of strong dollars, cheap beer and vivacious (or desperate) Fraulein.

As the main taxi of Mexico City, many an unsuspecting tourist has been trapped in the back of the two-door Beetle as they handed over their wallet. And, most notoriously, the Beetle was the car of choice of serial killer Ted Bundy, in both tan and orange varieties. For Bundy, the very cuteness of his Beetle — the vehicular equivalent of a canary yellow sweater and docksiders — was the best cover for his heinous intentions.

While Disney milked the Herbie franchise throughout the 1970s, new safety and environmental legislation eventually led to the Beetle’s demise on the U.S. market. It all upped the cost of a low-cost vehicle; the Japanese were making big inroads in the small-car market; and emissions control reduced horsepower on a car that had little horsepower to spare.

To much hype, Volkswagen resold the Beetle in a newer souped-up version in the late ‘90s, but it has so far failed to move from novelty car to the mainstream. While preserving the classic bubble shape, it has all the amenities of a modern car — and a price tag to match. The real problem is the hybrid styling: It manages to be both feminine and steroidal at the same time, like a pampered East German shot-putter in her glorious prime. It’s telling that when Disney, after a long hiatus, decided to come out with a new Herbie movie, they bypassed the new Beetle in favor of the original.

In the latest Herbie outing, starring teen idol Lindsay Lohan, Michael Keaton and Matt Dillon as the villain, Herbie is recovered from the junkyard, gussied up, and taken to NASCAR with all its noisy all-American down-home fanfare.

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