Curbside Classic: 1957 VW 1200 – The Beetle Takes America By Sturm

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(this chapter 2 of the CC Beetle Chronicles picks up from the 1946 CC)  Invasive species can impart devastating effects when the indigenous species haven’t evolved the proper defenses. Two little black Beetles stowed away on a ship bound for the US in 1949. There wasn’t anything remarkable about them that would suggest their future impact on revolutionizing the largest automobile market in the world. But like a pair of termites, they multiplied and steadily chewed their way through the framework of an industry that thought itself invincible. Eventually, the Bugs got forced out by other small foreign critters, but when the hollowed-out Fortress Detroit finally crashed into smithereens, the Beetles’ teeth marks could be seen everywhere.

 

VW 1944 US

American soldiers who had been exposed to the quirks and pleasures of European cars during WW2 developed an appetite for exotic automotive pets. Some even had direct contact with VWs, as many Kübelwagen were captured and put to good use by American GIs, once the valve-adjustment ritual was mastered.

Import Cars of Westport_1000image courtesy hemmings blog

A free-for-all import market in the US boomed starting shortly after the war. Everything on the automotive menu from Abarth to Zundapp was on offer. Austin was once the biggest-selling  import. VW was just another obscure brand amongst dozens fighting for its share of the world’s biggest market. It was not totally unlike the Chinese market of recent times.

But a turning point came in 1955. It suddenly became painfully obvious to many early import buyers that while three and four year-old VW’s were still happily putting along, their DKWs, Goliaths, Simcas, Lloyds and dozens of other exotic foreigners were dying. Or at least the functional equivalent: sitting for weeks in their fly-by-night dealers’ one-bay garages awaiting parts supposedly on a tramp freighter somewhere in the Atlantic. The VW design was already almost twenty years old, and well de-bugged in the fields of combat. Material and build quality were superb. A sudden and immediate VW tidal shift was underway.

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Humans by nature (and American perhaps a bit more so) are faddists, and sometimes our enthusiasm for a new group-identify slips all the way into cultism. Mid-fifties Beetle drivers waved religiously to each other. That degree of auto-reinforcement has happened only a few times since: the early days of the Honda Civic and the Prius, as well as a few others.

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Like many cultists, pioneering VW adopters blissfully ignored all the shortcomings: no trunk to speak of, a cramped back seat, tippy handling at the limit, and as much power on tap as heat on a cold morning.

Porsche 356 and Beetle

But the Volkwagen’s similarities under the skin (as well as even the skin itself) to the highly-regarded Porsche 356 were all-too obvious to those with a sporting bend. Ferry Porsche’s stance in this picture is symbolic to say the least.

VW 1955 racing

During the great sports car boom of the fifties, the VW was taken into the cult as a four-passenger Porsche that just needed a bit of tuning or a Judson supercharger to make it worthy of its designer’s name. Dial in a bit of negative camber in the rear suspension like this one, pump up the tires, cover the front end with newspapers to protect the nice new paint, and go racing. It’s not like it’s liable to break under full throttle.

Subtle annual improvements was all it took to keep Americans smiling and waving. Here’s a vintage ad explaining just how one of them came into being. Not surprisingly, it’s hardly truthful, but then that’s advertising.

 

VW 1955 ad 2

Behind that cheerful veneer of fadism was a solid wall of practicality. There was no cheaper way to drive, given the Beetle’s thrift, reliability, durability and resale. Demand suddenly exploded in 1955, and VW struggled to keep up.

VW Think Small

But Volkswagen had a plan. Their ads were lying; they were thinking very big, not small. Because demand suddenly far outstripped supply, VW coerced (“you vill do it ziss way”) dealers to do three key things if they wanted to see any more cars: sell the little buggers at full list price, invest in state of the art showrooms and facilities, and hire competent staff. A no-haggle price and a nice dealership experience: sound familiar? Not to Americans at the time. Most of the dealers complied happily, all the way to the bank. The rest became Renault or Simca dealers. The VW gold rush was underway.

VW dealership 60s

VW offered Americans the total non-Detroit experience, from the first step into the new, clean dealership. Pleasant, knowledgeable sales reps awaited (your check). No negotiating. Well-trained mechanics. Full parts inventory. It was a highly profitable, well run enterprise. OR ELSE! And one that Toyota was taking careful notes on as it shipped its first pair of Toyopests abroad.

 

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But the driving experience was most un-Detroit of all. Thirty six (30 net) horsepower, about the same as a well-fed riding mower today, engendered patience. What it delivered, it did so rock-steady: Thirty-two miles per gallon, always. Top speed: sixty-eight, exactly (upped to seventy-two when the 40 hp came along in 1961). If that was down a mile or two on level ground, you knew it was time for a tune-up. And it would happily run wide-open at sixty-eight for a good 100k miles straight, as long as it had been maintained adequately. And then one swapped in a rebuilt engine – in forty-five minutes. That was one of the keys to the VW’s success.

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VW sales increased like the national debt: by the mid sixties, a half million a year were being snapped up at full MSRP in the US. VW dealerships were typically some of the most profitable ones. We were making Germany the envy of the rest of Europe, and shattering Detroit’s hegemony of the market. That story has been told on these pages all to well. Turns out the real threat to the US in the fifties and sixties wasn’t Communism; it was the industrious little Bugs munching away in the walls of our biggest industry.

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