Several years ago, as I was pawing through someone’s unwanted stuff at a garage sale, I came across this unique little book. It may be the only book of its kind–a collection of cartoons and humorous essays by the eminent satirists of the time, intended to be given to customers at Volkswagen dealerships. There’s a lot of good material in here, and looking back on it more than 50 years later, it probably says more about that time in history than even its authors intended.
You have to remember that Volkswagen was the cool, iconoclastic “hip” brand which was rocking the industry with its straight-talking, sly humor advertising–breaking all the unwritten rules about what car advertising should be. And a large cross-section of the Volkswagen clientele were people who considered themselves to be the trend-setting intelligentsia–the literate cognoscenti who were more car-wise about what real value is; “above” a typical guy who bought the Insolent Chariots from the Big Three. It is clear that this book was made for them–the VW Believers.
So let’s look over some of the highlights. A lot of these authors and creators were major cultural influencers of the 1950s and ’60s, but their names are less recognizable by most people today. And a lot of the essays have a nostalgic tone–reminiscences of cars remembered from youth–a little like certain Curbside Classic posts, but from 1967.
First we have an essay by Harry Golden, “Rearrangements: from the Winton to the Volkswagen”. He begins: “I am 63, but I remember the first automobile I saw and touched . . . I was eight years old and lived on the Lower East Side of New York.”
The son of a neighbor was a chauffeur who wore a light blue uniform with black boots and drove for an uptown doctor. “He was always carrying big, heavy bear rugs with which to cover the feet of his employer.” Young Harry was fascinated by the car, a 1910 Winton: “Once he appeared we threw a barrage of questions at him, imploring answers, pleading for a chance to touch the car, investigate it, ride in it maybe.”
When he got to be driving age, Golden describes the folly of being one of four owners of a 1921 Essex, each of whom chipped in $40. “Who has the car?” “Murray must have it.” “We issued schedules as detailed and solemn as a White Paper, and no sooner were they issued than abrogated.” Splitting the cost of gasoline was a problem “even the New Math couldn’t solve.”
He concludes that “the automobile has an utter fascination for the American male, for the male everywhere in the world.”
The longest essay was written by Jean Shepherd, who is famous for creating and narrating the movie A Christmas Story (“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid!”) However, I knew of Shep long before that. I remember being with my dad in our basement workshop, working on projects into the night. The radio was always tuned to WOR in New York, and Shep would be on the air telling stories about his childhood, life in the army, and the foibles of mankind–in that folksy, intimate way that only he could do.
In “My Dream Car”, Shepherd relates how, when he was a “pale-cheeked lad,” he would visit a local used car lot “HAPPY HARRY THE HUNGRY ARMENIAN” after completing his newspaper delivery route. Shep, like his “Old Man” was an avid car buff who knew all the makes, years, models, and their various idiosyncrasies. But he comes across a car he has never seen, one with a bas-relief of the head of a famous football coach, and bearing the name “ROCKNE”.
Intrigued, Shep goes back home and tells his father that Happy Harry has a Rockne for sale. The father replies, “A Rockne! Well, I’ll be damned! How much does he want for it?”
“That crook!” (The Old Man and Happy Harry were old adversaries.)
“Son, the Rockne is the second-worst piece of junk ever made! Next to the Essex Super 6. It’s got a transmission made of balsa wood. The only time I ever saw a Rockne do over 25 on the flat was the time I saw one get smacked in the rear by a Western Avenue streetcar going full tilt, and then the guy couldn’t get it stopped for two full blocks because it didn’t have any brakes. Eighteen bucks for a Rockne! Well, you gotta hand it to old Harry for trying.”
After that, Shepherd never saw another Rockne car again. No one ever made mention of such a car in the years since. Which caused Shepherd to wonder, “Was it all just a dream?”
Lawrence Goodridge expresses his frustration with contemporary car magazines. He can’t make sense of Letters to the Editor like:
I recently came across a 1924 Packard V-16 engine in virtually mint condition. What special difficulties might I encounter in adapting it for my 1949 Crosley?
Goodridge has been driving for several years, but he has never heard of “wheel hop” and asks, “What is ‘rear spring windup’?” He says that what we need is a magazine called “THE BEFUDDLED CAR OWNER’S GUIDE–for the man who doesn’t know what an oscilloscope is, much less own one.” He thus prophesizes the ” ____ For Dummies” books which appeared much later.
Lastly, Roger Price describes a hypothetical case study of the Bobbit-8: a poor-selling car of obsolete design. The Bobbit company turns to a new ad agency for help. The agency suggests that Bobbit appeal to the “youth market”. Thus a new model is conceived–the “Psychedelic” (later renamed the “Cutthroat”): “For Cool, In, Hip, Swinging Swingers Only!” It features “a nylon-fringed top which hung down over the sides like a Beatle cut. A Pop-Mod color scheme (green, purple, and red), and instead of steering wheel it has motorcycle handlebars. Standard equipment included a 12-speed stereo record player, a coke and snack bar, Bell-bottom Fenders, and Mini-Bumpers. And with each car, the dealers gave away a dozen sweat shirts with the sleeves torn out.”
Here’s a sample of the cartoons:
When putting together this post I wondered, “Where is the modern equivalent?” Would any car manufacturer today publish a book with humorous essays and cartoons for its dealers to give out? Of course, anything put out by major corporations today would have to be so “politically correct”. Political correctness is many things, but it isn’t funny. And is the idea of an actual book obsolete? I don’t know if brochures and owner’s manuals are even offered in printed form anymore. And if they are, they probably won’t be for long (“It’s all online”).
So what we have here is a fascinating artifact from a lost time. It is a time that is very familiar to me, and seems “normal” because that’s what I grew up with. It only seems quaint from the perspective of 2021, just as our present day will seem old-fashioned 50 or more years hence. And so on and so on. The universe never stops moving.