Vintage car brochures are at their best when they contain people and recognizable places. Pictures of a car by itself are interesting, but seeing a car placed in an understandable context lets us better envision just how a carmaker saw its products. Of course, most of the characters in car brochures are archetypal models and the accompanying backgrounds tend to be generic. But as always, there are exceptions, and Volkswagen’s 1968 US-market Beetle brochure is one such example. It is probably the only brochure to feature a credentialed diplomat advertising a car while posed on embassy grounds.
The circumstances surrounding this arrangement are unclear, but the end result makes for an interesting discussion, as the above photo was taken in the driveway of Afghanistan’s embassy in Washington, DC.
1968 was Volkswagen’s high-water mark in the US market, with 1,000 dealers selling 423,000 of the company’s Beetles. By that point, the Beetle was a ubiquitous sight on American roads and driveways – and how better to market such a car than to highlight its popularity among a broad cross-section of Americans?
That’s exactly what Volkswagen did for 1968 – devoting full-page photographs along with quotes and text featuring Americans from all walks of life. Among the highlighted individuals were a Missouri rancher, a Connecticut homemaker, a Washington deliveryman, and actor Paul Newman (quoted as saying “I started buying them when I started as an actor. Today, I drive them out of loyalty.”).
But right in the brochure’s middle is a rather unlikely Volkswagen pitchman. Standing beside a red Beetle with a diplomatic license plate is a man in a black suit, carrying a briefcase, and identified as Mr. Rahmatullah Asifi, Attache, Royal Afghan Embassy.
Mr. Asifi is quoted as praising the Beetle for its roominess and comfort, despite its small exterior dimensions. The VW sales prose accompanying his quotes remarks how people’s perception of diplomatic life differs from reality, and that instead of being driven around in limousines like in the movies, real-life diplomats value practicality, just like anyone else. Volkswagen claimed that more Washington, DC diplomats drive their cars than any other make.
It appears that the man in the brochure was, in fact, an Afghan diplomat. The photo was taken in the Afghan Embassy’s driveway, and according to US State Department records, a man named Rahmatullah Asifi served as Attache from 1966 to 1969, as one of 4 to 6 diplomats accredited to Afghanistan’s US mission. During that time, he lived in three separate apartments within a short drive of the embassy.
1968 fell within a period when US-Afghan relations were at their peak. Afghanistan’s King Mohammed Zahir Shah actively sought American friendship during his four decade reign, and this friendship materialized in each nation’s leaders visiting the other’s capitals. At left, the King and President Eisenhower are shown riding through Kabul in one of the monarch’s Daimler limousines in 1959. Four years later, the King reciprocated and visited Washington. The photo on the right, from 1963, shows the King riding with President Kennedy in one of the presidential Lincoln limousines. The motorcade’s destination was the Afghan Embassy, where the two leaders lunched together.
The embassy itself was fit for a king and a president. Built as a private residence in 1923 and designed by noted Washington architect Nathan Wyeth, the embassy is located in Washington’s fashionable Kalorama neighborhood. The semi-circular driveway where the 1968 VW was parked is on the left-hand side of this photograph.
The residence’s original owner was a Texas lawyer named Edwin B. Parker, who moved to Washington to lead the German-American Mixed Claims Commission, which settled public and private claims resulting from WWI. Mr. Parker passed away in 1929, however his wife Catherine continued to live in the house until 1944, becoming a fixture of the city’s social and musical scenes.
King Zahir Shah sent his first official legation to Washington in 1944, and the kingdom soon purchased the house from Mrs. Parker’s estate. The embassy has been there ever since. Despite the country’s tumultuous recent past, the building still appears as elegant as it must have been when the Parkers first moved in during the 1920s.
Of course, the question that begs to be asked is… what’s parked in the driveway? A Camry. Just as Volkswagen Beetles were ubiquitous in 1968, Camrys fill a similar role today. Much has changed since 1968, but diplomats still tend to drive ubiquitous cars. It is unlikely, however, that we’ll see any more car promotions featuring diplomatic officers, so we might as well enjoy this unique outtake from nearly half a century ago.