The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle by Bernhard Rieger (review)
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Reviewed by
Bernhard Rieger. The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. 416 pp. ISBN 9780674050914, $28.95 (cloth).

In the vastness of the automobile’s impact upon modern society, a few vehicles stand above all others. These cars have become, over time, something more than commodities, taking on a larger-than-life stature as national and global icons of production, consumption, and identity. The Ford Motor Company famously produced fifteen million Model-T’s between 1908 and 1927, making the “Tin Lizzie” the first cultural touchstone of mass mobility and automotive affection. [End Page 192] The original Volkswagen (VW), of which twenty-one million were built between 1938 and 2003, is probably the only other car in automotive history that can compare to Henry Ford’s creation, both in its production success and in its cultural impact.

Bernhard Rieger’s entertaining and exhaustive history of the latter superbly contextualizes “the Beetle” and “Bug,” as the car is affectionately known around the world, in the same way that so many other works have examined the Model-T and its Fordist legacy of mass production, mass consumption, and motorization. More than that, The People’s Car stands as a history of not only the once-ubiquitous Bug, but as a cipher for understanding the history of 20th Century Germany, globalization, consumerism, and questions around nationalism and identity. That the Beetle emerged as a pet project of Adolf Hitler and a product of Nazi Germany to become a beloved and iconic vehicle, one which became a cultural and national totem for a spate of countries around the globe, is a fascinating story, and Rieger has done a masterful job in unfolding this transformation and journey.

Reiger’s approach is in many ways more a cultural and social history than an economic and automotive explanation. The book persuasively makes the case that the Beetle stands somewhat apart from the Model-T in that while Ford’s creation was primarily an American phenomenon, the Bug’s impact was more international in scope. Thus, the Beetle was not just an economic success, but also a cultural artefact that transformed—and was transformed—as it evolved over time and appeared, chameleon-like, in various countries around the world.

Organizationally, Rieger deftly accentuates particular themes across a number of chapters while documenting the long narrative of the car and its company. Obviously, the Nazi era is the focus of the “people’s car” beginnings; the early postwar period looks at the car’s emergence as an icon of West Germany’s economic miracle; the 1960s focus on American consumers’ fascination with the vehicle; after a short chapter on the 1970s end of Beetle production in West Germany and sales decline in America, the book shifts to a case study of Mexico to explore the car’s place as a continuing international phenomenon from the 1980s to the twenty-first century. The People’s Car concludes with the American-inspired rebirth of the vehicle in the form of the “New Beetle” as an example of the original VW’s nostalgic and cultural resilience, and the company’s efforts to recapture a share of the world’s most lucrative car market. Rieger’s exhaustive research, utilizing both German and English sources and a host of interviews, gives English readers access to a vast range of materials and perspectives previously untapped. The book is undoubtedly academic, yet is written in a very accessible style. [End Page 193]

Throughout the book, a number of key themes stand out. One is that for all its baggage as Hitler’s “people’s car,” the Beetle is as much an American story—in its genesis, production methods, success, and enduring popularity—as it is a German one. And though Rieger makes the case that the Beetle is not an example of Americanized globalization, the evidence he presents may give readers pause: VW itself emerged as an idea unquestionably inspired by Ford and his model of mass production and motorization; the company utilized American production techniques and in the early postwar period aspired to American quality and technological prowess; Heinrich Nordhoff, VW’s Ford...


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