The Volkswagen Beetle has captured drivers’ imaginations since Hitler presented Frederick Porsche’s first prototype in 1938. Though born during the Third Reich, the Beetle managed to shed its past and in the process become a multinational icon. The casual reader may pick up Bernard Rieger’s The People’s Car and expect to find this triumphant retelling of the history of the Beetle. However, Rieger’s work offers so much more. This book is a well-researched, complex analysis of the interplay between economics, social trends, and cultural processes that gave rise to and shaped globalization and our modern consumer culture.
Rieger begins with a useful comparison between the thriving automobile culture in the United States and the lack of widespread automobility in Germany in the years prior to World War II. The Nazis would lay the foundation for the “People’s Car.” The second chapter provides a nuanced look at how Hitler, a consistent admirer of Henry Ford, envisioned a high-quality, low-cost automobile as a means of acting out his political philosophy on the roads of Germany. Frederick Porsche, an astute engineer with little regard for economics, provided Hitler with the blueprints. However, World War II intervened, diverting resources and bringing the brutality of forced labor to the factory, tainting the image of the “People’s Car.” The end of the war left the future of widespread motorization in question. However, as chapter three recounts, the British found the factory useful as the Cold War made the economic viability of West Germany an international concern. [End Page 162]
Moving into the 1950s, chapter four details how the omnipresence of the Volkswagen in West Germany helped the new nation develop an identity. The Federal Republic pointed to the success of the Volkswagen as a sign of economic recovery and triumph over National Socialism. Chapter five compares and contrasts the reception of the Volkswagen abroad, specifically in Great Britain and the United States. While the vehicle received a lukewarm reception in Great Britain, a large number of Americans flocked to the radically different vehicle. The Beetle seemed like an antidote to the oversized monsters Detroit produced and a perfect symbol of the counterculture. Repeatedly, the Beetle proved adaptable to numerous contexts.
By the late 1960s, the fortunes of the Volkswagen shifted as a global economic downturn, competition from the Japanese, and expanding regulation, especially in the United States, hurt sales. Chapter six details how the company responded, ending with the decision to stop production of the Beetle in the United States and West Germany.
The Beetle did not disappear, though, largely because production continued in Mexico. Chapter seven explores how Mexicans transformed the Beetle into a Mexican vehicle. And finally, chapter nine details how, in the 1990s, Volkswagen management made a remarkable decision to design a new car based on nostalgia. While the new Beetle resembled the old one only in appearance, it proved to be yet another marketing success by capitalizing on the multiple meanings surrounding the Beetle.
The People’s Car demonstrates how cultural history can provide an anchor for weaving together different historical methodologies to construct a complex picture of the past. Rieger’s book is an enjoyable read, packed with excellent stories and data, too many to include in such a short review, yet written in a very accessible manner. Rieger excels in painting an intricate picture of the interplay between economic, social, and cultural forces and doing so in a grounded way. The People’s Car will be a benefit to both researchers and undergraduates alike. [End Page 163]
Amy Gangloff is an associate professor of history at Lindenwood University in Belleville, Illinois. She is currently working on her book manuscript, “Safety Optional: Automobiles, Public Health, and the Search for Safe Mobility.”