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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Thinking Small: The Long Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle » User review

An unpretentious vehicle with a checkered past.

  • Apr 7, 2012
When Volkswagen's legendary "Think Small" advertising campaign was launched back in 1959 I was just eight years old. Obviously, I had no idea at the time that the Volkswagen or "people's car" was designed in Germany by the automotive icon Ferdinand Porsche or that the car had once been a pet project of Adolf Hitler. Nor was I even remotely aware that the "Think Small" campaign devised by the legendary advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach was considered revolutionary at the time and would go on to be ranked as the top advertising campaign of all-time by Advertsing Age magazine. Now a bit more than a half century later I was still largely ignorant of most these facts until I came across a copy of Andrea Hiott's interesting and informative new book "Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle". This is a book that reveals the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the history of this storied automobile. I found that I got a whole heck of a lot more than I bargained for in this one.

Throughout the pages of "Thinking Small" author Andrea Hiott weaves the improbable tale of the Volkswagen "beetle" from its conception in the early 1930's and traces the vehicle's development over the next two decades. As a young man Adolf Hitler became enamored with the automobile and its myriad possibilities. He was a huge auto racing fan and as a young man dreamed of the day when Germany might become a truly mobile society. Why, the possibilities were endless. Hitler even speculated what a "people's car" might look like. He once purportedly told Jakob Werlin of Daimler-Benz that "It should look like a beetle" and went on to say "You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining." Pretty perceptive if it's true. But unfortunately for Germany and the rest of the world Hitler's plans for the automobile and the vast network of highways he would soon build would become more sinister as the years went on. During the war years development of the "people's car" ground to a halt and various configurations of Ferdinand Porsche's brainchild would be produced for military purposes.

At the conclusion of World War II Europe in general and Germany in particular were in a total state of disarray. There was an awful lot to sort out. Ferdinand Porsche was asked to continue the design of the Volkswagen in France and to move the factory equipment there as part of war reparations. When other French automakers objected to this arrangement Porsche was arrested by authorities and accused of war crimes. A couple of years later Heinrich Nordhoff was tapped for the top post at Volkswagen. Under his leadership the Volkswagen "beetle" and its companion vehicle "the bus" would become worldwide phenomenons. During the 1950's the "beetle" was a huge success not only in Germany but in nations all over Europe. But Nordhoff recognized that it was essential to the future success of his company that Volkswagen make a splash in the United States. Volkswagen shipped its first vehicle to the U.S. in 1949 but it would be another decade before the aforementioned "Think Small" advertising campaign would make this strange little vehicle all the rage in America. Suddenly those cute little "bugs" were everywhere. They were perfect for housewives, students and those just starting out. Over the final third or so of "Thinking Small" Andrea Hiott introduces us to those amazing men of advertising who had the vision to make it all happen. I found this part of the story to be every bit as compelling as the rest of the book.

To add to your understanding and enjoyment of "Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle" I would heartily recommend that you take to heart the author's suggestion to pay a visit to "YouTube" and to view for yourself some of those early VW commercials produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach. It will help you to discover what all the fuss was about back in 1959. In my opinion "Thinking Small" is a meticulously researched and very well-written book. Like it or not you are going to learn an awful lot. Highly recommended!

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Paul Tognetti ()
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I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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Sometimes achieving big things requires the ability to think small. This simple concept was the driving force that propelled the Volkswagen Beetle to become an avatar of American-style freedom, a household brand, and a global icon. The VW Bug inspired the ad men of Madison Avenue, beguiled Woodstock Nation, and has recently been re-imagined for the hipster generation. And while today it is surely one of the most recognizable cars in the world, few of us know the compelling details of this car’s story. In Thinking Small, journalist and cultural historian Andrea Hiott retraces the improbable journey of this little car that changed the world.

Andrea Hiott’s wide-ranging narrative stretches from the factory floors of Weimar Germany to the executive suites of today’s automotive innovators, showing how a succession of artists and engineers shepherded the Beetle to market through periods of privation and war, reconstruction and recovery. Henry Ford’s Model T may have revolutionized the American auto industry, but for years Europe remained a place where only the elite drove cars. That all changed with the advent of the Volkswagen, the product of a Nazi initiative to bring driving to the masses. But Hitler’s concept of “the people’s car” would soon take on new meaning. As Germany rebuilt from the rubble of World War II, a whole generation succumbed to the charms of the world’s most huggable automobile.

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