The cultural biography of the Volkswagen

In this paper I intend to introduce to the reader, the aims and objectives which will hopefully set the foundations to the arguments which will be raised in, the cultural biography of the Volkswagen. I shall be predominantly observing the Volkswagen beetle in my research, although, parallels will be drawn by also including the Volkswagen combi which I believe will help demonstrate and strengthen my overall approach.

We need to understand that the beetle is primarily an object which has been produced for a specific function to be consumed as a commodity and therefore has an exchange value associated with it, albeit on a varying scale depending n its cultural status at the time. The meaning of this consumer item will be looked at in depth and about the place this thing and its meanings have within society. This is an interesting aspect as the beetles cultural status and exchange value have fluctuated along its historical timeline.

The question of meaning raises numerous questions which will be largely presented through a discussion of semiotics about the relations between needs and objects, nature and culture, meaning and social usage. In producing a biography of a thing, ie. the Volkswagen beetle \ combi we need o approach it in a way similar to that of composing a biography of a person. We need to ask questions such as, where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such a thing?

What are the recognized “ages or periods in the things “life “,and what are the cultural markers for them? How does the things use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness. Today the beetle, for most people has lost its status as a purely functional object and has changed into an object full of signs and myths that allude to a ay of life giving the vehicle a certain status within society. We shall be looking at questions such as who and why would somebody buy a Volkswagen and what it says about them.

And we shall be raising issues like form over function and when this becomes apparent. when we look in a historical context of where the beetle came from it is interesting to note that it came from Hitlers idea of producing a vehicle for the masses. Volkswagen when translated, becomes “folks wagon” or peoples car and it is significant that a car that was designed for the masses to unify and subordinate them into conformity would later on become an expression of ndividuality and a symbol of freedom and rebellion.

Hitler wanted to bring to the German people the same freedom of mobility enjoyed by Henry Ford’s millions of American car owners: hence the term volkswagen or people’s car. The first production model in 1937 was powered by an air-cooled engine with the characteristic aerodynamically efficient beetle shape which added to the little car’s 40 miles per gallon fuel economy. After WWII production resumed and the first beetles reached the U. S. and europe in 1949.

By the mid 1990’s over 22 million of the original design had been produced. The car was affordable transportation for the masses. With its original purchase price of $200 the VW was, like Ford’s Model-T, quite literally “the People’s car”. What made it inexpensive to produce was its obvious small size. What made it also inexpensive to maintain was the high mileage, air-cooled engine. The conventional water cooled engine requires the additional weight, expense and maintenance of pump, hoses and radiator.

With minimal changes over the years in body shape or internal structure, the car was endlessly repairable since parts remained more or less the same, and VW could therefore apitalize on the long life of its production tooling. In a sense the VW was a modernist statement which rejected any frills or decoration that might be superfluous to the car’s basic function. It demonstrated good workmanship throughout. The basic reliable and easy to maintain engine was purely functional as was the total design of the car. Even six foot tall drivers found plenty of head room in the tiny interior. Beetle Social Factors.

By rejecting the American ethos of both the planned obsolescence through annual model changes and also the excesses of conspicuous consumption, the homely bug came to represent a 60’s counter culture . It was indeed the “people’s car” by providing on an international scale affordable transportation for low income earners. Moreover, the bug was practical in its simplicity, small size, and durability which endeared it to its loving public. Interestingly Volkswagen’s advertising was one of the first instances of a major corporation setting out to market a technology on the basis of its social virtues.

By informing the public of its environmental green-ness ie small efficient engine equals less fuel intake, Volkswagen was already one step ahead of its competitors during the mid 70s oil crisis. It became the antithesis of the big, flashy American car. This little economic car was the best-selling car in automotive history. A truly international phenomenon, the German Volkswagen’s efficiency, ease of driving, and simple design provided millions with basic, cheap, and reliable transportation.

It’s easily recognizable shape dotted the landscape from New York to Paris to Berlin and beyond, and became an icon for a generation in the 1960s and 1970s. when you choose to purchase a Volkswagen you are immediately making a statement about yourself and the lifestyle you aspire towards. Choice also eflects values. The person who drives a tomato red 1971 Volkswagen until rust leaves nothing for the floorboards to cling to is making a statement about how she wants to spend her money and what she cares about.

We say, That dress isnt me or Im not a cat person. In choosing, you indicate what matters to you and how you perceive yourself. Looking at it from barthes perspective, we could say that, we are not just purchasing the aspirational lifestyle but we are buying into the myth. This myth has constantly changed along the Volkswagen historical timeline. To the German public in 1939, the Volkswagen epresented and reflected the Nazi ideals of conformity and equality and the myth was that this car could unify the people through mass production at an economical price. et, today we can see that the beetle is a personal statement purporting the myth that the car is a signifier of freedom and individuality.

We need to investigate what this signifier means and how and why the meaning can change. It will be interesting to discover why people today continue to buy used Volkswagens and why is there such a devoted following. Today the beetle, when we compare it to other vehicles, lacks even asic comforts such as heating, gives very poor crash protection, is uneconomical to run and maintain yet is loved and cherished by millions of owners worldwide.

We shall look at surveys of Volkswagen owners to decide what it is about the car that makes it so unique. Why is the Volkswagen considered to be fun, practical, reliable and full of charm and character? How does this myth become established? Do people by the car so as to obtain a certain lifestyle? So that they can be perceived as being fun, quirky and individual? and how it has come to attain a cult- like status whereby the meaning or sign of the ar has been superseded by its own myth.

Finally, I shall be concluding the cultural biography of Volkswagen, with a personal reference, detailing my own experiences with a Volkswagen combi traveling 25,000 miles around Australia living in the vehicle over a one year period. What My perceived expectations were and how they changed the longer the relationship between myself and the vehicle lasted. I shall be describing how the vehicle can obtain a character either through innate design or personal interactions and its own in-built idiosyncratic attributes. Was a vehicle part of the lifestyle or was the lifestyle part of the vehicle?

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