The Car That Blew the U.S. Market Wide Open

David E. Davis, Jr.
02 David E Davis Jr

They finally stopped building the Volkswagen Beetle. Mexico was the last place on the planet to produce Beetles, and they closed down last summer. The Beetle narrowly missed being the car that would encompass my life, start to finish. If Hitler had expressed his notions of a people's car a couple years earlier, if they had continued to build Beetles a little deeper into this century, the Beetle and I could have shared the stage for eighty years or so, then left together. A historic opportunity missed, alas.

My first Beetle was one of the flashy new 1954 models, distinguished by a vinyl interior, whitewall tires, and shiny trim rings on the wheels. Mine was "Texas brown" with garish red vinyl. I was a VW salesman at the time and purchased the car on the demonstrator plan: no down payment, low monthly payments, and a significant balloon payment at the end of the contract. The sticker price that sticks in my mind is $1640—an astonishing value.

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We sold Volkswagens exactly as generations of missionaries have sold Christianity to unfortunate prospects in territories beyond the reach of cell phones and cable television. Our prospects were young and well educated, most likely those who had decided that Detroit was neither talking to them nor building cars for them. We sold Beetles with a good-humored passion. We took hideous chances demonstrating the supposed benefits of air-cooled rear engines delivering two dozen horsepower through a swing-axle rear suspension. The minute the sale was made, the deal closed, and a hand vigorously shaken, that customer became as big a Beetle booster as we were. We should have paid customers commissions, because they were out there selling the gospel according to Volkswagen just as tirelessly as we were.

In the late summer of 1954, I delivered my friend Bill Rowley to Wacky Arnolt's distributorship in Chicago to take delivery of a new MG TF 1250. I selected a clean 1953 Beetle from among our used cars, and Bill and I set off for Chicago in the early morning hours. By mid-morning, we were in the Arnolt emporium, admiring Arnolt Bristols and Arnolt MGs and—away in a corner—an immaculate cycle-fender Nardi 1100-cc sports car, a brand-new car built in 1951 that somehow never found a buyer. God, what we would pay for that Nardi today!

Bill signed the papers and headed for home. I headed for Marshall, Michigan, where I knew a wonderful girl who worked as a hostess at Schuler's restaurant. She got off work at ten o'clock, and by the time we'd had a couple of drinks, done the amenities, then happily grappled with each other for a couple of hours, it was two in the morning. She waved good-bye from her front stoop, loosely wrapped in something like a curtain, while I tried to convince myself that there was nothing stupid about getting back on the road to arrive at work on time in the morning.

Twenty minutes later, I motored into Albion, Michigan, asleep at the wheel, and my Beetle, rolling along at undiminished speed a few inches from the curb, made contact with the back end of an almost-new 1954 Buick Roadmaster sedan and just flat totaled that sucker. The Beetle was not as badly damaged as the Buick, although I had suffered three broken ribs and a broken nose. When I awoke, I was in a hospital room with a very well-turned-out Michigan state trooper seated at the foot of my bed. He watched me struggle to figure out what had happened to me, then said, "When you feel like it, I'm supposed to take you to the justice of the peace." It briefly crossed my mind that I might never feel like it, but I finally set that thought aside, washed up, and pulled on the previous night's desperate-looking clothing.

When we appeared before the justice of the peace, he was the scariest-looking old coot I had ever laid eyes on. The surfaces of his eyeballs seemed to be dried and wrinkled, and he peered at me like some dreadful old raptor as he charged me with reckless driving. I was quick to defend myself, arguing passionately that I was actually driving with great prudence, hoping to find a motel room somewhere along the Detroit-Chicago road before I left the Albion city limits. He fixed those awful eyes on me and intoned, "Young man, anyone who attempts to operate a motor vehicle upon the highways of the state of Michigan, while sleeping, is driving recklessly!" He threw the book at me, and I subsequently lost my license. We stripped the wrecked Beetle and rolled the body into the Huron River behind the dealership, where it became ideal marine habitat. My boss used its highly questionable title to secure my bail.

The VW Beetle was in many ways the most important car of the twentieth century. It was the smart-aleck voice of common sense, telling America's automotive establishment that they were all barking up the wrong tree. It held the door to the American market open for the Japanese manufacturers, and I'll bet Hitler didn't have the foggiest clue what he'd unleashed. Even a blind hog finds an acorn sometimes.

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