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TV REVIEW : Volkswagen Documentary Tonight on KCET

June 28, 1989|CHARLES SOLOMON

Short, squat and decidedly unlovely, the VW "Beetle" seems an unlikely candidate for the titles of most widely produced car (more than 20 million), model longest in production and "linchpin of Nazi propaganda." "Volkwagen Beetle," an installment in the "Design Classics" series airing on KCET Channel 28 at 10:30 tonight, blends interviews, archival footage and early print material to explain the curious origins of the phenomenally popular "Bug."

Ferdinand Porsche's original design for the Volkswagen (or "People's Car") was considered impractical in 1932 because it included such innovative features as an air-cooled, rear-mounted engine and an aerodynamically designed body. But the idea of an inexpensive popular car fit in with Adolf Hitler's plans for Autobahnen , full employment and prosperity.

However, soon after production started, the output of Hitler's model auto factory had to be diverted to military uses. The occupying British and American forces put the VW back into production in an effort to solve the critical transportation shortage after the war.

The small, rounded shape of the Bug contrasted sharply with the big, box-like American cars of the '50s and '60s. A series of brilliant campaigns by the Doyle, Dane Bernbach advertising agency played up that contrast and created the image of the Volkswagen as a reliable, ugly and beloved member of the family, an image it still retains despite having passed out of mass production.

Penny Sparke, senior tutor at the Royal College of Art in Britain, says in the documentary that it is the simplicity of the Volkswagen that makes it a classic. "Nothing extra has been added to its function: It works as a basic machine and allows you to read into it whatever you want."

Some owners don't read anything into it beyond transportation: My '74 has almost 130,000 miles on it. . . .

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