How Hitler's Volkswagen Beetle Conquered America

Helmut Krone left for vacation a very depressed man. A celebrated art director at the advertising firm of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) since 1954, Krone had just been tasked with heading a campaign for the Volkswagen, an unusual little automobile with modest sales and a sordid history. Taking notice of the first models to roll off the assembly lines in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1938, The New York Times referred to it as a “beetle.”  

Less admiringly, they also called it “baby Hitler.”

The compact car was a product of Adolf Hitler’s wish for an affordable vehicle that would help ease Germany’s families into a future full of autobahns and technological innovation. He enlisted Ferdinand Porsche to design it. By 1938, a working model was ready. By 1939, the Wolfsburg factory was turned over to the military for wartime needs. Manufacturing for the Volkswagen (or “People’s Car”) went on hiatus.

After the war, British forces supervised the car's renewed production at the plant they now controlled. Germans consumers loved the Beetle, which became so pervasive that, by the 1950s, they made up a third of all cars on the road.

Krone knew the market in America would be a different story. Exactly two Beetles had been sold in 1949, the first year the car was available in the States. By the time the account came to his ad agency in 1959, it had yet to make a dent in an auto market dominated by hulking vehicles and domestic manufacturers. It was small, odd, and had a heritage uncomfortably aligned with the Nazi regime. 

Working with Bernbach and copywriter Julian Koenig, Krone conceptualized three print ads, sighed, and left for the Virgin Islands to clear his head. When he returned two weeks later, he was Madison Avenue’s biggest star. The Beetle would shortly become an iconic symbol of 1960s counterculture, embraced by a demographic that was exactly the opposite of Hitler's homogenized ideal.

To make that impossible sale to the American public, Bernbach and his men had to first accomplish one thing: reinvent advertising.

Bernbach had always taken a unique view of the ad world. In the decades leading up to the 1950s, campaigns for consumer products were often stilted, relying heavily on illustrations and facts to send direct messages. There was little attention given to creativity, with executives steering concepts based on market research.

At DDB, Bernbach encouraged writers and art directors to collaborate rather than try to make art fit copy (or vice versa) after the fact. He embraced simplicity and charm rather than dry recitations of product features or endorsements. His famous 1950s ads for Ohrbach’s retail stores were some of the first to tease readers by leading with negativity: in one, a sorrowful-looking dog explains he "hates" the store because his owner is always shopping there.  

Bernbach’s irreverent style caught the attention of Carl Hahn Jr., the president of Volkswagen America. His division had been allotted $800,000 to mount a major campaign in the States. While Detroit automakers dominated the industry, Hahn thought the Beetle—a car costing less than $2000 and known in other countries as the Flea, Mouse or Turtle—was so bizarre-looking it would prove disruptive. He wasn’t introducing another heavily-muscled American car: this was something almost abstract. It was distinctive enough to draw attention.  

Hahn found a captive audience in Bernbach, who was eager to apply his unconventional methods to something as mainstream as the automotive market. Bernbach’s employees, however, weren’t so receptive. According to George Lois, a design director for DDB, Bernbach’s announcement in 1959 that they’d be taking on Volkswagen was met with irritation. World War II was a fresh wound, and Lois had no desire to promote what he called a “Nazi car.”

It was the Third Reich’s Kraft durch Fruede (Strength Through Joy) "leisure" division that had overseen Hitler’s wish for Germans to enjoy their free time on the coming autobahns. The Wolfsburg factory where the cars were made, however, was hardly a picnic. Slave labor was utilized; female workers who gave birth saw their children sent off to orphanages. To say the Beetle had baggage was an understatement.

But Bernbach couldn’t be dissuaded. He told Lois they’d work on Volkswagen for a year as a public audition in the hopes of securing a bigger account like General Motors. DDB was a tiny agency that needed to make waves.

Bernbach then pulled Krone into the mix. Born in Germany and raised in New York, he had one crucial asset: he was one of the few Americans who had actually bought a Volkswagen and had an understanding of it. The agency also enlisted the copywriter Koenig to come up with something that would capture the eye in the Bernbach tradition: minimalist and witty.

Out of Bernbach’s lighthearted atmosphere came the solution to being saddled with the Beetle’s goofy looks: make fun of it before anyone else could. Brainstorming, Koenig wrote the phrase “think small.” DDB employee Rita Selden came up with a single word to compel magazine-flipping readers to stop: “lemon.”

Krone was initially resistant to the self-deprecating approach. He felt a car so foreign in design needed to be covered with a metaphorical coat of paint to hide its origins. But Bernbach pushed back: the humor was needed. When Koenig dropped “Think Small” on the table, Krone used white space to miniaturize the car even further.

Krone decided to use a specific template, "Layout A," that consisted of two-thirds image, one-third copy, and a bold headline stuck in the middle of the two. While not new to advertising, it was a fresh approach in auto marketing. Most of the Volkswagen ads to come out of the campaign adhered to the format, which also mandated three blocks of text. Unlike most recurring ad series of the era, Bernbach opted not to have a slogan. Instead, the “VW” logo appeared as their way of branding.

Krone and Koenig’s early efforts with “Layout A” were nothing short of revolutionary. Car marketing at the time was almost interchangeable; Volkswagen’s had both a distinctive presentation—one that Krone believed could be identified from up to 30 feet away—and a winking approach to their inventory. The ads often acknowledged how absurd the Beetle looked with its rear-mounted engine and highlighted its shortcomings: there was no air conditioning, it was small, and it was slow.

Once hooked, the ads would go on to explain why a perceived weakness was actually a positive. Calling one a “lemon” drew attention to the fact that the company had a full-time inspector for each car that rolled off the lines. Small? Sure, the car was small. But it was also a gas-sipper. Other ads, in turn, called it a “joke,” implored readers to not laugh at it, and mentioned it was easy to push in case you ran out of gas. DDB even enlisted Wilt Chamberlain to demonstrate that the car was too compact for anyone over seven feet tall. it was one of the few celebrity endorsements for which the star had no use for the product.

Bernbach’s instincts couldn’t have been more on point. The culture of the 1960s was being created and informed by iconoclasts that were suspicious of conventional advertising techniques. Baby boomers growing into jobs were also distancing themselves from their parents—and by extension, their parents’ boat-sized sedans. The Beetle was everything the establishment wasn’t: trendy, exciting, and aesthetically daring. Bernbach’s ads captured its appeal perfectly. Krone was happy to be proven wrong.

By 1972, the Volkswagen Beetle had accomplished the impossible. With 15 million units produced, it had outpaced Ford’s Model T to become the most ubiquitous vehicle ever made. Sales had climbed from two in 1949 to 570,000 in 1970. Surfers and hippies piled in. Hitler’s car had successfully escaped its bleak history to become something almost huggable.

Its effect on advertising as a whole was even greater. DBB grew from $25 million in billings to $270 million annually by the end of the 1960s; Bernbach’s humor and stylized sales pitches became commonplace in everything from Avis (the number-two car rental company that promised to “try harder”) to Life cereal’s hard-to-please Mikey. Products began to have character, and agencies were now given more permission to exert creative control over ads instead of being forced to color inside the lines of company marketing departments. Advertising had become self-aware.

By the time Bernbach died in 1982, he was already considered the most important man in advertising. His stature hasn’t changed. Ad Age, considered the mainstay publication of the industry, voted the Beetle campaign the best of the century.

After spending 30 years at DDB, Krone passed away at age 70 in 1996. Koenig died in 2014 after some extended sparring sessions with Lois, who Koenig alleged took too much credit for work done at the agency—though Koenig was fond of tall tales himself, like insisting he invented thumb wrestling in 1936. (Koenig was also name-dropped on Mad Men, a show Lois despises for its depiction of 1960s office behavior.)

The Beetle did not go on to have as steady a career as the men who sold it to America. After the Toyota Corolla emerged as a promising alternative in 1968, sales began to plummet. By 1990, Volkswagen had just one percent of the U.S. auto market, down from five percent in 1970.    

It wasn’t until the Beetle was reintroduced in 1998 that the company saw a reversal of fortunes. Capitalizing on nostalgia—the boomers were now middle-aged—and a relaxed car market, Volkswagen had to issue waiting lists for the vehicle.  

Cars continue to be manufactured in Wolfsburg, Germany, a frequent European tourist destination. Volkwagen’s beginnings had always been a bit of an open secret, but due in large part to the disarming nature of Bernbach’s house style, the Beetle was never demonized in the way it could have been. While the Third Reich nudged the car into existence, it was the labor and imagination of others who later brought it notoriety. Hitler, after all, never even had a driver’s license.

Additional Sources:
Getting the Bugs Out: The Rise, Fall, and Comeback of Volkswagen in America; Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle.

18 Surprising Things Stolen From Libraries

The 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France was stolen from the Boston Public Library.
The 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France was stolen from the Boston Public Library.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s no secret that library books disappear. Many are misshelved and eventually resurface. Others are lost by library users, and some are borrowed and kept long after their return date. In many cases, the borrower pays the corresponding fine—just ask Emily Canellos-Simms, who returned a book to the Kewanee Public Library in Illinois a full 47 years late, at a cost of $345.14.

Then there’s theft, a common problem for libraries both big and small. In some of the most costly cases, these thefts are carried out by dedicated “tome raiders” who target rare books, maps, and documents, normally to sell to collectors. But it’s not always books that go missing: In recent decades, everything from presidential rocking chairs to swords and skeletons have been stolen from libraries across the world.

1. Alan Turing’s Order of the British Empire and other memorabilia

When Julia Schinghomes visited Alan Turing’s former school in Dorset, England, in 1984, she quietly walked out with an entire collection of artifacts Turing's mother had donated to the library. Bizarrely, the woman later wrote to the library to express her joy at having the items in her possession before returning some pieces by mail. But she held on to Turing’s OBE medal, his diploma from Princeton, school report cards, and a letter from King George VI. In 2018, the same woman offered the items to the University of Colorado, but under a different name: Julia Turing. She claimed to be related to the mathematician, but it’s believed she was just a Turing-obsessed superfan. The Department of Homeland Security confiscated the items, and there's now a lawsuit to have them officially forfeited to the U.S. government.

2. A 400-year-old Geneva bible

People working at desks inside a library
The interior of the main branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

A Geneva Bible, published in 1615, was one of the rarest books to disappear from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library during one of the largest library heists ever recorded. The pilfering, which took place over two decades, was allegedly an inside job. So far 40 books have been recovered, including the bible. It was sold to the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum in the Netherlands for $1200 and returned to Pittsburgh when the museum’s owners realized it had been stolen.

3. President Harry S. Truman’s diamond-studded swords and daggers

In 1978, thieves broke into the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri—but they weren’t looking for books. Their target was a case in the lobby that contained swords, scabbards, and daggers gifted to Truman by Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Saud and the Shah of Iran. The weapons, which were variously decorated with gold, diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, had a combined value of more than $1 million. The robbery took less than a minute and the items have never been recovered.

4. A copy of Columbus’s first letter from the New World

In 1875, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, Italy, acquired a Latin copy of the first letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Ferdinand, King of Spain, describing his discoveries in the Americas. The letter, known as the Plannck I edition, was stolen from the library between 1985 and 1988. It disappeared without a trace, until, in May 2003, a collector unwittingly purchased the letter from a rare book dealer in the United States. He was tracked down by investigators, and the copy was examined and found to be the genuine Plannck I. The owner agreed to turn the document over, which must have been a crushing blow, considering its estimated market value of $1.3 million.

5. A “holey dollar” and other rare coins

An Australian "holey dollar" against a white background
A single "holey dollar" is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 AU

When a thief broke into an armored glass display case in the State Library of New South Wales, he managed to make off with 12 Australian coins with a total value of almost $1 million AUD ($660,995.00 USD). The earliest and by far the most expensive coin was a “holey dollar,” the first currency minted in Australia. Only around 300 holey dollars are known to exist today. The stolen coins were never recovered.

6. President John F. Kennedy’s rocking chair

After the death of John F. Kennedy, his family entrusted Kennedy’s longtime personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, with the safekeeping of his personal effects. Lincoln was tasked with gathering together all the items while Kennedy’s family decided which to keep and which to donate to the Kennedy Library. Lincoln, however, decided to hold onto many of the pieces, including Kennedy’s rocking chair from the Oval Office, eventually giving them away or selling them. It was not until 2003 that the National Archives and Records Administration managed to reacquire many of the objects.

7. A copy of Ukraine’s oldest printed book

In 2017, a copy of the Apostolos, the first book printed in modern-day Ukraine, went missing from Ukraine’s National Conservation Center. At the same time, an artist working on the book’s restoration also went missing, prompting an ongoing search for both the book and the man. The man’s wife later phoned the library, promising her husband would return to explain everything. He never did. It wasn't the first time a version of the 16th-century tome disappeared. Another copy of the Apostolos, valued at around $150,000, went missing the year before, stolen from the Vernadsky National Library by a man claiming to be a supervisory authority.

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s official portrait and inaugural address

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York, has been the scene of two notable disappearances. In 2004, the library’s director realized a 5-foot-by-4-foot portrait of FDR had mysteriously disappeared. Apparently the painting had been left in a shipping crate upon its return from a loan at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was never seen again, and was either stolen from the crate or accidentally thrown away. Later, in 2011, two men were arrested in the library while trying to steal documents. The FBI raided the apartment of one of the men, where they found 10,000 stolen items, including seven copies of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address, all previously stolen from his presidential library.

9. A 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France

Before his arrest and conviction in 2006, the notorious American art thief Forbes Smiley had stolen at least 97 rare maps valued at more than $3 million. One of his favorite haunts was the Boston Public Library, whose map collection was a relatively easy target for Smiley. One map that went missing from the library was the 17th-century Samuel de Champlain map of New France, which details an area stretching from current day Maine to Quebec and Newfoundland. Smiley never admitted to stealing the map, but he was the last person to view it, according to library records.

10. A fiberglass skeleton was stolen from an Australian city library.

In 2017, the Adelaide City Library was hosting a traveling exhibition by the Australian Orthopaedic Association. It’s fair to say no one was expecting a heist. However, the exhibition was infiltrated by a group of three men pretending to be council workers. Their target, for reasons unknown, was a fiberglass skeleton with a street value of about $300 USD. The men were caught on CCTV cameras casually walking out of the library and then boarding a bus, accompanied by the skeleton. No one was ever arrested for the crime.

11. Lyndon B. Johnson’s class ring

Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech to the Coast Guard Academy’s graduating class of 1964. As a thank you, the Academy presented LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson with customized class rings made of 14-carat gold with yellow sapphire settings. The president's ring was gifted to the LBJ Presidential Library in 1970, but disappeared in 1989 during library renovations. To this day, no one knows if the ring was stolen or simply misplaced during the remodeling.

12. The Well of the Scribes sculpture

Exterior of the Los Angeles Central Library entrance
The Los Angeles Central Library has been without the Well of the Scribes since 1969..
Karen, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1969, the Los Angeles Central Library demolished its entire West Lawn to make room for more parking space. One of the main features of the lawn was the Well of the Scribes, a bronze sculptural basin weighing more than 3000 pounds. During the renovations, it somehow disappeared. Fifty years later, the city librarian received a call from an antique store owner in Arizona, who claimed to have in his possession a panel from the Well of the Scribes. It checked out. The man had purchased the piece—one of three panels from the sculpture—10 years previously for $500, from a woman who had kept it in her garden. It was returned to the library, and the search for the other two panels continues.

13. A Boer War veteran's diaries and possessions

The South Australian State Library was once home to Boer War artifacts belonging to an Australian soldier and ornithologist named Captain Samuel Albert White. The items included diaries, letters, photographs, uniform badges, a fob watch, and a compass, which together formed a compelling history of Captain White’s experiences. In 2015, the library informed the police that the entire collection was missing. But this was no smash and grab theft: The collection had been housed in a non-public storage area, raising suspicions of an inside job. So far, the artifacts have not been recovered.

14. A 15th-century register of blacksmiths' statutes

The Biblioteca Passerini-Landi in Piacenza, Italy, is yet more proof that renovations are a prime time for thievery. While the library was undergoing repairs in 1985, 145 rare volumes were stolen, including a priceless manuscript called Matricula et statuta paratici fabrorum ferrariorum, which documents the economic exchange and work of blacksmiths in Piacenza in the 15th century. The Carabinieri art squad, which had been trying to track down the book for decades, eventually found it on an internet auction site for the measly sum of 600 euros, far less than its actual value. It was returned to the library.

15. The first Prime Minister of India's gold dagger

A black and white headshot of Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru served as Prime Minister of India from 1947 to 1964.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, died in 1964, many of the gifts he had received from visiting dignitaries were given to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi. One such item was a janbiya, a gold dagger with a short curved blade, presented to Nehru by the King of Saudi Arabia. In 2016, library staff discovered a display case containing the dagger, as well as a precious ivory box and a scroll container, had been broken. Only the dagger had been removed. Two of the museum’s sanitation workers were eventually arrested. They pleaded guilty and admitted to stealing the dagger as a means to pay off their debts.

16. Rare LDS books and an original portrait of Porter Rockwell

In 2018, the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, was the target of a self-proclaimed Latter-day Saints antiquities dealer. The culprit, Kevin Mark Ronald Schuwer, checked out eight books valued at $300 each, having first switched the barcodes with other tomes. He also stole an original photo of Porter Rockwell, a Wild West lawman known as “The Destroying Angel of Mormondom,” which he replaced with a fake copy to avoid detection. Schuwer’s scheme eventually fell apart after he sold the items to collectors, partly because the books had markings that showed they belonged to the university.

17. Rare medical books

When books began disappearing from the Moody Medical Library in 1989, suspicion soon fell upon Emil Frey, the head librarian at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where the library is located. During the course of the year, some 80 books had vanished from the 12,000-volume rare book collection. Frey was only charged for five of the missing books, which were valued between $750 and $20,000.

18. Individual pages from ancient books

In 2009, a millionaire named Farhad Hakimzadeh was found guilty of stealing individual pages from ancient books from both the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Using a scalpel, he carefully stripped out pages from 16th- and 17th-century tomes, including a 500-year-old map painted by Henry Vlll’s court artist. When suspicion fell on Hakimzadeh, investigators found that of the 842 volumes he had requested, 112 had been mutilated. Police raided his flat in London and found more than 100 pages from the ancient books, some with intriguing titles such as Unheard-of Curiosities and A History of Monsters. Hakimzadeh claimed his obsessive-compulsive bibliomania drove him to remove the pages to complete his own vast collection, even telling the court that on his wedding night he left his bed to go polish his books. The court was unsympathetic and sentenced him to two years in prison.

Secret Doorway Discovered in London’s House of Commons

Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
Historian Liz Hallam Smith shows off the a-door-able opening in the wall of Westminster Hall.
ITV News, YouTube

Earlier this week, England’s Parliament announced that a secret door had been discovered in the walls of Westminster Hall.

BBC News reports that the 360-year-old passageway, located in the cloister on Westminster Hall’s west side, opens into a small chamber that would have led right to Westminster Hall if the other entry hadn’t been sealed. There are still traces of that entryway inside the passage, though, which include the original hinges for two wooden doors that would’ve been just under 11.5 feet tall.

Liz Hallam Smith, a University of York historical consultant for Parliament, explained that she and her team had been sifting through 10,000 uncatalogued documents about the Palace of Westminster when they uncovered old plans for the doorway, which they then located in person.

“As we looked at the paneling closely, we realized there was a tiny brass keyhole that no one had really noticed before, believing it might just be an electricity cupboard,” Smith said in a statement.

After several attempts, the Parliamentary locksmith managed to design a key that unlocked the door, revealing the long-forgotten passageway. Dendrochronologists analyzed wood from the ceiling and determined that the trees had been cut down in 1659, which tracked with historical accounts of the construction having occurred between 1660 and 1661 for the coronation banquet of Charles II.

According to Parliament’s statement, the passageway was used for coronations, Speaker’s processions—in which the Sergeant at Arms escorts the Speaker of the House of Commons from his apartments in the palace to the Commons chamber—and shortcuts by members of Parliament.

It hasn’t been used for decades, but it’s not completely empty: There’s a light switch and a working light bulb that historians believe was installed during renovations after World War II, and there’s also some cheeky “graffiti” from about 100 years before then. Bricklayers who restored the room in the years after the fire of 1834 scrawled “This room was enclosed by Tom Porter who was very fond of Ould Ale” and “These masons were employed refacing the groines [sic] August 11th 1851 Real Democrats” on its walls.

“The mystery of the secret doorway is one we have enjoyed discovering,” Mark Collins, a Parliament estates historian who helped find the passage, said in the statement. “But the palace no doubt still has many more secrets to give up.”

[h/t BBC News]

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