Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 4...

Picking up from the previous blog which talked about a post-WWII Europe...a now divided Germany was getting on as best they could. The Volkswagen Beetle went into production before the war. In fact at the request of Adolph Hitler who wanted an inexpensive commuter car for the Germans. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, of the Porsche car company, whose simple and elegant engineering made it the longest-running car from a single design platform in history, easily eclipsing the numbers posted by the Mini. Thankfully the Beetle outlived Hitler by some 58 years and helped demonstrate German automotive resilience on top of exceptional engineering quality.

 The Germans and the rest of the world actually embraced the Beetle. It became a cultural icon. Like the most popular cars the fans could not wait to customize it, tune it up, chop it down and make it their own. It proved to be every bit as durable if not more so than the Mini at races. It could take on any terrain and come back for more. It helped the German populous get back to work and begin rebuilding their nation. Exports of the car helped mend industrial ties with the rest of the world and helped get the economy of the nation rolling once more. Those that drove the car in North America, some of the first environmentalists, saw tremendous benefit in the car. It used less natural resources to produce than a comparable US passenger car. It also used less gas and oil as well. On top of everything it was also an aesthetically pleasing car and could be considered the peaceful Yin to the aggressive muscle car Yang.

The best cars were not only remembered by the home country but also by the rest of the world. Like a classic song or timeless piece of art, a great car transcended borders. It became part of the driving culture wherever the car ended up. It could wind up covered in stickers like an old suitcase, covered in layers of cracking paint or missing body panels and still retain its identity. In the history of cinema few cars could be argued as scene stealers but those that were would live forever in the hearts of movie goers. The original Italian Job featured one of the best getaway sequences ever committed to film. It would never have worked without three tricked out Mini Coopers. The film became part of pop culture and helped influence a generation of artists. Blur used to play the theme song, the Self Preservation Society before many of their concerts. It always went over huge in England.

Then there was the fable that Disney created with a sentient Beetle in the hippie-laden film Herbie the Love Bug. These diminutive rides were as impressive as the gadget-laden cars from James Bond and had more personality as well. They turned out to be the stars of the pictures and helped carve out a place of social and historical importance.

Similar things were happening in Japan with the Subaru 360 and in Italy with the Fiat 500. They were the little cars that could. The underdogs that people could always count on to come through. These little cars were tremendous fighters on the track. It was thrilling to watch them race in early grand prix footage. These cars were also completely accessible and not some sort of expensive luxury brand. The will of the people seemed to turn these small cars into champions. They helped provide distraction from the horrors of war and restored a sense of pride within each nation. It was the little cars and not the big sedans that got the rest of the world moving again. If only the US had come to this realization much sooner then perhaps the Big Three would not have found themselves in dire straits at the start of the recession. So what were some of the lessons that the US missed while the rest of the world had focused on smaller cars? The next blog will explore this question and offer some answers.

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