Who’s owned a Volkswagen Beetle? Chances are you have. And even if you haven’t, you’ve probably been in one, or seen one. After all, with over 21 million lovable bugs made between 1938 and 2003 – not including the later ‘New Beetle’ – how could you have missed this automotive icon? So what, as an automotive copywriter and watch industry writer, prompted me to look at the VW Beetle for this article? Fittingly enough, it was stumbling across some Beetle-inspired watches that got me thinking about the VW Beetle story…
Search for ‘VW Beetle and watches’ or something similar, and you’ll soon find horological links. There are the ‘100,000 km’ presentation watches made by the likes of Junghans, Stowa, Elgin, Ralco and, in the case of one particular gold-cased ‘Wolfsburg’ watch, Fabrique d'Horlogerie de Fontainemelon (FHF).
Tucked away among Volkswagen’s promotional product there are plenty of VW and GTI-branded watches too. And then there’s the VW Beetle Watch Series from Germany’s Bavarian Crono with its Swiss-made Ronda quartz and ETA mechanical movements. Each watch is themed around a VW Beetle’s iconic round speedometer dial. Or key dates and milestone models in VW Beetle history. Without doubt, this is love-it-or-hate-it watch design. They’re ‘Marmite’ timepieces that watch enthusiasts either adore instinctively or dismiss as an unwearable joke. After all, what serious watch fan would wear a VW speedometer on their wrist?
To understand the significance of these watches and the Volkswagen Beetle history that inspired them, let’s go back to the 1930s. Back to the rise of Germany’s far-right National Socialists just after the launch of Glasshütte’s Uhrenroh-Werke-Fabrik (Urofa) ‘Tutima’. It was the first wristwatch produced entirely in Germany and Glasshütte’s last before WW II. It was the time when Adolf Hitler commissioned the first version of the now-iconic Ferdinand Porsche-designed Volkswagen. And it was when the now-legendary, rear-engine Type 1 VW was born perfectly formed for the aerodynamic age of streamlining.
This was Hitler’s people's car, the ‘Kraft durch Freude (KdF) Wagen or ‘Strength through Joy car'. The Volkswagen, a new automotive vision for Germans to drive on the Führer’s autobahn network, was launched at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show.
In 1938, as Hitler’s Reichsluftministerium commissioned the Lange & Söhne, Stowa, Wempe, IWC and Laco Fliegeruhren we revere, construction of a massive Volkswagenwerk factory began at Fallersleben, Lower Saxony to build the first VW Type 1 – the car we've now come to know as 'The VW Beetle'.
Series production of the KdF Wagen seemed assured. But, no sooner had production started, World War II halted civilian car assembly. Only a few prominent party members got their VWs. None of nearly 200,000 ordinary Germans who’d saved KdF sparkarten (savings stamps) for cars ever took delivery. Before they could, manufacturing switched to the military Kübelwagen (VW Type 82) and Schwimmwagen.
Like those iconic pilots’ watches, the neonate VW had to go to war. And it did so from a factory that soon made other deadly hardware for the Nazi war effort, including Junkers bomber wings and V-1 ‘Maikäfer’ (Maybug) flying bombs.
With the end of WW II came the new West Germany’s four-way division by the Allies. The badly bomb-damaged KdF factory in Hitler’s ‘Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben’ came under British control. Hitler’s grandiose vision for a people’s car, it seemed, had died with him.
During its long life, a few names became inextricably linked with Volkswagen. During gestation and birth it was Hitler and Porsche. Then, in the late 1950s and 1960s, Bill Bernbach and New York advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) would become forever associated with VW’s Beetle. That was when they transformed its fortunes with ground-breaking advertising that Advertising Age later named as the twentieth-century’s best advertising campaign.
However, back in 1946, it was Major Ivan Hirst, senior resident officer of the British Military Government in Germany, who became, as VW said in a 2016 press release, ‘ground-breaker for the Wirtschaftswunder at Volkswagen’.
Volkswagen was unarguably a bellwether for Germany’s 1950s economic miracle. It was also a golden age of watchmaking as German watchmakers tried to catch up with a Swiss industry that hadn’t suffered wartime devastation. It was the time of ground-breaking timepieces such as Rolex’s Submariner Ref. 6204 (1953) and Breitling’s first Ref. 806 Navitimer chronograph.
Volkswagen’s Fallersleben factory was so badly bomb-damaged during the war that VW’s story could easily have ended there and then. But when he assessed its condition in 1945, Hirst discovered that many machines and tools remained usable. Furthermore, Allied occupation forces urgently needed personal transport and thousands of former German prisoners of war presented a work-ready labour force. The British Army ordered 20,000 cars. What we now know as the Volkswagen Beetle, with its ‘pretzel’ rear window, torsion bar rear and front suspension, 6-volt electrical system and ‘doodlebug’ engine note, got its lifesaving second wind.
By late 1946, with VW’s hometown renamed Wolfsburg, thousands of Beetles were hitting Germany’s autobahns. It’s just one chapter of a story told in Horst Mönnich’s (German-language) ‘fact-based fiction’ novel Die Autostadt.
Within a couple of years, having avoided movement of VW to France as wartime reparation, and acquisition by Ford, Hirst sought a German to manage the Volkswagen factory’s return to German ownership. Another pivotal figure appears in Beetle’s story. Enter Heinz Nordhoff, an engineer who’d made his name at Opel’s truck division.
By 1949 – launch year of Zodiac's self-winding Autographic with its then-unusual power-reserve gauge – Nordhoff’s management and one-model strategy had made Volkswagen the lynchpin of the German Federal Republic’s recovery. No surprise then, when Time magazine later featured Nordhoff on its cover.
During the 1950s, as Mauthe, Pforzheimer Uhren-Rohwerke (PUW), Lacher & Co, Junghans, Hanhart and others found their feet again in newly-revitalised markets, VW production on Wolfsburg’s assembly line soared under Nordhoff's leadership. More than just an accessible means of transport, the Beetle symbolised and inspired a society that was rebuilding and growing amid phenomenal economic prosperity. It was yet another key time in the VW Beetle car history.
The Volkswagen had changed little since its conception by the Nazis two decades earlier. Now it was the reason Volkswagen led Germany’s car industry and became the engine for massive socio-economic change in a new Germany.
Volkswagen’s Type 1 gave unprecedented mobility to Germans. It bestowed new freedom of movement epitomised by images of VWs as every German family’s magic carpet to forest, lakeside or mountains. Contemporary advertising films showed air-cooled VWs passing overheating water-cooled cars on alpine roads. It was rugged, revolutionary transport for a decade of new optimism and desire to forget wartime horrors through travel. And all timed by der Herr's shiny new Durowe 1032 or, for madam, a gold-plated Kasper watch.
Viewed retrospectively, this was a time captured forever on now highly-collectible tinplate-and-clockwork Technofix car sets from the 1950s. With each set, miniature cars processed – like tiny clockwork mice, or should that be beetles – through exquisitely litho-printed landscapes of lakes and snowy mountains.
How surprising then, that while south-German marques such as Porsche, BMW and Mercedes are represented on Technofix layouts, the VW is so notably absent. Or maybe not, given that Technofix was from Nuremberg – much closer to the other manufacturers than Volkswagen’s north German home town.
By 1955, with Germany’s economic recovery established, men’s automatic wristwatches – led by timepieces such as Bidlingmaier’s 'B-Automatik' and Lacher’s ‘Laco-Duromat’ – were established parts of German watch manufacturers’ offering. The same year, the millionth VW Beetle came rolling off the production line amid skilfully-choreographed celebration. Subtle product refinements appeared too, including a cabriolet and a Karmann-Ghia bodied coupe (described at the time as ‘the world’s slowest sports car’).
By now, Volkswagen had big export plans, not least across the Atlantic Ocean in the USA. As Bernhard Rieger writes in The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, ‘As sales abroad thrived, the VW developed an astonishing cultural valence on the international stage that ultimately aligned it, despite its origins in the Third Reich, with the counterculture of the late sixties.’
Another famous chapter in the VW Beetle story was about to be written. However, it began with a whimper rather than a bang due to initially lacklustre sales in the United States under the then Porsche distributor. Only when Heinz Nordhoff formed Volkswagen America and the 1960s approached did sales really take off and North America became one of VW’s biggest markets.
Given wings by the post-war American dream's white picket-fence visions, outrageous styling and vulgar, over-embellished advertising illustrations characterised the period's American car markets. And so did unbridled worship at the altar of built-in obsolescence and extravagant – often superficial – annual changes.
However, alongside this came a reaction among a growing subset of car-buyers disenchanted with Detroit’s gas-guzzlers and the cosmetic grilles and fin restyles that arrived with each new model year. The Beetle’s time had come. And with it the wholesale transformation in consumer advertising so eloquently described in Larry Dobrow’s When Advertising Tried Harder or Dominik Imseng’s Ugly is Only Skin-deep.
It was innovative New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach – possibly the inspiration for 2007’s Mad Men – who got Volkswagen North America’s advertising account and launched Madison Avenue’s – make that advertising's – creative revolution. Driven by Helmut Krone’s pioneering art direction and copywriting wordsmiths such as Julian Koenig, the rest is advertising and automotive history – a story well told in Andrea Hiott’s book, Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle.
Over many years, iconic ads such as ‘Think Small’, ‘Lemon’ and ‘It’s ugly, but it gets you there’ (after NASA’s Omega Speedmaster-wearing astronauts reached the Moon in 1969), characterised VW ads. En route, DDB’s stripped-down, monochrome style, irreverent and often logo-free Bauhaus-inspired layouts redefined advertising. If those ads were watches, they’d surely have been one of the minimalist, ‘form follows function’ Max Bill designs that entered Junghans’ range in the 1960
Whether DDB inspired Mad Men or not, talk about the TV admen leads nicely to my Universal Genève Polerouter Super, a watch contemporaneous with the heyday of 1960s advertising. I got it from vintage-watch specialist Derek Dier. He also supplied the Cross Hair Omega Seamaster worn by Mad Men’s Don Draper. And other period watches for the series including a Tudor Oyster-Prince ‘Tuxedo’ and Hamilton ‘Sputnik’.
That’s one personal link I’ve got to the VW Beetle story and here’s another. At the start of this article, I alluded to VW Beetle ownership. My first car was an Iberian Red 1971 VW Beetle – complete with Wolfsburg crest on the steering wheel. As for so many others, the experience remains etched on my psyche.
Maybe you welcome two generations of pseudo-retro ‘New Beetle’ – complete with its dashboard vase – into Volkswagen history. Or perhaps you dismiss it for being front-engined, water-cooled and therefore not a ‘proper’ VW Beetle – despite the Type 3 being the first car officially called a Volkswagen Beetle. Either way, production ceased when the last Volkswagen Beetle (the 'Vocho') rolled off the Puebla, Mexico, line in 2019. Interestingly, it was also launch month for two watches epitomising German watchmaking 80 years after WW II – Lange & Söhne’s Grand Lange 1 ‘25th Anniversary’ and UNION Glashütte’s Belisar Moon Phase Sachsen 2019.
In my opinion, and as someone who relates to James May’s view that the VW Beetle is history’s most significant car, I don’t think you can ignore the latest variations on Dr Porsche’s car. History reveals a design that, during so many decades of popularity, remained extraordinarily close to Porsche’s original streamlined design. It’s a design so distinctive and unimprovable that no one ever really tried to copy it.
With time, the likes of Toyota’s Corolla (over 43 million made) and VW’s Golf (over 30 million) may have taken the Beetle’s erstwhile place as the world’s best-selling car. Yet no one can ever take away the genuine iconicism of the super Beetle, its design, longevity and central role in rebuilding post-war Europe.
And of course, there's its place in popular culture, including Herbie in The Love Bug or the yellow Beetle in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Oh yes, from first Beetle to last, we’ll always remember the curvy little Volkswagen, the Käfer, the ‘VW Bug’, as an extraordinary engineering, economic and social phenomenon.
Maybe, after all, wearing a wristwatch based on a miniature Beetle speedometer makes more sense than naysayers believe. Actually, it seems a rather fitting way to celebrate such a significant twentieth-century icon.
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