Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World's Most Famous Automobile

Phil Patton

Read October 2005

As I write this, blobjects are all around us. Indeed, Patton is partly responsible for popularizing the word, though as I recall he never uses it in this book.

While the 1990s onward blobjects have begun to rule the world of design—who can even conceive of Maya Lin's magnificent Vietnam Memorial being built in this era?—but the most famous blobject of all dates back to the 1930s, and has the most awful historical association: the Volkswagen Beetle and its relationship with Hitler. That, ostensibly, is what this book is about.

What Patton does well is provide an overview of how the Beetle came to be, and shed some light on the strange and terrible connection between Porsche and Hitler. The book proffers the theory that the blob shape is due to a sketch by Hitler himself, and shows how Hitler's persistence led to the car's construction. In these respects it is interesting and persuasive. The book provides an interesting demonstration of the mutation of perception: how the Beetle went to being a volks wagon to a hippie one to a yuppie one. It is also interesting to see how long car makers have been owned by foreign companies (for instance, that Opel, that canonically German car-maker, has been foreign-owned from its earliest years).

Unfortunately, there are too many problems with Patton's book. The editing is awful. It is repetitive to the point of being distracting, for example listing the Beetle's many nicknames about six or seven times. The book even contradicts itself in short spans: Patton claims the car's high-water sales mark in the US came in 1968 on page 124 and in 1970 on page 127. There is no clear timeline; Patton simply assumes readers will know when design variants, such as rear window modifications, were introduced. We never even get precise numbers of Beetle sales and their relationship to sales of other cars, even when these numbers would validate or strengthen Patton's points.

Ultimately, the book's focal point—the relationship between Hitler and Porsche—is developed too poorly to hold together the rest of the text. We are given some facts, but never really get into the head of Porsche: where did he really stand with respect to the Reich? What did he think of the Volk for whom he was building his Wagen? Was Hitler a means to an end, or the end in himself? Many of the creative people surrounding Hitler—Reifenstahl, Speer, von Braun, and so on—are clouded in ambiguity, and some undoubtedly hid terrible truths. But this central issue is developed so weakly that I came to suspect that this was merely Patton's premise for selling the book. It's a pity, because it's a subject that is worth developing in its own right.