U Is For USA
VW CAMPER & BUS|Spring 2019

America offered a huge market opportunity for Volkswagen. And it was one that the company enthusiastically seized. But success certainly didn’t come that easily at first

Richard Gunn / Hans Klapp

Whatever the merits of air-cooled VWs and their strong sales across the globe, one country was absolutely vital to the coffers of Wolfsburg. And that was the USA. Cracking the enormous and lucrative American market was the real secret to VW’s success. And the company did it more effectively than any of its European rivals - shifting millions of vehicles over the Atlantic from the 1950s onwards. The United States embraced Beetles and Buses, plus other air-cooled models, as if they’d been born there. States like California practically did make them their own - with the SoCal, modifying and dune buggy movements and by basically just enjoying the more laid-back lifestyle that often accompanied VW ownership.

The Stateside triumphs were remarkable. But they weren’t simple, or even expected. Wolfsburg struggled at first, trying to appeal in a country that, not so many years previously, it had been involved in a war against. And even when VW had established itself, it still encountered fierce opposition - from American car firms, the US government and safety campaigner Ralph Nader. It certainly wasn’t plain sailing.

Until 1954, VWs were virtually unknown in the USA. A few came over courtesy of soldiers returning from Germany, almost as souvenirs rather than serious transport. It was in early 1949 that VW had its first stab at trying to make its presence felt in the New World. Company boss Heinrich Nordhoff sent Dutch dealer Ben Pon over the Big Pond with a Beetle to drum up interest in the car. Pon had been the first person to export VWs from Germany, taking five cars direct from the factory to the Netherlands in 1947 to sell. Incidentally, it was during this Wolfsburg trip that Pon also saw a jerry-built, very basic ‘Plattenwagen’ parts runaround that gave him the idea for what, a couple of years later, became the Type 2 Transporter. It was obviously a very productive visit.

But the transatlantic trip definitely wasn’t productive. Pon landed in New York City on 17 January 1949, along with a solitary Beetle, only to find that what he referred to as the ‘Victory Wagon was being dubbed by the press as ‘Hitler’s car’. Attempts to interest dealers came to zilch. After three weeks of achieving practically nothing, he couldn’t pay his hotel bill, so sold the Beetle and its spare parts for $800 and returned to Europe licking his wounds. He told Nordhoff that it would probably be wise to wait another decade before trying to sell the Beetle in the America again. But Nordhoff ignored him and decided to have a crack himself, going over later the same year - and reporting the experience as an ‘abject failure’. Nobody he met believed the funny-looking little German machine, with its dubious origins and puny, clattery engine hung out the back, could have any future in the glitzy, glamorous US.

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