Squashed By A Bug

Japan didn't spoil the party for the U.S. auto industry. One of its World War II allies did.

One of my all-time favorite print ads came out right after man first landed on the moon.  It shows a model of the Lunar Module (the spider-shaped spacecraft the astronauts used to fly to the moon) on a depiction of the moon's surface.  Underneath the photo is a simple statement: "It's Ugly, But It Gets You There".

That was among numerous creative ads and commercials dreamed up by Volkswagen, the German-based automobile company whose best-known model in the 1960's was called "The Bug".  If you were in the market for creature comforts, this was definitely NOT your car.  I remember riding in one owned by a co-worker of my father when I was in high school.  The seats were hard, the heater worked (maybe), and my transistor radio had better fidelity than the radio in this vehicle.  And no air conditioning.

And yet, the car was a hit.  And I think its clientele in that era was America's youth.  At less than $2,000, it was useful as a new driver's first car.  It was relatively simple to service.  It was the first car I ever heard of that was marketed for its gas mileage (27 miles per gallon, the ads said).  And to a generation bent on protest, revolution and "doing your own thing", it wasn't your father's anything.

I remember a story in the auto industry trade magazine Motor Trend in 1968, which said Volkswagen (the abbreviation VW, by the way, has one more syllable than the name itself) had surpassed Chrysler for number three in the world auto sales market.  And while, I bet, the U.S. auto industry paid little attention to that statistic at the time, it may have been the beginning of the end of American auto-making dominance.

It wasn't long before the Japanese joined the competition.   By 1970, Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) put cars in U.S. showrooms.  Honda, once known mainly as a motorcycle, joined in not too long afterward.

The American car companies tried their own small or "subcompact" cars, to try to blunt the foreign invasion, but a lot of their efforts were laughable.  Remember the Chevrolet Vega? How about the Ford Pinto, which exploded in a rear-end collision?  And American Motors (remember them?), which really did have some success with small cars, gave us the Gremlin and Pacer (the latter best known for its appearances in the "Wayne's World" movies).

As the Japanese gained a foothold, Volkswagen's market share began to fall.  I don't see as many of them as I used to, although the original "Bug" is a collectors item. And before the recent downturn, Toyota was nipping at the heels of long-time leader General Motors for the world-wide number one position in auto production and sales.

One disclaimer: I have never officially owned a car by a foreign company.  In fact, all but one of the cars I've owned have been produced or marketed by G.M. (the lone exception being a Ford Escort).  But the fact is, the foreign invasion is nearly complete.  So much so, that most people own a Toyota, Honda or Nissan, and don't even think about its being the product of boardrooms in Tokyo, or some similar Japanese city.

But they didn't lead the invasion.  It was the same country which started World War II  by invading Poland.  And, in the economic sense, the Germans and Japanese finally won the war.

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