Walking around Oaxaca one evening I saw three Volkswagens; the next day I encountered a couple more, including a VW van. You don’t see them often here these days but 30+ years ago they were very common, VW Beetles have a long history in the country.
Ferdinand Porsche, who with his family, designed the eponymous high end brand of cars after WW2, was asked by Hitler to develop a “People’s Car” and did so. “The Beetle”, a small, underpowered, air cooled, rear engined and very economical sedan became popular in Germany during the war.
Born in Austro-Hungary, in what is now part of the Czech Republic, Porsche studied at a polytechnical college and went to work for a firm that designed coaches for royalty, including the Hapsburgs. He joined the Nazi party and became part of the industrial machine that fed the German army in WW2.
Porsche visited Henry Ford’s factories numerous times in the ‘30s – his big takeaway was the importance of improving labor productivity. Ford paid his workers well but treated them like interchangeable, expendable “machines” that he expected to do the same task quickly and repetitively without rest, day after day. And he fought unionization viciously, like his other robber baron peers.
After the war, Porsche was sent to France to help Renault build and manage an automotive factory. The French subsequently tried and imprisoned him on charges that were somewhat murky and fined him a significant amount of money (The fine was never paid). The VW factory in Germany had been heavily damaged during the war; an English officer got the factory up and running – first removing unexploded ordnance – then convincing the English army to buy thousands of automobiles. The factory was meant to be dismantled and shipped to England but car executives there didn’t think the vehicle would sell well, it was too “cheap”. This comment may have been driven by national pride; after all, the English were the ones that came out with the Mini Cooper – a tin Kleenex box – in 1959.
Both shipping of the factory to Britain and Porche’s large fine may have been seen by the allies as war reparations. The idea that a victor in a war would get its spoils has a long history, dating back to the Roman empire and continued into the 20th century (Germany imposed reparations on countries that it had invaded and the Soviet Union dismantled German factories and shipped them back home as it’s troops worked their way through the country). Although the factory was never moved to Britain, VW grew into a significant player in the global automobile market. In the first half of this year, VW sold 1.85 MM cars in China.
The VW Beetle, first imported into the US in 1960 sold well until 1965 when it began to suffer competition from better performing and more economical vehicles, particularly Japanese imports (e.g. the Datsun 510 and Toyota Corona).
The Beetle was produced in several factories globally, including one in Puebla Mexico. It was the perfect vehicle for an emerging economy; small, economical, easy to repair and efficient. Beetles were the go-to taxi in Mexico City until this century when other more comfortable vehicles became popular, and were banned in 2012 due to emissions issues. Converted Beetles were the original dune buggy in Southern California and they are stlll raced in the Baja 1000 on the Mexican peninsula, just South of San Diego. (One winces thinking about the amount of desert habitat shredded by 1,000s of vehicles in this race every year. It seems like a very ‘60s event, one televised by ABC’s Wide World of Sport.)
My brother and I owned a VW van way back in the day. With only a single sheet of metal and the headlights protecting you in the event of a head on collision and a motor so small that getting it up to 50 mph was a challenge; taking it on the highway did give one pause. It was super underpowered; I am pretty sure that that its power plant was two hamsters in a squirrel cage, one of them obese and the other with heart problems.
I am sitting in a leafy outdoor area of a coffee shop in the commercial district of Oaxaca, just off a busy street and a couple of blocks from my hotel. Mostly locals discussing things live and via phone in quiet Spanish. There is a rather stern sounding German fellow dominating the only available electrical outlet inside; he is having a serious conversation via his computer and a massive headset.
The sun is streaming through two large, mature trees and onto the road where there shadows are clearly etched on its dark surface. Cars and motorbikes whizz past in herds as they are released by a nearby traffic light
A couple are chatting in Spanish and laughing at one another’s jokes – there is something kind and gentle in hearing others’ pleasure without understanding the content of their conversation. A fellow with a ponytail chatting on his phone in Parisan French and smoking Marlboros. A large, rambly bus lumbers by. It is mild and low humidity, a year of perpetual summer. I can see the mountains that frame Oaxaca outlined in the haze in the distance.
We are all masked. I gather that wearing a “cubreboca” (mouth cover) is the rule and is partially in response to somewhat lower vaccine availability in the country. Folks are amazed when I tell them that you can have your choice of vaccine in America but that we have had trouble getting a high percentage of our population treated; they would be happy to have access to any of the effective vaccines that we have at our disposal.
A garbage truck has pulled up and the guy on the back is clanging a big bell. People come scurrying from nearby offices and shop with bins and bags of garbage and everyone is helping get refuse into the truck.