Here is yet another depressing milepost: The next generation of drivers taking to the road will have no memories of the fabled Volkswagen Beetle. The stark little machine, you may recall, began to fade away in 1979, when its West German parent company finally ceased its production after it had become the largest selling car model in history. Seven years earlier, in 1972, the 15,007,033rd Beetle had rolled off the Wolfsburg assembly lines, surpassing the previous record-holder, the fabulous Ford Model T. Wolfsburg.
The Beetle was at the heart and soul of the modern automobile revolution in this country. It introduced millions of drivers to the revelations of functional, efficient automobiles, in turn bringing on an onslaught of compact, neatly engineered automobiles from Europe and Japan that exposed the excesses of the aged, overblown, over-chromed arks from Detroit.
Today, I'd bet that the heart and soul of the upscale European car market (which still governs automotive tastes) consists of men and women whose early driving experience involved a Beetle. The zany charm and endearing functionalism of that machine tattooed an awareness of high-technology cars on the psyches of owners much the same way the Model T had done a generation earlier.
In many ways, the Beetle and the Model T were kin, both original pieces of engineering offering cheap, reliable transportation to the masses. Both broke the mold of contemporary thinking. While the Model T went out of production long before the VW appeared, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the man who created the Volkswagen, was a disciple of Ford's automotive production methods and viewed the Model T as an eloquent statement of clean, unfettered automotive design.
The idea for a volksauto, or people's car, was discussed in German automotive circles as early as the mid-1920s, but it wasn't until 1931 that Porsche began to make his intitial drawings for such a car. The project was instigated by the Zundapp Motorcycle firm, which dropped out of the project long before the car became the centerpiece of the nitwit Nazi KdF ("strength through joy") marketing scheme in 1938. Ironically, the VW did not become a hit until the mid-1950s, when its basic design was nearly 25 years old and its creator dead.
While there is no direct evidence linking Porsche to the Bauhaus school of design populated by such eminences as Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, there is a strong thematic relationship between the Volkswagen and the ascetic principles of the Bauhaus school. The Bauhaus leaders were fascinated with
the synergism of modern industry
Le Corbusier, the Swiss eccentric who was among Gropius' most fanatical disciples, was interested in machinery of all types and in the automobile in particular. In the words of one critic, he viewed the car as "the paradigm of the machine esthetic" and in 1928 actually laid down detailed drawings of a small three-seater he called La Voiture Maximum. It was an incredible concept: rear-engined, with a flat, angled windshield and brashly protruding front wheels. The back deck swept downward in a graceful curve, much like the VW to come.
Early prototypes of Porsche's little machine reveal a striking resemblance to Le Corbusier's effort. While La Voiture Maximum never left the drawing board and was little more than a fanciful sketch devoid of engineering, it has fascinated designers for years.
Now the Department of Architecture of the University of Milan has put together an exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of Le Corbusier's birth, and a full-scale wooden mock-up of his little car has been built by the famed Italian designer Giorgio Guigiaro. It will tour Europe with the Le Corbusier exhibit, a centerpiece of the daring, unconventional and often controversial designer's work.
It's unfortunate that funding did not permit Guigiaro to create a fully working model, because the little car by the Bauhaus designer represented a valid automotive concept. Le Corbusier's associate Mies van der Rohe said "form follows function," and like the VW and the Model T, La Voiture Maximum was the embodiment of functional form. So, too, was the last great automotive design breakthrough, the Austin-Morris Mini created by Englishman Alex Issigonis in 1960 and refined by Honda a decade later and introduced as the Civic. Issigonis' contribution involved a transversely mounted front-drive power train that maximized interior passenger space.
It's about time for some more revolutionary thinking in terms of volksautos -- cheap, reliable, useful cars of the type created by Ford, Issigonis and Porsche, and envisioned by Le Corbusier. Entry-level automobiles of today such as the antiquated Yugo or the South Korean Hyundai are simply "little big cars," miniaturized versions of ordinary automobiles, visually tricked up to make them look larger and more elegant. They represent nothing in terms of advancing design or function. They are not creative.
The door is wide open for another great designer to generate another automotive revolution. The only problem is finding someone prepared to walk through it. ::