Mr. Carl H. Hahn is a German who makes a handsome living selling beetles to Americans. Beetles are also known as Volkswagens. As the Bismarck of beetledom in this country, it is Hahn's custom to launch a spring offensive each year at the time of New York's International Automobile Show. And each year the Volkswagen pokes its homely, but evidently lovable, nose a little deeper into American life.
As the 1963 show opened last weekend for a nine-day run (through April 21) in Manhattan's capacious Coliseum, the Volkswagen was clearly supreme among the imports. Spectators strolling amid the gloss and glitter of 500 cars from 10 countries may have lingered longer over the highfalutin Rolls-Royces from England. They discovered greater novelty in the elegant German Mercedes 230SL and France's Simca 1000, a new starter in the economy car stakes.
But when it came to sales figures, the Volkswagen was incomparable. (This assessment naturally excludes Detroit cars, which, although heavily represented, yield pride of place to the imports at the New York show.) "We are," said Hahn matter-of-factly, "everybody's enemy No. 1. We expect to sell more than 250,000 Volkswagens here this year. That would be a new record and an increase of about 12% over the 222,740 [including 30,170 trucks and buses] for 1962."
When one reflects that the American sales of all foreign cars added up to only 339,160 for 1962, it is easy to see why the beetle makes other foreign builders nervous.
Nevertheless, the New York show always brings forth brave, even defiant, talk of beetle-battling. The most voluble beetle-baiters last week were Vincent Grob, U.S. chief for France's state-owned Renault factory, and H.J.L. Suffield, the British Motor Corporation's man in America. "Without question," said Grob, a tall, intense individual, "Volkswagen has installed a kingdom here. But we feel completely ready to attack again."
It was in the rosy year 1959, when the imports reached a peak of 614,000 U.S. sales before beginning a steep decline, that Renault was indeed attacking—Scoring sales of 85,000 as compared to 114,000 for Volkswagen. But as the Volkswagen rolled ahead the Renault went into reverse—down to 30,000 for 1962. Even so, that figure took second place among the imports.
Last week Grob was in approximately the position of Marshal Joffre at the Marne in 1914—under extreme pressure from a German force, yet preparing to counterattack. Joffre had, among other things, his famous taxi army as succor. Grob has an improved Dauphine as his basic weapon, plus the roomier, more powerful Renault R-8 and the sporty Caravelle.
...and automatic transmission, too
The Dauphine most closely approximates the Volkswagen and at $1,495 (East Coast P.O.E.) costs $100 less. Like it, it is small and rear-engined and has a top speed of about 72 mph. "We have added," said Grob, "more than 100 improvements to the Dauphine since 1958 or 1959. Now, for $130 extra, we are offering a fully automatic transmission.
"In terms of product, sales and service, I am sure we can meet American requirements. In my opinion, the imported-car market will grow again to the 600,000 sales it enjoyed in 1959. But only the major European manufacturers will have the resources to stay in it significantly. We hope to increase our sales to 40,000 this year and go ahead from there."
Grob, plainly not a man to overlook any relevant detail, displayed not only his Renaults but also a platoon of fetching show girls. His nearest rival in a show notable for its high ratio of feminine flesh to fenders was British Motors' Suffield.
In the BMC camp, Suffield's "gaggle of gigglers," as he termed them, pranced prettily in yellow frocks and bonnets. They were the come-on for BMC's MG and Austin Healey sports cars and MG sports sedan, the latter England's hope in the Volkswagen struggle. Like BMC's boxy, amazingly agile little Austin 850 (which sells well elsewhere but hasn't yet caught on in America), the 82-mph sedan wears its engine crosswise in front and has front-wheel drive. It boasts a unique "hydrolastic" suspension system that is said to solve the pitching problem, the hobbyhorsing common to most short-wheelbase cars.
"I think," said Suffield, a spare, graying Briton, "that it has the potential to compete with the Volkswagen. I don't think anything can succeed if it is built cheaper or if it looks cheaper than cars locally produced. As an American you can be different but, as an American, you cannot be cheap. The MG sports sedan is different and at $1,898 only slightly dearer than the Volkswagen.
"I think it will appeal to the one and a quarter million Volkswagen owners in this country who want to be graded up into something giving more performance, comfort and roadability. I think it will also appeal to the sports car owner who is beginning to raise a family and needs more space for basic transportation.
"The Austin 850 was possibly too much for America to digest in one go. If you got stuck at a traffic light between a Pontiac and a ruddy big Mercury you felt a bit unprotected. But I think the 850 will yet do well here.
"What we want now is steady expansion. We do not want to overproduce. We sold something over 20,000 cars in 1962, mostly sports cars. This year we hope to sell 20,000 sports cars and 20,000 sedans. Controlled expansion could possibly mean 150,000 sales for us here in four years' time."
Predictably, Hahn of Volkswagen was unalarmed. Son of one of the founders of the German Auto Union firm, he frolicked as a child in the workshop of Ferdinand Porsche, creator of the Volkswagen. He is young (36), brainy and cool. "The Volkswagen," he said, "is the best in its class from any point of view—economy of operation, resale value, quality of manufacture. It is assisted by an equally good sales and service organization.
"Our customers come from all economic levels and professional groups in the country. About one-half use the beetle as basic transportation, and about one-half as a second car. We say the more cars you have, the more economical it is to have the maximum number of Volkswagens among them.
"When we do not change the outside of the car it does not mean that we goof. We simply have found no better shape. In any case, our customers do not want to live under the terror of an annual exterior change, which always devalues a car.
"As you know, we are constantly improving the car's working components, all of which are advanced by today's standards. People today talk of aluminum as a wonderful new material for engines. We have made our engines of an even lighter metal, magnesium, for 15 years. We are by any standard the yardstick in our field."
As for the rest of the show, it was more evident than ever that Detroit had adopted such former European specialties as the bucket seat and the floor-mounted shift. But it was also apparent that the imported sports car was becoming Americanized. Britain's Rootes Motors, for instance, displayed its new Sunbeam Alpine GT, a 100-mph, $2,749 sportster with removable hardtop. Said Rootes's J. T. Panks, who hopes to market 10,000 GTs by Christmas: "The hard-riding, noisy sports car that did sell here a few years ago attracts only a small segment of the market. Since we introduced the GT, with its stress on comfort features, our dealers have told us that we'll tap a wider market than we ever dreamed of."
Said Martin Tustin of Britain's Standard-Triumph, who also eyes the sports car buyer: "Our dealers are fantastically confident."
But it was on the beetle battleground that the highest prizes were to be won, and only the wildest optimists dreamed of actually overtaking Germany's bug-eyed buggy.