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Hitler lost the war, but his cute little car conquered the world anyway

To read this book, you'd think the original Beetle made the 20th century. And you might not be far wrong.

Volkswagen, "the people's car," was in Hitler's head before he swept to power in Nazi Germany. The prototype was there at the birth of the Autobahn – another Hitler brainchild, and the father of the modern superhighway. (That's not to mention the two-hour commute to which the original Beetle seems so singularly ill-suited.) The car was Germany's only hope after the war and was the cornerstone of reconstruction employment.

In the US, it was the genesis of reliable, economical foreign transportation. It was the original definition of "conspicuously inconspicuous consumption." The Bug and its offspring, the VW Bus, enabled the American "cultural revolution" in the 1960s. The Beetle still attracts individualists and customizers, and has spawned its own more populist genre of the hot-rod with the souped-up, hunkered-down "Cal-look."

Today's New Beetle – designed in California, greenlighted by the original designer's grandson in Germany, and built in Mexico – epitomizes the global manufacturing of the 21st century.

Phil Patton, a freelance journalist who has written extensively on automotive topics, provides a wide-ranging history and culture lesson in his new book, called simply "Bug." There's not much that hasn't already been written about the venerable Beetle, but Patton does what no others have in following the Bug's influence from its origins to the present.

Patton explains the revelation that inspired his book: He saw a toy model of the Beetle in Zimbabwe made of tin cans, with opening doors and a functioning steering wheel. As evidenced by such toys and kids' drawings, the Beetle became an archetype for the automobile, Patton says. "Just as a child will draw a house with an angled roof and smoke puffs coming from the chimney even if he or she lives in a flat-roofed modern house with no fireplace, the cars children sketch tend to be round, with smiling faces, like the Beetle."

Patton's cultural insights are the most interesting part of the book. He writes that the Beetle was "a lens through which the whole cultural and political history of the century came into focus, from Nazism to the Sixties counterculture, the cold war, to today's global manufacturing."

Patton, who has written a lot about design, explains that the strength of the Beetle's character is that its form follows function. "It has real character in a world where consumer products are increasingly dreary and empty."

In the late 1950s and 1960s, the car catered to the intellectual "un-car" market in the US. "Beetle ownership allowed you to show off that you didn't need to show off," he writes. "Its rounded fenders were, in effect, the biggest tail fins of all."

The first third is a history lesson on the Beetle's development in Nazi Germany. As a longtime Bug devotee, I knew the car's origins, but the depth of Hitler's involvement in the design detailed here gave me pause. And Patton explains the strange paradox of why Americans were so ready to accept a product from their sworn enemy: VW's innovative Jewish ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, was willing to sell the cars, so Americans were willing – eager – to buy them.

The middle third of "Bug" covers the Beetle as an American social phenomenon, including some of the darker chapters of the Beetle's history from its use as a platform for Charles Manson's dune buggies to Ralph Nader's attacks on the car's safety. Nevertheless, over the years, Americans were so attached to the car they missed its shape on the roads when it left the market in 1979.

The final third of the book is devoted to the Bug's rebirth as the New Beetle. The primary shortcoming of the new car is that its style, far from forming the basis of its function, compromised its usefulness compared with the Beetle's modern Golf descendant.

Perhaps the most powerful example of the strength of the Beetle's image in the US is that the Germans, who saw it as a reminder of war and reconstruction hardships, didn't want to build the New Beetle at all. They gutted the original concept of any functional advances – such as a hybrid electric drivetrain – that the car could have brought to the modern era.

Patton's knowledge of culture is impressive, and the book should grip readers with an interest in the history of design in the 20th century. For anyone who's ever tucked a Beetle away in the garage at night – or wanted to – this is a must read.

• Eric C. Evarts is the Monitor's automotive writer.

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