Auto Trivia: Early Beetle had rough ride

Postwar anti-German sentiment made VW car harder to sell in North America.

By Jil McIntosh Wheels.ca

Jul 13, 2012 4 min. read

Article was updated 11 years ago

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Although it eventually became popular in North America, the Volkswagen Beetle got off to a rocky start. VW’s Dutch importer, Ben Pon, had been importing the little cars into the Netherlands since 1947, when he decided to try the U.S. market.

A few had already made their way over, shipped home by servicemen, but Pon officially brought the first two imports to New York on Jan. 17, 1949. He managed to sell them both, but couldn’t interest anyone in taking on a dealership, which appeared to be a combination of an American preference for bigger domestic vehicles, and anti-German sentiment so soon after the war. (It’s estimated some 75 per cent of Beetles exported to Britain were vandalized.)

The Beetle did much better after the company established subsidiaries here: Volkswagen of Canada in 1952, and three years later, in the U.S., along with hiring an agency that came up with funny and self-deprecating ads. By 1959, the Beetle accounted for 20 per cent of all import cars in the U.S., and held about 2 per cent of the overall car market there. And in 1972, its production surpassed the 15 million Ford Model Ts built, becoming the world’s best-selling car to that point (its record later fell to the VW Golf).

But Ben Pon still made his mark on the company. According to Volkswagen, a rough sketch he doodled in 1947 became the basis of the company’s famous little microbus.

Mazda’s beginnings uncorked

Mazda started out as a cork producer, the Toyo Cork Kogyo Company, in 1920. Under company president Jujiro Matsuda, it switched to manufacturing tools in 1929. The name was changed to Mazda in 1931, and a year later, it began making three-wheeled trucks for export to China. Its automobile production began in 1960 with the introduction of the R60 coupe. Mazda says that the company name is derived from Ahura Mazda, an ancient Asian god of wisdom and harmony, and also from Matsuda’s name.

If only gas was that cheap now…

At the earliest gas stations, shopkeepers would fill five-gallon cans from their supply, and then use these to gas up the cars. The first U.S. drive-up station, where motorists pulled up directly to the pumps, was a Gulf station that opened in 1913 in Pittsburgh. On its first day of operation, it sold 30 gallons of 27-cent gasoline.

The station was the first designed by an architect, and the first to give out free road maps — Gulf’s reason being that if drivers knew where to go for a leisurely drive, they’d need to buy more gas.

Airbags not necessary north of border

Front-seat airbags have been mandatory on new vehicles in the U.S. since 1998. It might surprise you to know, though, that they’ve never been required in Canada. Instead, we have frontal crash protection standards, and automakers find that airbags are the easiest way to meet them — especially since they’re already including them for that larger market to the south.

That said, when a vehicle has them — which all new ones do — Transport Canada kicks in with airbag-specific safety standards that it must meet.

Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), which warn when you have a tire that’s low on air, are also required on new vehicles sold in the United States, but are not mandatory in Canada.

Thank Buick for your bathtub

Buick is named for David Dunbar Buick, who was born in Scotland but moved to the United States with his parents when he was two years old, finally settling in Detroit. He apprenticed at a plumbing manufacturing company and eventually came up with several inventions — the most famous being a method of affixing porcelain to metal, making our modern bathtubs possible.

He was fascinated by the internal combustion engine, and in 1901, founded a company to build marine and farm engines. Buick was a better inventor than businessman, and a string of his companies failed before he sold his first car to a doctor in August 1904. The firm struggled financially, and later that year was taken over by William Durant, who in 1908 made it the cornerstone of his new General Motors.

Buick later lost much of his money in bad investments, and eventually took a job manning the information desk at a Detroit trade school. He died in 1929.

Steinway played Daimler-Benz’s song

At one time, Daimler-Benz vehicles were made in Long Island, N.Y. In 1891, William Steinway — yes, of piano fame — obtained a licence to build Daimler-designed engines. After his death in 1905, his company set up the Daimler Manufacturing Company of America, producing copies of the German-built models and using imported German metal, which it believed to be superior to U.S. steel.

The cars were made in 1906 and 1907, until a fire destroyed the plant after several hundred cars were built. One restored model still exists, owned by Mercedes, along with two incomplete ones.
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