Weather Forecast


Book Report: Take a spin with this Beetle

I well remember the late 1950s when I was finally in the market to buy a car. Suddenly, all manner of teeny little cars were appearing on the market.

They weren't hilarious little cars, like the Crosley, made by the refrigerator manufacturer in Cincinnati or the Henry J, which you could order from the catalog.

The cars I'm talking about were from Europe.

There was Renault Dauphine, the Panhard Dyna and the Simca from France, the Skoda from Czechoslovakia, the Fiat 500 from Italy, Morris Minor from Britain. And from Germany the Opel and the Volkswagen "Beetle."

They were nothing like my father's big Pontiac Chieftain. Some even had engines in the rear end! None to my knowledge had automatic transmissions.

So I stuck up my nose and bought a used American car, a 1953 Nash Ambassador, which looked like an upside-down bathtub, but was much less functional and ran for a year before it died.

Finally, when I became a college prof, I converted to Europe and bought a brand new Simca from France for $1395.

(A few years earlier Vance Packard wrote a book about what different occupations prefer in the way of automobiles. Packard wrote that college professors like weird cars, off brands, like Studebaker or Citroen.)

The Simca was weird to be sure and was also very probably the worst car ever built.

For years, I wished I had purchased a VW Beetle for $1695, like most people, even though the little rear-engined "pregnant" roller-skate was the brainchild of madman Adolph Hitler and his chief engineer Ferdinand Porsche.

That becomes even more obvious after reading a fascinating new book, "Thinking Small," by Andrea Hiott (Ballantine Books, $26). It's a history of the Beetle from its conception in the 1930s to the present.

How it was first manufactured, how it was first sold, how it arrived in the U.S. to less than enthusiastic response, how it finally caught on and changed the face of automobile manufacturing here and around the world, with the help of Dane Doyle and Bernbach, the ad agency that came up with the idea that "small can be beautiful."

It's interesting to note that Hiott spends a goodly amount of time on Bernbach who put VW over the top. Most fascinating is the Jewish copywriters in the agency who used to work on the project for very obvious reasons.

I was happy to catch up on the life of Emilio De Grazia, whom I knew slightly when he reviewed books for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

A professor of English at Winona State and author of several books, he was recently named Poet Laureate of Winona, following in the tradition of another fine poet, Barton Sutter, once Poet Laureate of Duluth and Carol Connolly, Poet Laureate of St. Paul.

De Grazia, whose autobiographical work I reviewed a few years back, is out with his first book of poetry, "Seasonings" (Nodin Press, $16)

It's a fine collection and covers lots of territory from religion to sports. One of the jobs of a Laureate is to write celebratory poems on public occasions.

Here's De Grazia's "Legacy," a poem celebrating the naming of the Darrell W. Krueger Library at Winona State University:

"If the man for whom we name this space

Would speak for himself

He would not say "Honor me."

He would point to the words engraved in stone --

In libris libertas --

Then open his arms to these doors,

Welcome us to the quiet

That speaks volumes here,

The windows that shatter noise

As they let in the light."

"Here, in a troubled world,

A dream endures: in this serenity

The life of the mind awakens

The compassionate creativity

Civil societies require to carry on.

Here we earn entrance to the new ignorance

All knowledge reveals as new mystery.

We come here to authenticate ourselves.

Validate the stories by which we live.

Here we find roots, spread wings."