Andrea Hiott, author of “Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle,” may split her time between New York City and Berlin, but she doesn’t hesitate to call Smyrna her home. Her critically acclaimed book examines the transformation of the Volkswagen Beetle from Adolf Hitler’s answer to the Ford Model T to a symbol of peace and love in the 1960s.
"Thinking Small" was published in 2012 and in a few short months has already garnered positive reviews from critics, even Jerry Seinfeld. His praise for the work is printed on the book jacket.
“Candidly, at first I had very little interest in this book because I am so familiar with the VW/Porsche story,” Seinfeld said. “But to my delight, as I looked through it I found a fascinating new perspective on the events. Also many untold stories, such as the beginnings of Doyle Dane Bernbach, the greatest advertising agency of all time. My congratulations to Ms. Hiott for a marvelous piece of work.”
How the daughter of Smyrna City Clerk Susan Hiott came to write a history of The People’s Car is a long strange trip of its own. Hiott was living in Germany on an artist’s residency when she visited Wolfsburg, a town outside Berlin that is home to Volkswagen’s headquarters. While touring the town with a friend she learned that Hitler commissioned the creation of the Volkswagen Beetle as a way to mobilize Germany the way Henry Ford’s Model T had in America.
“I guess I somehow just missed the fact that the Volkswagen Beetle had come out of this Nazi time period,” Hiott said. “As a teenager in the 1990s I just associated the car with hippies and the Summer of Love and all that. So it struck me when she said that this car could have been a symbol of Nazi Germany and went on to become a symbol of freedom, democracy, love. It was that contrast, I think, that made me interested in pursuing it.”
The history of the Beetle is a chronicle of contradictions. Hiott said she was surprised to learn that though he was a car fanatic Hitler never drove a car. The man responsible for introducing a car designed in Nazi Germany to an American audience after the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust was a Jewish-American ad executive named Bill Bernbach. Also surprising was automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche’s influence on the Beetle.
“Of course we know Porsche as the sports car maker and it’s the same man,” Hiott said. “But he was also the person who put together the design of the first Beetle, the original Beetle (…) The Beetle looks sort of sweet and the Porsche looks kind of sexy. But if you really look at it the curves are the same, the aerodynamics. The 356 is more like the Beetle, but the 911 that we all known you can definitely deconstruct it and see how much the Beetle influenced it.”
At first, Hiott’s Volkswagen research was just a hobby to satisfy her own interest in the car’s history. However, she wasn’t able to contain her curiosity for long.
“Oftentimes when you’re really interested in something and that energy—who knows where it comes from—people notice it and things start happening,” she said. “I just ended up meeting interesting people and writing a proposal and sending it to some agents. And then I found an agent who was as equally excited about the idea, which was really good luck. I kept working on it. I probably researched it a year having an agent, but not having a publisher.”
Eventually her work attracted the attention of Random House who gave her an advance that allowed her to move to Wolfsburg and work on the book full-time.
“It was a strange idea for someone who’d studied cultural history and philosophy to write a book about a car especially in Germany where it’s a very car-oriented culture,” she said.
“Thinking Small” may be Hiott’s first book, but she’s no stranger to writing. She’s the editor of “Pulse-Berlin” a bi-annual journal that is printed in partnership with the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. She’ll be coming home to Smyrna this spring before she spends the summer in Asia.