Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Heritage wheels: Anything but old

I've been reading an article by Bernhard Rieger on the Volkswagen Beetle* this evening as I'm prepping for tomorrow's session of my "Cars, Culture, and Place" seminar at Tufts. I think I like teaching this class for the same reason I like teaching about tourism: car culture and the tourism industry just never fail to amaze me in their inventiveness in making darned near anything into a marketable product, and teaching a course on them is a great way to find out what they've been up to lately. Reading about the history of the Beetle made me decide to go see how VW is marketing the new, all-new, really new 2012 New Beetle on its website, where I found a great example of heritage marketing and how it performs the classic modern trick of selling us the past and the future simultaneously.

On the "Profile Update," just under where it says "Completely redesigned," there's an option for "Heritage wheels," which turn out to evoke the classic style of 1960s Beetle wheels. "Close your eyes and picture the classic wheels," the text says. "They're too iconic to forget, right?"

Then when you click on "Details," you get the having-it-both-ways message: "Now open your eyes and see how cool they look taking us into the future. That’s right, we redesigned the old wheels to be completely cool and anything but old." Old, yet new--what could be better than that?

One of the things that Rieger's article shows is that German VW executives at the home office in Wolfsburg initially resisted the idea of introducing the New Beetle in 1998, not grasping the potential appeal of a somewhat-nostalgic, somewhat-ironic retro-vehicle for American buyers. The roll-out ad campaigns capitalized on this highly postmodern blend, but it struck me that the current promotion for the 2012 model shows how hard it is to sustain the momentum of the nostalgic/ironic impulse over time. Despite the evocation of the Beetle's status as an icon ("Those crisp, clean, curved lines hark back to the original"), there's actually nothing playful, ironic, or--ironically--really new about the way the car is now being marketed.

That sense of playfulness was a big part of the novelty of the original VW ad campaigns, which became almost as iconic as the car itself, and the New Beetle was able to play off of some of that older creative energy. Based on my short cruise through the website tonight, though, VW has turned to a highly conventional approach to promoting the car at this point: emphasizing its cool features and posing it in dramatic settings. Even novelty gets old, I guess--or maybe the real irony is that novelty gets especially old. As Alfred Sloan showed a long time ago when he brought the model year and built-in obsolescence into the car industry, constant change is an essential ingredient of getting people to buy new cars before they really need them. Within that logic, invoking the past is a tactic to be used sparingly, when you use it at all.

*"From People's Car to New Beetle: The Transatlantic Journeys of the Volkswagen Beetle," Journal of American History, June 2010 (pp. 91-115).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Living history at the motor court

I posted a piece on the NCPH "Off the Wall" blog last week about the phenomenon of "ubiquitous display" that we're exploring in our reviews over there. I got another great example of this while I was in Plymouth, Mass. for the New England American Studies Association conference this weekend. I was staying just north of the town center at what seemed to be a generic Best Western motel, but when I was in the lobby on Saturday morning I noticed a set of four black and white photos on the wall that didn't seem to be the usual motel décor.

The photos showed what appeared to be equally generic buildings: a ranch house, a New England farmhouse, some small roadside cabins. When I asked about them, though, the woman at the counter told me they showed the motel site in its earlier life, first as a horse farm and then, after 1949, as a motor court. She pointed out that some of the cabins could still be seen along busy Route 3A, the main road that goes through this heavily-visited town.

I was pretty tickled by this "heritagization" of a slice of automobile and tourism history, which memorialized--albeit in a low-profile way--both the era of the post-World-War-II "heritage boom" and the transitional phase between auto camping and the motel as we know it today.

I was even more tickled later in the weekend when I learned from Karin Goldstein, Curator of Collections and Library at Plimoth Plantation, that the Plantation's creator, Harry Hornblower, had originally planned to site the living history village on a different piece of land from the one it now occupies. But the property he bought was expropriated by the state for the construction of the highways that carry traffic from Boston to Plymouth and points south, including the vacation mecca of Cape Cod. Hornblower was forced to turn to Plan B, which was to locate the village on land he inherited from his grandmother.

The expansion of the region's tourist economy in the 1940s, which presumably prompted the owners of the horse farm north of the town center to add their motor court, displaced Plimoth Plantation before it could even be built. At the same time, of course, the new road was a crucial mechanism for bringing visitors to what quickly became one of Plymouth's most popular attractions. I don't know what Harry Hornblower thought about that turn of events (it would make a fun piece of research, for someone with the time to do it!). But my guess is that he probably felt the kind of ambivalence that most of us experience in relation to car culture. We use our cars to escape from the modern world that has given us the car and all its attendant problems; we rely on things we deplore (like sitting in traffic on a crowded, noisy road) to facilitate things we love (like the chance to stroll down a recreated 17th century street in a living history village). Tourism displays usually work to hide the fact that the two kinds of experience are in fact integrally linked, but the photos in the motel lobby brought brought that into visibility in an interesting way. It was subtle, like the unlabeled photos themselves, but it was an admission that car tourism, too, has a "living history," in which we're all taking a role.