By Aaron Neilly
The year was 1952. CBC founded its first TV station in Montreal and its second one two days later in Toronto. Dan Akroyd was born and, as usual, Team Canada won at hockey in the Olympics.
But something else was happening, too. Something involving Germany and a legendary little machine known by very few people in Canada at the time. It was a remarkable little car that many attendees of the 1952 Canadian National Exhibition were soon to became familiar with.
It was called a Volkswagen.
Prior to their introduction at the CNE, Volkswagens had been selling well worldwide, with over half a million examples already on the road. That was no small feat for a company that had been assembling cars in a bombed-out flooded factory with no roof for the first few years of production.
It was, in fact, the very same company Henry Ford II was offered but refused. Ford was quoted to say: “The car is not worth a damn.” (They say hindsight is 20/20, but when you take into consideration this was the same man who was in charge of Ford when they lost nearly $300 million on the Edsel, perhaps that’s not always the case.)
Despite its success overseas, it was clear Volkswagen needed to expand to other markets in North America. The decision was made to display 12 VW vehicles, plus a complete chassis-sans-body at the 1952 CNE. Showcased were six Volkswagen sedans (aka the Beetle), and six Volkswagen station wagons, or “Midget Buses” as they were first called in the Canadian market, but more commonly known as the Microbus.
Reactions to the new-to-our-soil car company were mixed. Some people were enthusiastic about an efficient new car being offered on the market, but for others, World War II was still fresh in their minds and they were reluctant to purchase any product originating in Germany. The Microbus drew quite a bit of attention. As for the Beetle, there was one thing that everyone agreed on: the car’s styling was quite unlike anything they had seen before. The Beetle was tiny, seemingly had no cooling system, it was shaped somewhat like a peanut, had a rear window like a pretzel and the 25 horsepower engine was in the wrong end. It was definitely “different.” The question was, did anyone want to drive something that “different?”
Despite the controversy and mixed reactions, Volkswagen Canada was founded in the fall of 1952. A farmhouse at 1360 Yonge Street was purchased and converted into a small showroom (as well as company headquarters).
In early December, the first official Volkswagen Canada vehicles arrived at the Cherry Street docks in Toronto. The massive corporation employed eight men and nine women, with Werner Jansen as president.
Business in 1952 was, well … not a total failure. Volkswagen Canada sold eight cars. When 1953 arrived, Werner Jansen knew it was time to create some publicity for the obscure vehicles across Canada. Jansen summoned mechanic Kurt Hering and salesman Joe Thatcher, as well as a Beetle and Microbus, and off to the east coast they went.
Once again, reactions were mixed and nobody really seemed interested in the company. After the three men returned to Toronto, however, things began to turn around. One of the many people they had spoken to on their journey came to Toronto and expressed a keen interest in becoming a distributor. Soon after, many followed suit and it wasn’t long before the Volkswagen dealer network was a force to be reckoned with. By 1956, Ontario alone had 93 dealerships, plus a new 37-acre facility on Scarborough’s Golden Mile. (In fact, even a Rolls Royce was traded in at the Yonge Street showroom that year.) Another contributing factor to Volkswagen’s success on these shores was their unique advertising campaign.
While domestic manufacturers had glamorous multi-page ads based on sex appeal, horsepower and other exaggerations, Volkswagen had single-page, brutally honest ads. Many of the VW ads actually poked fun at the odd little vehicles. This was a refreshing kind of advertising for the time; honest and informative, but also entertaining. One ad showed a small image of a Beetle on a large white background, with the clever heading “It makes your house look bigger.” This was followed by a short summary of how North American cars were getting larger, while the humble Beetle remained the same in size and appearance. The only changes to VWs were the mechanical improvements.
This writer’s father, who still drives a Beetle, has a great story (one of many) from his youth about a skiing trip up north with a friend at the Horseshoe Valley Resort. He says they were given access to a nearby lake-front cottage, but the only way to get there in the winter was by crossing the lake when it was frozen. The Beetle had no problem getting there, but the next morning when they got up to head for the slopes the lake was covered with lots of heavy, freshly fallen snow. After trying to push the VW to no avail, they tied the steering wheel securely so the car was aimed at the far shore ramp used to get onto the lake the previous night. A ski pole was wedged from the front seat to the gas pedal and the car was put in gear. My dad and his friend both stood on the back bumper of the car to add weight to the rear wheels and held on to the ski rack for balance. A few minutes later, the car arrived on the far side of the lake to a round of applause from several people who had watched the entire incident from the comfort of a lakeshore restaurant while enjoying their breakfast.
With stories like those mentioned, it is no wonder that 60 years later, Volkswagen Canada remains a massive competitor in the automotive market. Since 1952, they have sold nearly two million cars in Canada , with new technology and innovative vehicles being announced on what seems like a weekly basis. I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more. From the 2012 introduction of an entirely redesigned Beetle, available with nearly 10 times as much horsepower of the 1952 version, as well as VW’s foray into the hybrid vehicle market occurring before the end of this year, the company shows no signs of slowing down. Neither does my ’69 Beetle – except for on those really big hills.
1 – Restored original Canadian 1952 Beetle shown at 2012 corporate events
2 – Vintage Canadian advertising for the Beetle 3 – The cover of a VW Canada sales pamphlet from 1952