The Nano, made by Indian car manufacturer Tata, is billed as “the people’s car.” We’ve seen this sort of thing before. The first time was in Europe — Germany to be precise. The car was the Volkswagen, which means, quite literally, “The People’s Car.” It was Hitler’s idea, more or less. He wanted to build a car for the common man. “A car for the people, an affordable Volkswagen, would bring great joy to the masses and the problems of building such a car must be faced with courage,” he proclaimed at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show. It would be of simple design and able to carry two adults and three children at a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. Hitler asked Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to take up the job and he did. Hitler and Porsche started up a little company called Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH (Society for the Preparation of the German People’s Car Co. Ltd.) Thus, Volkswagen was born, and you can still buy one today, though it no longer functions as a cheap and basic car affordable to all.
The VW was the result of mass production techniques from the age of the masses, the early 20th century. Really, it isn’t so surprising that the Third Reich would be involved in the development of such a car. The whole idea of the VW was that centralized modes of production could provide the general population with cheap goods. And this was essentially the relationship between industry, the state, and the populace imagined by National Socialism. The people provide their “people-like goodness,” and the state provides for those people, who then provide more people for the state, which then supports the people in being the pure and good people that they are, and so on for 3,000 years at least. Nobody was more committed to the idea of “the people,” properly defined, than the Nazis. In the modern mass society of the 1930s as the Nazi state envisioned it, one of the things “the people” needed to do was to get around (attending, no doubt, mass rallies where they would better learn how to be “the people”). They needed to do so relatively cheaply.
The problem, from a design perspective, was how to make a car for next to nothing. The Volkswagen solved this problem by applying the know-how of large-scale industrialism to the particularities of making low-cost vehicles. The one benefit of a command economy is that you get to make commands. Basically, the Nazis said “screw the market, we must have this car.” Robert Ley, head of the Nazi Labor movement, was directed to make the Volkswagen a reality as part of the “Strength Through Joy” initiative to bring goods and services to the German working class. Hitler wanted this Volkswagen to be produced even if the economics never fully made sense. To accomplish this nearly impossible task, Ley robbed the coffers of his labor department and mobilized slave labor. But even with all the cheating and concentration camps, the design problem remained. The VW still had to be cheap. This meant coming up with real design innovations. The first Volkswagen sported, famously, an engine in the rear for the simple reason that it allowed for a shorter driveshaft. The engine also had an air-cooling system that made it simpler and more reliable than any other engine. The round shape was easier to produce than something with all sorts of joints and angles. The Nazi State met its fate on the battlefields of Europe, but the Volkswagen survived. It had, through a funny quirk of history, served the people after all.
In retrospect, the strangest thing about the Volkswagen was that it was the solution to a problem that existed mostly in Hitler’s mind. It was Hitler who said “the people” must have a car they can buy for next to nothing. Ideology created the demand and then gathered the forces necessary to fulfill it. The outcome was so damn good and clever and lovable that it outlived the crazy and terrible ideology that had created it. One of the great acts of revenge against Hitler and the Nazi state is thus the Herbie the Love Bug movies of the 1960s and ’70s. In those films, the Volkswagen has become a cuddly and downright human friend to peoples everywhere. Herbie doesn’t want to commit genocide and seems little interested in the racial purification of Europe. Instead he wants to go treasure hunting for lost Inca gold and be the matador at a bullfight, both of which come to pass in Herbie Goes Bananas. The kitschy goofiness of the late ’60s and the foibles of Herbie assured that the idea of a “car of the people” had finally been cleansed of the ideology of the mass state. The Volkswagen had finally been forgiven its ignominious origins.
And yet, the question of how to build a car that is truly cheap and accessible remains. Volkswagen, the car company, is no longer in the business of trying to answer this question. Europeans are too damn rich to sit around worrying about how to make cheap cars. India, however, is a large country with a transportation problem not unlike that faced by Germans in the 1930s. The problem is actually several times more acute — there are a hell of a lot more people in India than in Germany, then or now, and the general level of income is a lot less. In contemporary Delhi, one can see entire families driving around city streets on a single scooter. There is a need for four-wheeled vehicles. These vehicles must be cheap, or else the people who really need them will not be able to afford them. Tata’s challenge was to come up with a design by which Nanos can be manufactured cheaply enough to sell for around $2,500. And that’s why the newest “people’s car” was created.
The economics are all brand new as well. The Nano comes from a 21st-century economic model, in which decentralized production processes with modular designs are the only way to make a truly cheap car. Simply put, the Nano doesn’t just look like a toy — that’s essentially what it is. The same kind of design principles that go into making plastic junk objects by the millions in huge Chinese factories go into making the Nano. It’s got to be made with the simplest of assembled parts coming from the most basic molds. The modular design means that parts can be produced easily and cheaply by anyone. The flexible supply chain passes the cheapness down the line. Anyone can buy a Nano, and damn near close to anyone can make a Nano, too.
The Nano is thus truly the next step in the revolution started back in the ’30s with the Volkswagen. It’s like you had to remake the entire conception of what a state is and what a people is before you could really complete Hitler’s little dream. Out goes the centralized economy. Out goes the unified notion of a people. Out goes everything that Hitler thought you had to control in order for such a project to work. In comes a miscegenated madness of a production process, one that can work in India of all places, the very definition of democracy gone wild.
The most hilarious part of the whole story is that the very idea of what is meant by “a people” has been emptied out as the tale of “the people’s car” unfolded. Germany in the 1930s had a deadly serious definition for “the people.” Now, with the Nano, there is simply the desire that “the people,” whoever they are, be able to move around a lot. In this case, at least, a design problem has worked itself out alongside an ongoing political problem. Pleasingly, freeing up the landscape in both arenas seems to have had a positive effect all around. Of course there are those who say that a billion Indians driving Nanos around the sub-continent spells doom for us all, what with the environmental devastation that will follow. I say, at least we’ll meet our collective end out there on the open road, wind coming through the huge window that must be rolled down manually, trying to figure out who we, the people, are. • 22 April 2010