The title alone tells you that people don't think about the Volkswagen Beetle the same way they think about other cars.

Missoula filmmaker Damon Ristau's documentary, "The Bug: The Life and Times of the People's Car," offers a history of the Beetle, which has been described as human-like, cute, organic, homely, reliable, populist, cheap and honest.

"The Bug" is a sequel to the Missoula filmmaker's "The Bus," a history of the other VW classic, and offers a broad history of the vehicle and its enduring appeal.

Ristau re-creates the story with ample footage dating back to the 1930s, along with interviews with experts and enthusiasts like Jason Torchinksy, a writer for the auto website Jalopnik; Tory Alonzo, a young Santa Monica collector and historian; Andrea Hiott, author of "Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle"; and actor Ewan McGregor, an avid fan.

Ristau traveled to Germany and also made stops in California and Mexico City.

As the locales and the breadth of history suggest, "The Bug" is by no means a "Montana documentary." The Montana portion of the story and the second narrative thread comes early in the film with Jason Willenbrock, who illustrates the lengths, pains, joys and frustrations of restoring a Bug.

Willenbrock, who co-owns Missoula's Posh Chocolat with his wife Ana, fixes up Volkswagens in his free time, as a passion and stress relief.

He travels out to Clearwater Junction to buy a 1960 model from Corky Lord, a retired woman who drove out to Montana decades ago with her husband in a Bug to start a family. He'd bought one and had plans to restore it when he was diagnosed with cancer and died not long after.

Lord kept the car in storage for some 20 years before deciding to sell it. Willenbrock, admiring the great frame, with parts wrapped and ready for restoration, buys it for $500 and vows to bring it back to show Lord the vehicle when he's done.

Ristau checks in monthly with Willenbrock's work, which shows all the pains and setbacks of rebuilding a classic car, ones that are masked when you see a shiny, finished product drive by on the street.


The film flips back and forth between VW history and Willenbrock and the contemporary Beetle-lovers' personal histories.

Ristau traces the origins back to Germany in the pre-war years, when there was a broad sense that the country needed its own "People's Car," much like Ford had created in the U.S.

The experts interviewed give much credit to Josef Ganz, an auto writer who spread many of the ideas that made the Bug revolutionary and went on to design several proto-Beetles himself.

Ferdinand Porsche was responsible for the finished design, and Ganz, a Jewish man, who fled the Nazis and was subsequently written out of the popular story of the Beetle.

The factory helped revive the British-held portion of post-war Germany, and after a rocky start began to gain a foothold in the United States.

With a quirky ad campaign that highlighted its unusual design and low cost, the Bug caught on during the 1960s, when it seemed the opposite of the massive, gas-guzzling cars the World War II generation favored.

Through numerous interviews with these experts/enthusiasts, Ristau makes a clear argument for the vehicle's appeal, once broad and now more cult-like.

Hoitt explains how the vehicle's design was refined for some 20 years until it reached the minimum number of parts required, much like nature does. There's also it's welcoming, organic curves.


To most Americans, the story of the Beetle ends in the late 1970s, when domestic production ceased due to steep competition from cheap, reliable Japanese automobiles.

Ristau takes us through an odd footnote down to Mexico, where the vehicles remained ubiquitous, thanks to their low cost and durability made them popular. They even had a brief reign as the most popular form of taxi until safety concerts led to a ban.

Ristau does address the company's recent scandal in which it falsified emissions data, and the tarnish that's thrown on the "honest vehicle" image its appeal was built on. However, many super-fans acknowledge that by the time VW began producing the Beetle again in the 1990s, it was a different company and it wasn't the same vehicle at all.

The tone of the film has more than its fair share of nostalgia, but that's inherent in the subject of classic cars. Both McGregor and Alonzo say their mothers owned Beetles when they were young, and the memories attached to the cars are part of the appeal. The film gives the 1960s its due, but doesn't dwell on the counterculture as much as many viewers might expect.

Instead, he gives more time to modern fans like Alonzo, Willenbock and McGregor, who help lay out the freedom and attachment people develop with cars, especially ones that look, as Hoitt says, like "it created itself."

Like the Bug itself, Ristau's film is a personalized, often funny and well-designed vehicle.