Autobiography of BS©: How Car Catalogs Killed Creatives

VW Scirocco GTI 1976

Three severely camouflaged VW Scirocco GTI 1976 were flown to Los Angeles

Did you ever hold a 70s vintage Volkswagen car catalog in your hands? You know, the ones without a picture of a car on the cover? Just “The Rabbit,” “Der Käfer,” “Le Golf?” One distinct color per model, that’s it? Yes, those were the handiwork of yours truly. Making them was dangerous business. Those catalogs left dead bodies behind.

My cartalogs were even exhibited at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. In a “mass production” exhibit. A shock-wave assaulted my artistic pride. After it had abated, I had to concede that the museum was right: We cranked the catalogs out in assembly line fashion.

At the time, I had advanced from lowly copywriter to the lofty title of Creative Director of our advertising agency in Düsseldorf, Germany. I was in charge of a horde of 20 creative types. Rumor had it that when it came to hiring, my decision making was guided by physical factors alone: Copywriters had to be big bruisers, engage in body building, martial arts, and motocross biking. Art Directors had to be thin, sicklish, and at least had to look effeminate.

The most important part in the creation of a new catalog was the decision where to shoot the pictures. The location discussion took longer and was taken more seriously than producing the catalog. Except for brand new models. Those had to be photographed in utter secrecy, which led to the great Ehra-Lessien duck kill, chronicled in an earlier chapter of the Autobiography of BS.

Facelifts or new variants could be photographed in broad daylight. Daylight played the most important role in the discussions of where to shoot the cars. Everybody was seriously convinced that we needed that special light, only available in certain locations. The weather should be bright and sunny, otherwise the photography would get interrupted and delayed by rain. Sun was very important. It just so happened that the best suited locations were always close to a beach, in an area with touristic appeal, served by fancy hotels. Photographers, Art Directors, and the many suits of VW who had to accompany the photo shoot for supervisory, security, and whatever other reasons, all were in total agreement when it came to the requirements of a photo location.

The day’s work of a photo shoot was usually very short: Cars were shot at sunrise and at sunset. Again, “because of the light.” In between, there was time to hit the beaches, explore bars, and to familiarize oneself with the models that had been carefully cast before.

I once had suggested photographing the cars north of the Polar Circle, in Finland, during midsummer. While the sun would set at midnight, we would shoot some pictures. Then we would turn the car around and wait for the sunrise which would occur minutes later. 23 hours of uninterrupted free time! That suggestion never received traction. No beaches or fancy hotels beyond the Polar Circle.

I believe it was the launch of the Scirocco GTI, 1976. At the time, I was living in Düsseldorf with my American girlfriend, a short five feet tall, her mother was a Manhattan slumlord who lived in a co-op at 64th and 2nd. If you are my age and you lived in NYC at the time, you probably know who I’m talking about. She was a bit promiscuous. Now you remember her. Yeah, the good old times.

Scirocco I Catalog

Apage from the Scirocco I catalog

The Scirocco GTI was the perfect car to photograph in the wild. The difference was the 110 hp engine underhood. Outside, not much that couldn’t be added with careful retouching.

Again, the big location discussion ensued.

Nice? Sardinia? Majorca?

My guys had worked hard and I wanted to reward them with something special: “This is an exceptional car. It deserves an extraordinary location,” I declared.

“Where?”

“Los Angeles. The light is wonderful in Los Angeles.”

Neither my guys at the agency, nor the suits at Volkswagen, nor the photographer and crew had ever been to Los Angeles. Within minutes, they were deeply convinced that there was no better light and no better location for that car than Los Angeles. I was thanked for the artistically adroit inspiration.

Weeks later, three Scirocco GTIs (with the “GTI” removed from the rear to disguise the car’s true nature) were loaded on a 747, headed for LAX. My main Art Director didn’t want to go. In tune with my personnel selection process, he was a frail diabetic and was worried about the strain of the trip.

Art Director second-in-line gladly accepted the assignment. He joined a huge crew, consisting of the photographer, his assistants, models and anybody at the Volkswagen advertising department that was remotely connected with catalogs. All piled into another 747 and off they went.

I didn’t go on photo shoots anymore. I sent my people. I stayed behind in Düsseldorf and focused on more pressing matters. Such as hard partying.

A few days later, a loud, headache-inducing rrrrrriiiiing awoke me from a short sleep. I had a massive hangover. I decided to ignore the rrrrrrriiiiiiiing. Thankfully, it stopped. I settled back into my sorely needed sleep. The phone rang again. Angrier. Louder. Downright demandingly. I shook my head to clear the cobwebs, a move I immediately regretted. Serious headaches punished me for doing it. I clambered over Ms. Five Feet.

I picked up the phone.

“Hallo?” I said with a hoarse and annoyed voice.

“Bertel?” said a voice from far away, with the transatlantic echo of those times.

“Yeah, who’s that?”

It was Herr P., the trusted Master Sergeant of the Volkswagen Advertising Department, who had led the Wolfsburg contingent to Hollywood.

“Bertel, are you sitting down?”

“Sitting down? I’m in bed! With a splitting headache and a roaring hangover.”

“Well, you may need another drink. Your Art Director is dead.”

“He’s what?”

“Dead.”

“Herr P! It’s 9 in the morning. As I said, I have a splitting headache and a roaring hangover, and I am in no mood for distasteful jokes.”

“No joke. He’s dead.”

“You are shitting me, right?”

“I wish I were. He didn’t show up for the evening shoot. We called him, no answer. Hotel security opened his door. He was in bed. Dead.”

I slowly started to believe that he wasn’t pulling my chain.

“He’s dead? Seriously?”

“I don’t joke about these things.”

“What did he die of?”

“We have no idea. It just happened.”

Ever the copywriter, a banner headline formed in my tortured head:

“Death In Hollywood: Ad Man Overdoses In Hotel Suite.”

Someone had told me that the photographer was a friend of illicit substances, and that he shared his goodies sometimes.

I hit the shower and set off for the office. As the man in charge, I had to inform the parents who lived in Switzerland and whom I had never met. Then, as gently as possible, I had to tell my Art Director’s girlfriend, with whom he had shacked up with, that her “fiancé” would not come back due to the fact that he had died of so far unknown causes.

She cried a lot. She sobbed that because they were not married, she would not receive any benefits, that she didn’t have a job, and that she was penniless. Moved by her tears, and not wanting another headache, I told her that the finance dept of the agency could possibly “overlook” that he had died, they would continue paying three monthly salaries until they detect the error, which hopefully would give her time to re-arrange her life.

That done, I instructed Art Director One to forget his diabetes, to pack his stuff and get his skinny rear end on a plane to L.A.

The next day, Herr P. was on the phone again. The coroner’s report was in. Thankfully, there was no overdose. Unbeknownst to me, but not surprisingly, Art Director Two had suffered from epilepsy, had an attack while in bed, and had choked on his arm. After Herr P. had finished relaying the report, he said: “And where is my new Art Director? The photo shoot must go on!!!”

“Herr P! The Art Director is at the pharmacy to buy a two week supply of needles, insulin and whatever else diabetics need. Then he will be on a plane. Or would you rather have a second corpse on your hands?”

“Watch your mouth, Bertel. And get on with it.”

“Yessir.”

Fast forward eight years. I had moved to the U.S. and was asked to come back to manage the whole agency. On my return, I saw that the fiancé of deceased Art Director Two had shacked up with diabetic Art Director One. She must have had an attraction to skinny boys. Whatever.

One morning, the phone rang. It was her. She was in tears and distraught.

“Could you come to the apartment, please?”

“Why?”

“He’s dead.”

Not again!

Like Art Director Two, he had died in his sleep. Diabetic coma. The girlfriend’s situation was the same as 8 years ago. Not married. No benefits.

I gave her the same three-month solution. With one caveat:

“If you ever get close to one of my Art Directors again, there will be another death. And it will be you.”

This story from the SWWE (Stories We Wrote Elsewhere) archives appeared first on June 21, 2009 in Thetruthaboutcars.com