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Volkswagen’s air-cooled models were once a ubiquitous sight on American roads. Most spent decades tirelessly commuting, but a handful earned their keep by helping entrepreneurs launch some of the best-known companies in the United States. Domino’s Pizza, Ben & Jerry’s, and Nike all rose to prominence to the tune of a flat-four.
The first Domino’s location was a restaurant named DomiNick’s in Ypsilanti, Mich. Brothers Tom and James Monaghan purchased it for $900 in 1960 (about $8,000 in 2020) and used a 1959 Beetle to deliver pizza after learning how to make the dough in 15 minutes from Dominick, the original owner. James Monaghan, who worked full-time as a mail carrier, sold his share in the business in exchange for the Beetle about a year after taking over the business, leaving Tom as the sole owner. It must have sounded like a good deal at the time.
Dominick’s became Domino’s when Tom learned he couldn’t franchise the original owner’s name. Fast forward to 2020, and the company operates stores all over the world. The odds of getting a pizza delivered by a Beetle are low, and no one knows what happened to the 1959 model that zig-zagged across Ypsilanti carrying hot pies 60 years ago, but there’s a replica of it parked in the lobby of the company’s Ann Arbor, Mich., headquarters.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have a similar story, but theirs involves a Type 3, which was better known as the Squareback. In 1978, they invested $12,000 (nearly $50,000 in 2020) to open a scoop shop in a former gas station located in Burlington, Vt. They sold ice cream out of this location and used the Squareback to deliver 2.5-gallon tubs to local businesses. Sales took off so the firm upgraded to a refrigerated truck in 1980.
Don’t waste time trying to track down the Squareback in the local classifieds. The salt Vermont pours on its roads to clear snow and ice in the winter took a big toll on the body and the wagon was scrapped in the 1980s.
Meanwhile on the West Coast, Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight set up Blue Ribbon Sports (which ultimately became Nike) in 1964 without the help of a Volkswagen. Their story became intertwined with the flat-four when they hired their first employee, Jeff Jefferson, and asked him to sell shoes at track meets in Southern California. Shoe boxes take more space than ice cream or pizza so he turned his personal Bus into a mobile store. It helped Blue Ribbon Sports earn a loyal clientele, which set the foundations for Nike’s success during the 1970s. Its whereabouts is unknown in 2020.