Monday, December 14, 2009

Auf Wiedersehen, Mein Freund

Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, "the Beetle is dead." After a pretty good run, the second incarnation of the People's Car is finished as of the end of model year 2010. The Volkswagen Corporation is doing just fine, danke vielmals (sounds like "dunk a fieldmouse" and means "thank you very much"). But the Beetle will have to slip off into memory once again. So let's wander off into a little old nostalgia, some recent ruminations, and some speculation about a third incarnation for the doughty little beast.

I'm sure you all know that the original VW was the creation of the famous Dr. Porsche. Although his party loyalties were very poor, he still followed the orders of Der Fuehrer because he was obsessed with the concept of creating a car for the people which would fit Hitler's criteria. Most noticeably, the car had to be cheap enough for any German family to afford, yet rugged and easy to maintain. Porsche succeeded--beyond his own wildest expectations.

Hitler didn't last. The Beetle did. In fact, in slightly modified form, the original incarnation lasted nearly seventy years. Millions of nearly-identical cars were produced. Oh, sure, they got rid of the split rear window, enlarged the windshield, changed the headlights a little, but it was mostly cosmetic. The spartan interior didn't change much either. Basically, seats with no patterns or designs, and simple pedals and a steering wheel for the driver. Originally, there wasn't even a gas gauge. You simply waited for the car to start sputtering, turned a valve, and got the remaining gas you needed from a small reserve tank. Four on the floor was standard, but it didn't exactly have the same meaning as it did for later American muscle car drivers. The car needed four gears just to get the low-powered, air-cooled aluminum engine up to the top speed of about 65 mph decreed by Hitler. And that took about thirty seconds. Parts were easily and cheaply purchased, and even the most amateurish of home mechanics could do most of the work themselves.

The car was "cute." It developed the affectionate nickname of beetle, or bug very quickly. People didn't like their VWs, they loved them. They became family members, often with names. People painted them in all sorts of creative ways so they could find theirs in a crowded parking lot. Often, a starving student with a crumpled fender on his tan VW could only find a bargain-priced replacement in blue or black. And often it remained that way for the life of the car. And somehow, that only made the car more lovable. You could bury it in snow overnight, and yet there was a substantial chance the car would kick over almost immediately when you hit the starter. Legends abounded about drivers inadvertently driving off the road into rivers and floating in their air-tight unibody VWs to a place of safety.

Toward the end of its run, the engines were enlarged, the interiors made a little fancier, a gas gauge was added, and they even came up with a little trick they called the "automatic stick shift." I actually owned one of those. Every time I did the lazy American trick of leaning my hand on the stick on the freeway, the transmission went out of gear and the engine roared like a dying lion. The stick, you see, was also the clutch which allowed you to go from forward to reverse. Meanwhile, the Japanese imports began to creep up with lower prices, more powerful engines and more variation to choose from.

The second incarnation didn't fare as well nor last as long. The new beetle appeared in 1998. But it was a completely different car. It was designed to appeal to those younger people who thought the VW beetle had been a cute car, but had no idea what its actual purpose was. The base price was a killer for those who didn't have extra bucks to spend on "cute." The simplicity was gone beneath the familiar exterior. The rear air-cooled little engine was replaced with a much more elaborate front engine drive with standard transmission train. Cheap and easy maintenance was gone. Most amateur mechanics wouldn't even attempt a simple oil change. And they even had things like electric heat, air-conditioning and power windows. In other words, it looked like a beetle, but it wasn't really a beetle. And when the novelty wore off, sales dropped like a stone. The competition for the market niche had expanded immensely, with the addition of names like Scion and Kia for the plain-jane market.

So could there be a third incarnation? The original was rendered impossible to put on the road near the end of its run by huge government demands for emissions control, crash survivability, and interior safety features. But the Germans are a creative lot, and the main attractions of the first people's car have now been put back into the mix. With the economy slipping, affordability is a major concern again. People are looking for smaller, simpler, cheaper and more efficient cars. With some clever safety additions, and a way to make the old engine less polluting, that cutie might just make its way back onto the market in the future.

The dung beetle was the ancient Egyptian symbol for resurrection. It seemed to disappear into the earth with a ball of dung, only to reappear later in greater size and strength, frequently along with a whole breed of new offspring. Don't be surprised if you someday see the beetle emerge from a pile of government dung, better and cuter than ever.

19 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Honestly, I never cared for the Beetle. I did have a '79 Rabbit though. . . great car!

Tennessee Jed said...

Like Andrew, I never owned a beetle, although I got to drive one on several ocassions. I had both a diesel powered Jetta during the 1978 gas crisis, as well as a Jetta GLI (wolf in sheeo's clothing.) The diesel was a real pig, but I loved driving right up to the diesel pump when everybody else was in odd day long line rationing mode. The GlI was a poor man's beemer, but I did love that car; it was loads of fun to drive.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I had a lot of fun with my little bug, but it definitely had its flaws. I had to commute from Livermore (far East Bay) where we had our first home to San Francisco (where I worked) everyday, and the beetles weren't wind-stabilized. When those crosswinds hit (as they frequently do on the Bay Bridge) I was all over the lanes. Surprised I didn't get stopped for drunk driving (but then they would have had to stop all those other VWs too). It finally went bye-bye when a drunk driver (he really was drunk) suddenly made a left turn in front of me at an intersection. I hit the windshield, and the poor bug accordioned, at very low speed. That was one of the safety features they needed to correct. And I had my seatbelt on.

LawHawkSF said...

Tennessee: The two icons of VW (the beetle and the bus) were the right things for their times, but in their original manifestations couldn't get past a single safety check today. But VW has made some great automobiles since. My sister-in-law had a Scirocco that was really hot. One of my former employees still has a Touareg, which is really just the poor man's Porsche Cayenne. I've been seriously considering a Passat for when I finally get out of SF and need a car again. On the other hand, that Eos looks darned sharp (I still can't shake my love of convertibles and sports cars).

patti said...

our neighbor across the street just bought an original and seems to be restoring it. lots of revving the loud, distinctive, engine early in the mornings. adorable but annoying...

LawHawkSF said...

Patti: Sorry to hear about your morning wake-up calls. The most common description of a beetle at idle was "a washing machine being used to clean nuts and bolts." Fully revved on the highway, it sounded like a sissy fan jet.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I know people who've rolled them and smushed them into bigger cars. They all survived, the car didn't. Easy to work on.

StanH said...

In the early to mid ‘70s I knew several people with bugs. Fun to cruise around in, a bit stiff, but a definite icon of the ‘60s and ‘70s. That would piss the Fuehrer off knowing that the peoples car, became a symbol of the counter culture.

DCAlleyKat said...

Seems like every decade finds me saying goodbye to a 'beetle/beatle'...sigh.

BevfromNYC said...

My dad had a '64 "Bug" and we all used to go everywhere in it. We'd putt-putt around town and really intimidate truckers with that squeek of a horn! I was the youngest and the smallest, so I got to ride in the "way back" (the little space behind the back seat). And I have great pictures of my brother overhauling his '69 Bug for his long trip from Dallas to graduate school in Boston in the late '70's. Fun times...

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Provided you survived the crash, any amateur could put new fenders, bumpers, hoods and trunk lids on a bug (assuming, of course, that the frame was torgued). I forgave my bug for crumbling, but after it was fixed, I traded it in for a Mercury for my wife and I took over reliable ole Bessy--her '67 Chevelle Malibu.

LawHawkSF said...

StanH: Poor Adolf. The monster created a monster! LOL

LawHawkSF said...

DCAlleyKat: I know the feeling.

Bev: I had forgotten about the horn. If it stopped working, I could do a vocal version of it that was just as loud (and just as intimidating). Very funny. We stuffed all kinds of things in that little space behind the seat, occasionally including my dog. Then we got a second dog--Petunia, the St. Bernard. She barely fit in the back seat.

Mike Kriskey said...

I have to admit I'm surprised that some Beetles were watertight. The three that I've ridden in (in the 70s) all had clear views of the pavement through the holes in the floor. I thought that was cool.

LawHawkSF said...

Mike: I strongly suspect you're right. As I said, the air-tight floating VW was legend, and I'm guessing the stories were a bit, shall we say, overwrought. LOL

CrispyRice said...

Hey, I drive a Scion! ;)~

I always wanted a Beetle (original) back in high school, but my parents said, "No, they roll too easily." A good friend of mine got one and had it about 4 days before she rolled it. Ummmm...

I did go test drive the new one (when I bought my Scion xA instead) and didn't really like driving it all. *sigh*

I DO like the Passat, though.

Nice article! :)

LawHawkSF said...

CrispyRice: The price of owning a beetle was eternal vigilance. If you didn't know about its quirky suspension and instability you were a rollover waiting to happen. The microbus was even worse, but if it's good enough for the Partridge Family, it's good enough for me.

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--I'm trying to picture anybody making a movie entitled "Herbie, The Love Hummer." Wait a minute, I think I actually saw that in the window of a local adult video store. Never mind.

LawHawkSF said...

HamiltonsGhost: Go back and see if it's the Linda Lovelace version or the distinctly inferior Lindsay Lohan version. LOL

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