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R.I.P. Bug:Beetle no longer the car of the people


The VW Beetle, at his point, has been in production in Puebla, Mexico, longer than it ever was in Germany. - Matt Bubbers
The VW Beetle, at his point, has been in production in Puebla, Mexico, longer than it ever was in Germany. - Matt Bubbers

PUEBLA, Mexico — Go out into the city of Puebla, Mexico, on Oct. 31 after the sun goes down and you’ll see costumes, candy and face paint, but this isn’t Halloween.

The Day of the Dead, or El Dia de los Muertos our guide explained, is more like a celebration for the dead.

Last October, we were in Puebla, the place where the Volkswagen Beetle was made, to celebrate its impending death. Admittedly, this is a strange thing to do for a car, but for many people the Beetle was part of the family.

In the 1930s, Hitler hired Ferdinand Porsche to make a cheap, simple car for the people, something that would get the country moving on the new Autobahns.

Porsche often gets credit for the design, but the Beetle owes as much, if not more, to other engineers: a Hungarian named Béla Barényi; Hans Ledwinka, chief designer for Czech automaker Tatra; and a Jewish engineer named Joseph Ganz who was chased out of Germany by the Gestapo. They each played large roles in the creation of the car we know today as the Beetle.

By the end of the war in 1945, the Nazi regime had only managed to produce 630 of the “KdF Wagens,” according to Volkswagen’s own historians. It was under the British military government — which took over what is now Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg factory — that the first Beetle, known as the Type 1, was made. It rolled off the line just after Christmas in 1945.

Given the post-war anti-German sentiment, it was a tough sell in America. The Bug looked like a frightened insect — hence the nickname — and it was hopelessly slow. The company sold only two Beetles in the U.S. in 1949 said Jeffrey Lear, the current product manager for the Beetle. But, American buyers soon discovered its basic charm. The Beetle did fulfil its original purpose, becoming cheap transport for the masses and — as unlikely as it seems given its origins — a symbol of the 1960s counter-culture. At a time when American cars all looked like enormous slabs of steel, here was the opposite, the rotund little Bug. The famous “Think Small” advertisement struck a chord.

Marsha Hollinshead, a current Beetle owner, remembers her grandparents had one in the ’60s, which they imported from Germany. It was so different from everything else on the road at the time, she said. “I just remember it being kind of cold,” she added. With the engine in the back, the heater was famously ineffective.

Lear remembers his mother telling the story of how, when she was a girl, her parents moved the entire family across the country in a Beetle: two parents, two children and all their prized possessions in this little car.

In Canada, nearly half a million of those original Beetles were sold from 1952 to 1979. In Mexico, production continued until 2003.

Beetle purists would say the New Beetle, which went on sale in 1998 with a flower vase on the dashboard, was no Beetle at all. It had the engine in the front, instead of the back. It was water-cooled, not air-cooled. And, most damning of all, it was no longer meant to be cheap transport for the masses.

Remembering the bug

 Javier Lara’s 1984 Beetle, dressed up to celebrate the Day of the Dead. - Matt Bubbers
Javier Lara’s 1984 Beetle, dressed up to celebrate the Day of the Dead. - Matt Bubbers

The cause of the Beetle’s death is complicated.

When Volkswagen announced last September it was killing off the Bug, the response was like an outpouring of grief. It was news. People who didn’t normally care about cars suddenly cared that production of this one was ending.

Everyone had a Beetle story, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given that more than 21 million of them have been produced.

“I’m so sad!” exclaimed Marsha Hollinshead. She can’t remember exactly how many modern Beetles she has owned. Probably six or seven. She brought her son home from the hospital in a VW (although not a Beetle) which — long story short — is the reason he eventually landed a job at Volkswagen. Her current Beetle is Habanero Orange. She’s been complimented on the car by men and women. “Which kind of surprised me,” she said, “that men have said how much they like it.”

Javier Lara bought a beat-up 1984 Beetle that had been used as a taxi in Mexico for 19 years and restored it himself using a hodgepodge of parts. When we meet, he is driving it around Puebla with a light-up shrine on its roof to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

Upon hearing the news about the Beetle, my cousin, who is 15, cried, “Aw, not the Punch Buggy!” Although, in her case it’s unclear if she’ll miss the car or the fact there will be fewer opportunities to punch her brothers.

Making the bug

At this point, the Beetle is arguably more Mexican than it is German. It has been in production in Puebla longer than it ever was in Germany.

The scale of the Volkswagen factory in Puebla is almost impossible to imagine. It’s like a small city: there’s a convenience store on the corner, and a fire department. Up to 2,300 vehicles are stamped, welded, painted, assembled and finished here each day by 14,000 workers, according to the company.

If the USMCA negotiations had gone differently, ending Beetle production would’ve likely not been the only change that came to this factory, but production still hummed along when were there last fall.

A metal press the size of a gymnasium stamped out steel fenders. Inside another enormous building, door-less cars — not just Beetles, but Tiguan SUVs and Jetta sedans — passed overhead. There was always noise: grinding, thumping, squeaking. A robotic welding arm zapped metal as sparks flew. At the finish line, four lanes of completed cars inched forward on conveyor belts. It was a well-rehearsed ballet of labour and logistics.

Squashing the Bug

 Wolfsburg edition Beetles at a VW dealership in Puebla, Mexico. - Matt Bubbers
Wolfsburg edition Beetles at a VW dealership in Puebla, Mexico. - Matt Bubbers

Driving the 2019 Beetle Wolfsburg Edition — a run-out special edition with quilted leather seats and two-tone wheels — on the roads around Puebla cured any sense of loss. The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and six-speed automatic transmission felt gutless at highway speeds. Even with the gearbox in “Sport” mode the throttle pedal only had a vague relationship to the speed of the car. At least the chassis felt good, and rode reasonably comfortably over the potholed roads.

The original Beetle was famously slow, but since it’s no longer the cheapest thing on wheels expectations are higher. The starting price of the Wolfsburg Edition is $24,475 for the coupe and $28,475 for the convertible. You can buy a Chevy Spark for $10,095 or a mid-range Nissan Versa hatchback for $18,000. Even VW’s own Jetta sedan is slightly cheaper.

“The Beetle defined affordable mobility; that’s what its job was throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” said Lear, the product manager. The new model, he said, “is more a style icon.”

The New Beetle’s job was not to provide cheap transportation but to tap into baby boomer nostalgia just like the re-born Ford Thunderbird, new Mini, or Chrysler PT Cruiser.

The New Beetle quickly gained a reputation as a car for women; in 2010, 61 per cent of buyers were female, according to Polk data. Volkswagen publicly announced its intention to make the all-new 2012 Beetle more “masculine” with Super Bowl ads and sporty special editions like the Black Turbo. As ridiculous as all that is, it worked. The gender split evened out.

There’s no doubt the Wolfsburg Editions will be snapped up by fans and collectors, but nostalgia for the Bug isn’t what it used to be.

Each Beetle generation has done worse than its predecessor. On average, VW sold 18,000 original Bugs per year in Canada. The New Beetle averaged 3,500 sales per year, while the current Beetle averaged around 2,000.

“The Beetle had a pretty good run over three generations,” says Lear.

If there is any hope for the Beetle’s future, it is electric. Volkswagen will re-launch the Hippie Van in 2022 as an all-electric model. The I.D. Concept car shown at the Paris auto show in 2016 certainly looks Beetle-esque.

The fact is, the Beetle survived Hitler and the war, but it’s no longer basic transportation and it can’t survive the onslaught of SUVs and waning nostalgia. Expect the celebration of the Beetle to continue at least until July when the “Final Edition” Beetle rolls off the line in Puebla.

R.I.P. Bug.

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