Bye-Bye Beetle

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VW has just announced it will stop making the Beetle after 2019 – in order to “focus” on  . . . electric vehicles.

Yes, really.

Expiation, you see – for having sinnnnnnned

Which brings us to the the real reason for VW’s decision, which ties in with the extirpation of the company’s TDI diesel engines:

The current Beetle isn’t economical enough.

The original Beetle – made from the late 1930s through the early 2000s (in Mexico) was – and would likely still be in production – were it not for Uncle. It became impossible to continue producing them – even in Mexico – because of the strangulation effect of regulations that, over time, could not be complied with without re-engineering the car.

Which VW did and – voila! – the New Beetle.

It looked like the original but was more like other modern cars. It was front rather than rear-engined and its engine was a conventional inline and upright and water-cooled engine. The original Beetle’s boxer engine laid flat in the rear and was air-cooled, thus no cooling system which meant one whole system that never needed service (radiator flushes, thermostat and water pump; the coolant itself every couple of years) because it wasn’t there.

Four spark plugs, a set of points once a year, a can of carburetor cleaner. That’s about all it took to service an original Beetle. Even changing oil was cheap because that’s all you changed.

No filter. Just a screen you cleaned and then re-used.

The original Beetle was the rolling embodiment of simplicity and so economy. This made it viable on the market without major changes for almost 70 years, a feat no other car has come close to matching.

It was truly the people’s car.

The New Beetle is a modern car – and so expensive and not particularly economical. The TDI diesel engine helped balance the books, but it is gone now – and with it, the 50-something MPG capability that was one of the car’s chief virtues.

Without the TDI, the Beetle became just another small car – with a tight back seat and not much trunk – and the market has been turning away from those over the past decade in favor of crossover SUVs, which have the virtue of practicality (in terms of space efficiency) that small cars like the latter-day Beetle lacked.

Since the new Beetle couldn’t be simple or cheap – because Uncle – VW tried sexxing it up. A redesign infused it with Porsche 356 speedster-ish themes – but these ran counter to the Beetle ethos.

A $30,000-plus Beetle is as odd as a $10 Big Mac. The Speedser Beetle was – is – very quick. But that’s as beside the point as the deliciousness of the $10 Big Mac.

People bought VWs – in the past, in those big numbers VW had hoped to resurrect – for different reasons. Not for speed or sexiness or tech but because the car was the opposite those things. It was the car for everyone – another thing no modern car has ever been and likely never will be because no modern car can be.

The TDI gave the new Beetle one thing none of the others had. It was nice while it lasted.

Since the demise of the diesel, sales of the Beetle have crashed. So far this year, VW has sold just over 11,000 of them – a pale shadow of the 80,000-plus cars VW sold back in ’99.

Once the newness of the new Beetle wore off – the nostalgia-for-the-original sales – and without the 50-MPG capability of the TDI diesel engine – the New Beetle got old.

It’s interesting that while the old Beetle was ancient decades before the time of its cancellation in the early 2000s, VW was selling vastly more of them than the new Beetle. If VW were allowed to build the old car again – and if we were allowed to buy them – would we?

Too bad VW will never get the opportunity to find out.

And neither will we.

. . .

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Ferdy Porsche had the attention of his sponsor, Der Fuhrer, whom named the “Kafer” as the “Wagen der Kraft durch Freude”, or “Strength Through Joy Car”, though no one other than Hitler referred to it as anything but the “VW Beetle”. What’s interesting is the strong resemblance to a similar vehicle, the Czech-made Tatra 97, which also is a compact, rear-engined, rear-drive, with an opposed-four air-cooled engine. As the designer of the Tatra said, though, “well, sometimes Porsche ‘looked over my shoulder’ and sometimes I did his”. Tatra threatened legal action against VW in 1938, but Hitler said he’d ‘settle’ the matter, which he did…by annexing what of Czechoslovakia that the 1938 Munich conference didn’t already give him on March 15, 1939. Tatra, part of the massive Skoda works (which themselves dated back to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire), provided many useful vehicles…indeed, the German military had a problem with officers liking the somewhat, for its time, “high performance” Tatra 87 (also a RR design, but with a 2.5 litre V8), which had a nasty tendency to fishtail and roll over – the Heer had to issue an order forbidding the German military to use this car! Postwar, Tatra did seek legal action against a resurgent VW, and the matter was settled for 1,000,000 DM in 1965. We might likely had never seen a post-war VW, save for the efforts of a recently discharged British Army major, whom had the responsibility of disposal and/or reuse of the Wolfsburg factory, which, by chance itself, was BARELY within the British Zone…had Stalin insisted to include this as part of the Soviet Zone, which became the German “Democratic Republic”, or DDR in 1949, the VW might indeed have been pushed as the “People’s Car”, and the ill-fated Trabant might never have existed!

    The VW Beetle and the family of vehicles derived from it were indeed part of the “Strength Through Joy” mission – to bring up the living standards of the German working classes (it should be remembered that the official name of the “Nazi” party is Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or “National Socialist German Worker’s Party”, and indeed, Hitler was very much a left-winger as would be interpreted by American standards, with a definite move to appeal to the German working classes, for, if nothing else, fend of the Communists, which themselves were quite a political force in Weimar Germany). Hitler had a strong admiration for Henry Ford and appreciated what his Model T (“any color, as long as it’s black”) had done to put not only America, but a great deal of the world, on wheels. Indeed, for his automotive achievements, and likely his sponsorship of the “Dearborn Independent” and promulgation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as well, Ford was decorated on his 75th birthday by the German government. But the idea and even the name, “Volkswagen”, wasn’t invented by the Nazis, there was quite the effort, and not just in Germany, to develop affordable, simple cars for the masses. Hitler had co-opted the idea as part of the KdF program, but even though there was widespread participation in a saving program (one bought a postage stamp from Deustches Post as part of a payroll deduction program, which then affixed and counter-stamped it in a special savings book…when filled, your name was put on a waiting list, and then you got your car…which no German civilian ever did. Although VW production began in 1938, the first models were taken by various Government agencies, and, of course, the Nazi party itself…when war broke out in 1939, the production shifted to mainly the “Kubelwagen”, their version of an Army “Jeep”, of which over 50,000 units were made. There were some of these KWs that had the car body; I believe that only one or two are known to still exist, they are one tough “bug” indeed! Some historians believe that the KdF car was a scam all along, to get German workers, many whom would be soon drafted into the Army anyway, to unknowingly finance the production of military utility vehicles.

    Yes, by today’s standards, it is PRIMITIVE…manual choke, 4-speed stick ONLY (I believe the low gear wasn’t synchromesh on earlier models), no air conditioning, very dicey heater and defrost, and very basic trim…which was the IDEA, to keep this car as inexpensive as possible. It should be kept in mind that even with the soon-to-be-constructed Autobahnen, most driving in Germany, even today, is much shorter trips than what Americans are used to, and with narrower, more crowed roads, the Beetle’s top speed, then of 100 KPH (62 miles per hour!), was rarely approached anyway. If one traveled long distance, it was either by train or ship, as air travel was in its infancy as well, and not generally affordable to the masses like it is today. Even then, one paid dearly to travel in anything approaching the comfort of even mine own plain vanilla daily driver, a 2014 Ford Focus. Most folks scrimped and saved to make an ocean voyage, and then in “Steerage”, or if by train, even a Pullman ‘sleeper” was a luxury.

    Certainly the VW isn’t the only car that by modern standards is simple, reliable, and easy and cheap to maintain. Indeed, as Eric points out, it’s a brilliant design than might STILL be produced today, were it not for Government “Fatwas” about emissions and s-a-a-a-a-f-t-e-e-e. Besides gradual denial of the American motoring public to CHOOSE the desired vehicle(s) for THEMSELVES, there’s yet another insidious problem of mandating ever-complicated engineering of even “basic transportation” vehicles: to effectively fix them, one requires sophisticated diagnostic equipment, which often involves things that the “shadetree mechanic” simply can’t get, at least not legally or openly! When I was a lad of 16, taking auto shop (and by then, thanks to my dad, neighbors, and mine own initiative, I already knew much of the basics), we indeed tore apart and rebuilt a Beetle…this was something that a shop teacher and a class of 16 y.o. BOYS (well, I think we did have one ‘girl’, but from what I recall this ‘girl’ wore her ovaries on the outside) could easily learn and do a competent job! Nowadays, how many high schools even HAVE auto shop? Indeed, one has to go to one of these “technical colleges”, and take out gi-normous student loans to pay their rather inflated tuition, or the taxpayer picks it up for the “underprivileged”, since essentially the “repair” process is mostly running a program, typically on a dedicated tablet! Yet another anecdote of how the American Male is getting ‘de-balled” and ever-more “pussy-whipped” into oblivion.

  2. Speaking of basic cars today I saw something I haven’t seen since the early 80s. A beater ’72 Nova being used to deliver pizzas. Complete with Papa Johns sign on the roof.

  3. Not only are air cooled V Dubs cheap and economical, they are by being so the epitome of our expression of freedom. The liberty to travel for the less than super rich. The ability to easily leave some totalitarian hell hole in the dust and vote with your wheels, because voting with your feet is too slow and they will always find ways to drag you back.

    It is also a canvas for our personal expression. You can personally make it faster, more economical, run on propane, run on electric, change the body to something sexy and/or cool. And you can do this on any man’s salary.

    I learned to drive in 2 vehicles, a 49 Ford F1 with a non synchro 4 speed and a flathead (hint, when a rookie drops the clutch it doesn’t stall, it just goes “grunt, chug, chug, chug, RRRRR), and a 69 VW squareback. The art of driving is best learned in a cheap car with a heavy rear weight distribution- learned to slide, learned to recover on gravel and ice, learned the limits of the machine and my ability. Dad got me started- taught me to drive when I was 10 or so, and helped me rebuild my first engine at 7- a type 2 bus.

    I never cared for the original beetle, I put myself through high school without working for someone else by refurbishing dozens of type 3 squarebacks and fastbacks, and a couple of Karmann Ghias. That experience made the air cooled V Dub a part of who I am. And taught me what is important.

    The new stuff is wrong on every level. It is expensive, impractical, hard and expensive to change. It is designed to enslave the individual to the moneylenders, to the insurance dons, to be a lever to the ever thieving state to pry into your wallet and your business.

    The newer “squashed bug” beetle is a rather pretty car, and quick and pleasant. But so are many things a sensible man wouldn’t pay the price for.

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