The name change – even if April Foolsey – is indicative of what this change is all about.
The Volkswagen was – literally – the people’s car. It was Germany’s open emulation of America’s people’s car, the Ford Model T.
In terms of their looks and layouts, they were as different as a square and a circle. Henry’s car had a water-cooled, inline four cylinder engine up front powering rear wheels, out back. It was angular and upright and jacked up off the ground – to enable travel over America’s then mostly dirt roads.
The Beetle – as the first Volkswagen was affectionally called – had its air-cooled horizontally opposed four cylinder engine mounted in the rear – on top of the rear wheels – and it was as round as the T was not.
It sat low, to take advantage of aerodynamics and Germany’s new system of Autobahns, which predated America’s Interstates – which emulated them – by more than 20 years.
Yet both reflected the same wonderful concept, that of putting people behind the wheel. Which opened up not just the road but possibilities that average people of modest means had never previously had. With a people’s car – whether it was the Model T or a Beetle – the people were mobile. Just like that, they were freed from the necessity of having to stay put – or stay close. They could live at a distance from where they worked. They did not have to consider the proximity of the bus stop or the train station to either.
And go wherever they liked.
Neither car was fast – although the Beetle was capable of a higher top speed, around 60 MPH for the original 1930s version vs. about 45 for the T – with a tailwind. And both were basic, even by the standards of nearly 100 years ago.
But that was intentional. Both cars were designed to be inexpensive so that more people could afford them.
Practically anyone, in fact.
Both cars not only put a generation of people behind the wheel, they put future generations behind it, too. The Ts and Beetles purchased new by the former were hand-me-downs to the latter, providing those people with even more affordable mobility.
For many people, a used T or Beetle was their first “new” car – in the case of the Beetle, well into the ‘80s and even the ‘90s as old Beetles were still commonly available for next to nothing up to then. Your Libertarian Car Guy drove one during and after college – a ’74 Super Beetle – which was purchased for $700 in the early ‘90s.
It enabled me to work and save the money I earned, rather than spend it on a car payment to be able to go to work. Whenever it needed work, I was able to fix it – often without having to spend anything. It helped me buy my first house. And – these tangibles aside – it created cantankerous memories I cherish to this day, including the time the hood came unlatched on the highway and flew up against the windshield – the 1930s version of Drowsy Driver Alert.
The Volstwagen and its electrified ilk will reverse all of this – because most people cannot afford them.
A Voltswagen – the pending ID.4 – has a base price of $40,000 ($39,995 to be precise). This is equivalent – in Volkswagen terms – to the cost of four 1965 Beetles, which sold for about $1,400 brand-new back in 1965, equivalent in today’s money to about $11,000 each.
Yes, of course – the Voltswagen comes standard with amenities the Volkswagen never offered, such as air conditioning and glowing electric screens to peck at. All of which is beside the point if people cannot afford it – and most people cannot afford to spend $40,000 on a car.
The Voltswagen is also not owner-serviceable. There will be no Manual for the Compleat Idiot – a reference that will be familiar to anyone who ever owned a Volkswagen. Apologists for the Voltswagen tout the elimination of the need to change engine oil and other grubby procedures. But when the Voltswagen does need a procedure, it’s off to the dealer.
Which – again – is no problem if you can afford to pay the dealer. How many people can?
The Volkswagen was for people who couldn’t.
It kept them on the road that way – instead of in the poorhouse. Younger people, especially. An old Volswagen was their ticket not to ride but to drive, without going broke. It empowered them financially as well as individually. They were no longer dependent on others for a a ride – or the government-corporate nexus for “mobility.”
Volkswagens aged well. There are probably still more of them in driveable shape today than there are electric cars – notwithstanding that VW hasn’t sold a new old Beetle in the United States since the late ’70s, which was a long time ago.
The Voltswagen won’t last a long time because it isn’t designed to. Batteries are inherently disposable and when it costs as much as a Volkswagen once cost to by a new battery for a Voltswagen, most people will not . . . because they cannot afford to.
Which will make the Voltswagen disposable.
It’s a shame what we’ve lost. What’s been taken away.
Volkswagen – the company – had been building new Volkswagens until quite recently. A whole line of affordable people’s cars with stupendous range (700-plus highway miles) and no wait plus Beetle-like longevity due to their being powered by diesel engines. These were available for a little more than half the price (about $22,000 as recently as 2015) of the 2021 Voltswagen.
Volkswagen had another one in the works, too – a small, diesel-hybrid powered commuter car that was expected to be capable of 240 MPG and which – had it ever been mass-produced – would probably have cost a great deal less than the Voltswagen, as its diesel-hybrid engine is (was) much less inherently expensive than the Voltswagen’s all-electric drivetrain.
It was small, it wasn’t laden with amenities.
But it was – it would have been – affordable (as well as practical) and thus a modern people’s car.
Instead, the people will get the Voltswagen. Which most of them won’t, actually. Because most of them won’t be able to afford it.
. . .
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