Payne: Driving down memory lane in the last Volkswagen Bug
The Bug has been squashed. Again.
As the iconic Volkswagen retires from the U.S. market for the second time in 40 years, I spent a week driving down memory lane with the final model, the 2019 New Beetle. I took it to its American roots — a college campus — for my niece’s Penn State graduation.
Stylish and peppy, my Final Edition front-engine Beetle has come a long way from the 1960s Beetles that captured America’s youth. Simple and non-ostentatious, those so-called Type 1 Bugs were everywhere on university lots, the affordable first cars of generation Baby Boomer.
The tan 2019 Bug I drove was a curiosity at Penn State; it was a fashion statement that has outlived its fashion. It was also a gem, and its demise opens a flood of memories to late-boomers like me — as it surely did the early-boomers who mourned the passing of the rear-engine Bug in 1978.
Although other classics from the 1960s golden era of the automobile — Mustangs, Camaros, Challengers, Mini Coopers — have proved more sustainable than Beetle, it shares something with them. It's more than an automobile. It’s part of the cultural fabric.
Detroiters mark decades by Tigers teams, couples mark sentimental occasions with favorite ballads. I mark my years with Beetles.
My first memory of the creature is at the movies.
I come from a family of racers, and “Herbie the Love Bug” was right up our alley. When Herbie hit the screens in 1968, we were there. I adored the quirky car. It was the ultimate underdog among sleek competitors and the dastardly Peter Thorndyke.
I knew nothing at the time about the Bug’s roots in Hitler’s Germany. The Fuhrer’s brainchild for an affordable “people’s car” — hence, Volkswagen — was contracted to Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche himself was a difficult, mad genius whose rear-engine, bug-like design was the template for millions of Beetles to follow.
I doubt the students at Penn State who smiled at the passing Bug know its Third Reich history either.
That’s because it was a Brit who ultimately brought the Bug to the world. In decimated post-war Germany, Hitler-partner Porsche (his son Ferdinand would ultimately start the sports car company that bears that name) was deemed by occupying American forces to be too radioactive to lead the company he started.
British Army Maj. Ivan Hiss rescued the Volkswagen factory and installed an executive team that would export Bug to the U.S. in 1949. It would become as American as apple pie.
Credit New York’s Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach ad agency. With self-deprecating slogans like “And if you run out of gas it’s easy to push,” the Beetle was irresistible. It is featured in Paul Ingrassia’s epic book, “Engines of Change,” as one of the 15 cars (alongside the Model T, Jeep and Corvette) that changed America.
The title of Ingrassia’s Bug chapter: “Volkswagen’s long and winding road from Hitler’s cars to hippie icons.”
I didn’t know many hippies as I came of age in the '70s, but I knew plenty of fellow 16-year-olds who cut their teeth on the Beetle. Bugs were as cute as Herbie. But man, that manual transmission saw some ugly shifting.
GROOOOONCH! The sound is still stuck in my head as my friends wrestled the shifter that grew from the floor like a cornstalk, mangling shifts as they worked the clutch.
“What’s a clutch?” millennials might ask today.
My 2019 Bug is available only as an six-speed automatic, and it’s smooth as silk. On a rainy weekend at Penn State, I would toggle Sport mode in the Beetle (an electronic gizmo that would be as alien to Ferdinand Porsche as hyperspace in Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon) and shoot out of a green light, the automatic transmission effortlessly swapping cogs as the front wheels clawed at the wet payment for traction.
Front-wheel drive? The concept was as alien to the original Type 1 Bug as an automatic transmission.
By the late 1970s, governments were panicking over the OPEC-induced oil crisis and forcing manufacturers to make more fuel-efficient cars. VW developed the front-wheel drive, four-door Golf hatchback, which also happened to be more utilitarian than the two-door Bug and its cramped rear seat.
As the Golf thrived, the Bug wilted. VW eventually put it put to pasture in 1978 (it continued production in Mexico until 2003 for foreign markets).
Then VW marketers heard the sighs of late-boomers like me.
In 1996, the Bug kicked off a Decade of Nostalgia that included retro redesigns of cars including the Mustang, Camaro, Mini, Ford Thunderbird and more.
Now a fashion statement instead of a mass-market car, the New Beetle was aimed at women, complete with dashboard flower vase and bright colors right out of my wife’s spring dress collection. The New Beetle was still affordable and sold well initially. Ironically, it was based on the Golf chassis that had killed the original Type 1.
The New Beetle also shares the Golf’s peppy 2.0-liter, 174-horse turbo-4, a long way from the Type 1’s 30-horsepower hamster wheel.
But for all its Golf underpinnings, the New Beetle is unmistakably a Bug. Everything is cute and round: headlights, fenders, shifter base, speakers.
The New Beetle could never expand its female demographic to us motorhead males, though goodness knows the carmaker tried. I took a bright-yellow and black New Beetle to the race track known as the Autobahn in 2014. Dubbed the “Bumblebee” – a Bug with a stinger – it was stuffed with the Golf GTI’s 210-horse four-banger. It was a blast. But what motorhead would pass up a GTI for a Bumblebee?
Dressing it in Herbie’s red and blue racing stripes and No. 53 might have been a better idea.
And so the second-generation New Beetle has come to its natural end. With leather seats, sunroof, push-button start and modern gizmos like blind-spot assist, the 2019 Final Edition is a bargain at $26,000, just like its grandfather. Get it while you can.
Five years ago, on the Beetle’s 65th anniversary, I test-drove a 1949 Type 1 Beetle, one of the first of its kind sold in the United States. For $1,268 new, it had roll-up windows, no air-conditioning and non-adjustable cloth seats. Zero-60? 28 seconds. Top speed? 68 mph. It’s hard to imagine these things once were ubiquitous on American roads.
And it’s also hard to imagine American roads without them. So long, Bug. Something tells me we’ll see another version of you someday.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.