Can VW’s New Beetle shed boomer nostalgia to win younger hearts?


20 years ago this year—July 20, to be precise—Volkswagen’s factory in Puebla, Mexico, made the very last Beetle. While the O.G. vintage Bugs have a guaranteed place in the hearts of most car enthusiasts, let’s take a moment to examine the evolving legacy of the New Beetle. You may have seen this story on the Hagerty UK website last June; it’s reproduced here unchanged. —Ed. 

It’s probably fair to say the awkwardly named Volkswagen New Beetle, launched in 1997, was not an outstanding car, even if being based on the Mk4 Golf means it was never a bad one.

A proportion of you will balk at the idea of this Bug being a future classic, regardless of its objective capabilities. Revivals of much-loved names tend to get a short shrift with enthusiasts, particularly if they seem a bit cynical, with an uncomfortable whiff of cashing-in hanging in the air.

New Beetle was certainly that. It was absolutely targeted at those who fondly remembered the 1960s and 1970s. But it was far from the only attempt to leverage such nostalgia, so we can’t level this accusation at Volkswagen alone. The Rover Group for one, for whom the original Mini was still trudging on (and whose ’90s brochures went barely a paragraph without mentioning Carnaby Street, Twiggy, or miniskirts), and was preparing the P4-inspired 75 in the background.

The press meanwhile were convinced a “new 2CV” was on the way, and Chrysler was busy launching the PT Cruiser—pseudo-’40s or ’50s really, but very much bait for baby boomers. Remember that this was the era of the two-seat roadster revival kicked off by Mazda, a phenomenon which echoed the first roadster boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

The New Beetle fit right in. It was a bullseye for customers whose kids had flown the nest and could now settle down with the warm, fuzzy familiarity of a retro design, trading boring, Golf-style practicality for old-car styling without old-car quirks. And, with the 1960s heavy in contemporary pop culture (Britpop was a revival of the mop-haired bands of the ’60s, ravers were the new stoners, tie-dye was making a weird comeback) even younger buyers would “get it.”

The advertisements, designed by long-standing VW ad agency DDB, harped on the retro theme. “Less flower. More power” read one; “The engine’s in the front, but its heart’s in the same place,” ran another.

2005 VW Beetle dash closeup

The first tagline was only half true, of course: famously, the New Beetle was, in a rather self-aware way, fitted with a small vase on the dashboard into which you could plonk a large, petalled motif of the late 1960s.

One thing you might have forgotten is that the car was actually very well received by the press. Most noted it was not the quickest vehicle, with its old-tech, 2-liter eight-valve from the Mk3 Golf. The available 1.9-liter TDI engine was in a relatively low state of tune, too (though some noted its gravely note was most similar to that of a classic Beetle’s flat-four).

Most reviewers could tell the New Beetle wasn’t set up as a handler. Many noted the appalling rear headroom from that sloping window, and a few had reservations over the plastic football field VW called a dashboard, which made the front corners of the car basically invisible and every attempt at parking a test of nerves.

VW Beetle 1999 interior

That said, it’s not like the original Beetle was perfect. The New Beetle was still a tidy drive, particularly for those who still had memories of how badly a ropey original could get down the road. Reviewers loved the materials and details (this was peak “blue backlit dials” era for VW) and enjoyed the overwhelmingly positive reaction from bystanders even more. Jeremy Clarkson, of all people, even went as far as saying the first Turbo model in the U.K. would be his (though there’s no record of whether he kept that promise).

Age has now wearied the New Beetle just as it would have done 25-year old examples of the original back in 1997, and today the model hovers in that uncomfortable territory between cheap banger and emerging classic.

The original once suffered in that limbo, too. People knew it was iconic even at its lowest ebb, but just like Minis and other budget cars, the classic Beetle spent an awful long time as a disposable product, cheap, rotting away, and terrifying penny-pinching owners with handling quirks unique to its 1940s origins. The New Beetle at least kept you out of the hedges.

The important thing is that those that survived now have a following. And that, more than anything else, is why I think the New Beetle will be viewed with increasing fondness. It didn’t become the icon of a social movement like its ancestor, but take a look at how many younger buyers have adopted the model today and are modifying it just like its predecessor.

In the last few weeks alone I’ve seen a convertible custom-painted in a 1950s black and cream (complete with polished chrome hubcaps), and another that looked like it had escaped the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, with external fuel cans and grilles over the lights. Search online and you’ll find highly-modified Turbos, V5s on air ride, and even track-modified cars. Highly personalized, plentiful parts, a thriving community … any of this sound familiar?

In the end, it barely even matters that Volkswagen called it a Beetle (with or without the “New” prefix). The important bit is that owners loved them when new and bought the thing in droves. A quarter-century down the line, a new generation of owners is emerging ready to give the New Beetle a whole new lease of life.

Via Hagerty UK

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    One of the largest companies in the world, had a great opportunity to build something cool and nostalgic, that would last. Instead they build a complete waste of time and materials. If you don’t take perfect care of the newer beetles, they fall apart. The original beetle was a pretty well made car that was simple to keep up and enjoy. I loved the first ones. Once I saw the build quality of the newer ones, I’m out. They will be a dead end.

    What hurt the first front engine bug was it’s lines were all feminine. It’s never easy to attract both sexes to the same vehicle. The final version of the bug got it right with creating some aggressive lines and stance, yet clearly maintaining the historical look of the bug. Just one man’s opinion, previous owner of a 72 bug and two campers, one dubbed the Flintstone mobile with fake stone work around the lower half 1979-80, sadly never took a picture, you either loved it or hated it. Now currently I own a 67 bug convertible.

    It’s surprising how people trash the NB so many years later. I came to one late, a ‘98 with a Smyth pickup truck conversion. Comparing the car to other inexpensive vehicles from that era, there is little to complain about. Everywhere I drive it, people either come over to talk about it or take videos, wave, smile, etc. The car drives well, is relatively easy to maintain, and has great parts availability. Having had a ‘70 Beetle brand new, they were a good compact economy car but no comparison to the NB. If you don’t like it, don’t have one. It’s that simple.

    Owned 5 Beetles, first a used ’66, and might have purchased a New B but it just wasnt a Beetle. All it was, was rounded; I didn’t fall for that trick.

    I called it a “Wannabeetle,” it was trying to be a beetle, but it just wasn’t. Of course, remounted engines are a thing of the past, but it just didn’t catch on with the older crowd that I am aware of. I like the comment that it looked too feminine, and I drove one, and just didn’t think it was that nice a car. newer version I never did get to drive, but I do like it’s like much better! I’m afraid you just can’t go home…

    I was pretty sure when I first saw the new Beetle it wasn’t going to be even close to the old one. It just didn’t feel “German” -the doors wouldn’t clunk, the transmission felt wonky and it wasn’t great in the curves. Mechanical nightmares quickly followed along with poor dealer and VWoA indifference,lower build quality and just an overall poor experience. My friends shop said “only young girls own then as they think they are cute” he also said few of them pay the big bills have them fixed. Don’t get me wrong I don’t have rose colored VW glasses as I believe they went down hill after the Dasher et al . The early AC and auto transaxles were sorry. Have you ever driven a Type 3 with AC and automatic ?….err. But the air cooled were easy to fix ,tough as nails until the tin worm set in and had a following of folks who loved them and like to fix them. Not to many car engines power personal aircraft . Most folks who love Buses have never owned,worked or lived with them. Many hills were climbed in reverse as that the only way they would climb the grade with a load. I still have a low miles MK 1 US Rabbit and am amazed at how cheap and flimsy it is ..

    Your comment that “the doors wouldn’t clunk” made me laugh. With the old Beetles, you quickly learned to roll down the window just a bit before slamming the door to avoid rupturing eardrums.

    Thought the New Beetle was cute but aimed toward women. The last of them with the turbos are the keepers. Better looking and faster.

    Between my wife and I, we’ve owned a few VWs (1983 Rabbit, 1984 Sirocco, 2011 GTI, 2015 GTI, and my current 2018 Goff R) but had most fun driving my Dad’s ’63 beetle and camping in a Transporter borrowed from my grandfather. Beetles had a forgiving clutch, wiggly shifter, and my Dad’s had extractors that made it sound way-cool with a ‘rrrappp’ as you revved it. My grandfather was a Cincinnati local legend VW mechanic and we’d swap an engine or transaxle out in a couple of hours. So when VW brought out the New Beetle, I was intrigued. But then the ‘eh’ factor set in.

    1997? The New Beetle may have appeared in the press late in 97 but the first cars to hit the dealerships were in March of 1998. I remember the date, March 13th that my wife and I drove off the lot in a Techno Blue 5 speed New Beetle. The first one sold in Southern California. It was an absolutely mind bending experience, the attention that car got was insane.

    I am actively searching for a minty low mile example to stash away and keep for the future. I love the New Beetle and always will.

    I was one of 7 growing up in Philadelphia. We had:
    64 bug
    65 bus
    70 bus
    72 Super Beetle convertible
    72 Karmann Ghia
    67 beetle convertible
    68 Squareback
    72 Squareback

    I would take every one of them back.
    The new VWs are cheap wannabes.

    Could not agree more. What, no 411/412? I still have a resored 67 Bug…and an original 914/4.

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