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