Volkswagen New Beetle squashed but not forgotten

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1998 Volkswagen Beetle front 3/4 Volkswagen

Diapheromera femorata—a common stick bug—hides itself by mimicking a twig or branch. The caterpillars of Hemeroplanes triptolemus ward of predators by looking exactly like a young boa constrictor. And, in 1994, Volkswagen revealed another insectoid copycat: a car that looked like a Beetle, but wasn’t. It was the beginning of a rebirth, but one that will likely soon end. According to several reports, VW will retire the Beetle at the end of 2018.

Called the Concept 1, Volkswagen’s brave, new-age Beetle was a product of its Simi Valley design center, opened in 1991 and adjacent to the Los Angeles car culture epicenter. The Concept 1 was a thoroughly modern interpretation born from the legacy of what the original Beetle had meant to Americans. By the time 1991 rolled around, VW was on the rocks in United States. From an all-time high of more than a half-million vehicles sold in 1970, the company’s fortunes had receded to just 40,000 cars. Market research showed that most Americans didn’t associate Volkswagen with the practical and pragmatic Golf, but with the clattery air-cooled Beetle they remembered from their halcyon hippie days.

Designers Freeman Thomas and J. Mays spearheaded the project out of California. Their work was a bit of a risk, as the German attitude towards the original Type 1—the Käfer—was that of veneration for an ancestor, not nostalgia for youth. The pair created a sketchbook, and presented it to VW’s director of design, Hartmut Warkuss. He was sufficiently impressed to commission two quarter-scale models which were then shown to the Volkswagen board.

1994 Volkswagen Concept 1 front 3/4
1994 Volkswagen Concept 1 Volkswagen

In a move slightly reminiscent of a Mad Men presentation, the duo set the stage with music and a slide show presenting this new vision of the Beetle, hammering home a “Beetle Philosophy” of honesty, simplicity, reliability, and originality. They made their case for the car’s potential, and pitched it as a way for VW to separate themselves from the crowd. When it was over, Warkuss stood and rapped his knuckles on the table in approval. There would be a New Beetle.

And new it was—its fresh, fun silhouette was no more than three half circles, and its grille-less face was friendly and approachable. The two-spoke steering wheel and even the headlights and taillights were cheerfully round. This was a happy car, a smiley face you could drive, right down to the yellow paint.

When the Concept 1 debuted at the 1994 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the public loved it. A presentation book accompanying the reveal declared, “The Legend Reborn. A friendship rekindled.”  Thomas and Mays had hit upon a rich seam of nostalgia, one that would buoy Volkswagen’s fortunes for more than a decade. Of their work, Mays said, “We took on the role not so much as designers of a new vehicle but rather as curators of an idea.”

The Concept 1 was based on a European-market VW Polo, smaller than a Golf, giving it roughly the same dimensions as the original Type 1. That meant that underneath its referential sheetmetal, the Concept 1 was really just a front-engine, front-wheel-drive compact car harkening back to a rear-wheel drive, rear-engine compact car. However, the concept was presented with some clever powertrain options, including a four-cylinder turbodiesel, a diesel-electric hybrid, and a full EV powertrain that provided a theoretical range of 95 miles.

Volkswagen Concept 1 concept drawing
1994 Volkswagen Concept 1 Volkswagen
black Volkswagen Concept 1 profile
1994 Volkswagen Concept 1 Volkswagen

A later, bright red convertible version spurred further excitement for the return of the Beetle, including the introduction of the signature dash-mounted vase, but it would take a further four years for development of a production car. By 1995, at the Tokyo Motor Show, VW was showing off a Golf-based Beetle Concept, which was nearly production-ready. Why abandon the Polo platform? Parameters dictated the Beetle be no more than 10 percent more expensive than an equivalent Golf, and sharing as many parts as possible with it made that easier. A casualty of the switch was that The New Beetle would also lose those forward-looking, electrified powertrains.

When the real deal finally arrived in 1998, again unveiled in Detroit, the New Beetle was powered by the same conventional four-cylinder engine and front-wheel-drive layout as the Golf. You could also see the roots of VW’s mainstream hatchback elsewhere, including a ludicrously deep dashboard that was a consequence of curving the Beetle’s silhouette over the Golf’s conventional platform.

Even so, people loved it. In 1999, one year after the launch, VW sold 84,434 New Beetles in the U.S., urged along by an additional Turbo model. In order to introduce it, VW created one of the first online advertising websites for a car, www.turbonium.com. The angle was the discovery of a new “element,” one that gave the Beetle some much-needed boost. A few years later, a cabriolet version joined the Beetle lineup.

All New Beetles were assembled in Puebla, Mexico, meaning that the New Beetle was built right alongside the last of the original air-cooled cars—air-cooled Beetle production continued in Mexico until 2003, and the last example was played off the line by a mariachi band.

The New Beetle may have been cute but it wasn’t exactly cool, not even the Turbo model. Like the original air-cooled cars, there were special editions that tilted towards the fancy paint and decals end of the spectrum. There was even a Malibu Barbie convertible, swathed in pink.

There are outliers among the paint-and-sticker specials, though, the most notable being the incredible Beetle RSi, an all-wheel-drive, VR6-powered monster. Fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox, a 3.2-liter, 225-hp six-cylinder engine, Recaro seats, and 18-inch OZ wheels, the RSi was as hot as the New Beetle ever got from the factory. Only 250 were made, and none ever officially importable into the U.S.

Also potentially collectible, and a little easier to find, is the 180-hp Turbo S model. These get a stiffer suspension, lots of aluminum scattered throughout the cabin, and a six-speed manual. Think of it as a GTI with a little more personality.

1998 Volkswagen Beetle rear 3/4
1998 Volkswagen Beetle Volkswagen

Further, the New Beetle’s curvy appeal attracted the attention of the tuning crowd. In 2001, long-time VW specialist HPA, based out of Langley, British Columbia, took a humble New Beetle and dropped in a twin-turbocharged VR6 motor. It made 500 hp and would happily shame most contemporary Porsche 911s.

Enthusiast deviations aside, America before long found its nostalgia for the past satiated, and New Beetle sales began to decline. The launch of a second New Beetle for 2012 (simply called the Beetle, to further confuse the issue) helped a little, but didn’t stem the bleeding long-term. Last year, VW sold just 15,166 Beetles in the U.S., and more than four times as many Golfs.

However, the New Beetle still did its job, preserving a halo for Volkswagen, and perhaps getting a few more people into showrooms (even if they walked out with a Tiguan or a Golf). It gave just enough impetus to the brand to carry it through the lean years, and maybe even some tradition to lean on when the fallout from the present diesel scandal got bad.

Volkswagen remains committed to the U.S. market, and it appears they will be attempting it without the Beetle as an icon to lean on. Yet judging by the the excitement around the all-electric ID models (including the Microbus-inspired ID Buzz) there may be beacon forward, and it’s not just about the nostalgia. If the New Beetle provided any lesson, it’s that something cleanly designed, honest, fun-loving, and simple is a niche VW can still fill. Even if the New Beetle was not quite the embodiment of these virtues that its air-cooled ancestor was, imitation isn’t just about survival. It’s also the best form of tribute.

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