Once again, the legendary and iconic Volkswagen Beetle has gone out of production. I say once again, because, depending on how you qualify things, this will be the third or fourth time this has happened: first it ended in Germany in 1978, then in Brazil in 1986, where it restarted in 1993, and ended again in Brazil in 1996, then it ended in Mexico in 2003.
Really, that was the true end of the original, air-cooled Beetle. Volkswagen ended production of the retro Golf-based Beetle in Mexico yesterday, and I’d like to commemorate this fact by talking about an under-appreciated role of the Beetle: as the gateway drug to the world of weird cars.
While I’m sad to see that, for the first time in 81 years, Volkswagen will not offer a Beetle-shaped car anywhere in the world, I can’t feel too broken up because, like I said, the end has already happened.
I did my mourning for the Beetle 16 years ago, and, while I was certainly excited when VW announced a retro-styled car based on the Beetle back in the late 1990s, I was never under the illusion that it was in any way actually a true heir to the original Beetle.
The reason was that the original Beetle, born from a strange broth of 1930s avant-garde automotive thinking and the megalomaniacal dreams of a genuine monster, was a defiantly unconventional car. It was weird, especially in the context of when and where I grew up, in 1970s and 1980s America.
The Beetle wasn’t necessarily all that weird when it was being designed in the 1930s. Then, it was advanced thinking, part of a tradition that stretched back to the Rumpler Tropfenwagen and was being developed by Tatra, Mercedes-Benz, Standard, and many others. The Beetle just happened to be the only one of this streamlined, rear-engined crew to not just make it out alive, but to succeed, wildly and improbably.
This is crucial to the point I’m laboriously making here: the Beetle’s success was an anomaly. Rationally, it probably shouldn’t have happened. When the Beetle started to be imported to America in the 1950s, it was a lone representative of a nearly dead design philosophy.
And when it gained success in America, it did so in opposition to everything else on the roads: big, front-engined, over-designed monsters, massive mobile living rooms that emphasized comfort and status over nearly everything. The humble Beetle stuck out conceptually, aesthetically, mechanically, and, even crazier, somehow never really changed over decades.
This all leads up to the most important part: me, as a kid, in 1970s North Carolina. The roads in my medium-sized city were primarily defined by Ford LTDs and Country Squires and Mavericks, any number of GM’s badge-engineered barges, big Mopar boats, some AMCs, and, finally, a decent contingent of Volkswagen Beetles.
Sure, there was a sprinkling of other interesting stuff: MGBs, Datsuns, Hondas, Toyotas, the occasional Porsche or Jaguar, maybe a Peugeot 504, but not a whole hell of a lot else. Places like California had their Fiats and other oddballs, but I grew up in a sea of mostly big domestics and some Beetles.
What this meant was that, essentially, there was just one regularly-seen kind of car that did everything different than every other car out there: the Beetle. The engine was in the back, not the front, there was no radiator, because it used air instead of water to keep cool, it was styled like a friendly cartoon instead of a grimacing beast—and when you’re a little kid, eye-level with the hawk-faced grille of a Ford LTD, there’s a real appeal to the friendly curved snout of a Beetle.
My dad had a ‘68 Beetle, so I had an example to scrutinize up close, and the more I looked, the weirder things got. The battery was in a funny place. The windshield washer was connected to the spare tire. When I rolled under the car, the cylinders were pointing in different directions than most cars, and the whole belly of the thing looked different.
In the days before the internet, finding information about things was so much harder. I was fascinated by this weird yet common car that seemingly did everything The Other Way, but I didn’t have an easy way to find out much more. I couldn’t just Google “other weird cars” and see what came up—I had to hunt.
The comparative weirdness of the Beetle sent me on what would be a lifelong quest to seek out more weird cars. I went to the library and devoured every car book I could find, looking for tiny, grainy pictures of things I didn’t recognize.
When I got sick of all the books of American Classics and the billionth picture of a ‘57 Bel Air, I had the idea to look at travel books, and see what I could find in random pictures of street scenes in Paris or Prague or Milan.
I remember the day I first saw a picture of a Renault 4CV in a street scene, from the rear. The heavily-louvered engine lid drew my eye like an, uh, eye-magnet, and I could feel the kinship with the Beetle. It was rear-engined! Tiny, weird! But what the hell was it?
Remember, there’s no Google, there’s no adults around who gave a shit or actually knew. There was just a tiny picture and a pair of very wide eyes.
I kept at it, finding pictures of Fiat 500s and Simcas and Citroëns and Trabants and then, in a coffee table book about Prague, saw a tiny parked Tatra 603 in a street scene. It’s possible I passed out from ecstatic curiosity on the carpeted floor of the Greensboro Public Library that day; I don’t recall.
What I do know is that it was because of the Beetle, with its perfect and weird combination of cartoon-friendly looks and (compared the the U.S. norm) bizarre engineering that I realized that the world of cars was so much richer and deeper and stranger than what a casual glance at an Impala sedan-choked parking lot would reveal.
And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. For so much of America in the 1970s and 1980s, Beetles (and other air-cooled VWs) were the lone ambassadors of Weird Automobiles. I’ve met many people who drive strange cars like old Fiat 600s or Renault Dauphines and they often tell me that when people used to come up to ask them what their cars were, people would often guess it was some sort of Volkswagen.
And that makes sense, when you consider that for many people, Volkswagens were the only strange cars they ever encountered, so anything small and odd and grille-less seemed like part of that family.
So, even though the Beetle Volkswagen has just stopped building is incredibly mainstream, mechanically, I want to take a moment to remember the predecessor that wasn’t.
The original Beetle, the improbable success, that adopted son of America that was loved but always the oddball, was a gift to many future gearheads like me.
It was a beacon, a call to a certain type of car lover to look deeper, to seek out the unknown, a reminder that while one could absolutely appreciate the beautiful lines of a boat-tail Rivera or the sound of a big-block V8, there were things out there, in the still hidden world, that would make a Gremlin seem boring.
It was the Beetle that first sent me down this obsessive path of automotive exploration, and the rewards have been dramatic, leading up to this career I now have that I adore. I feel like I owe a debt to this inanimate thing, which may be why I’ll never get rid of my old ‘73 Bug.
The world is different now. There’s so many ways for kids to be exposed to interesting things all over the globe, and if a kid is interested in something, they can bathe in a floodgate of information about whatever that thing is.
But, back when I was a kid, it started with my dad’s funny red little car.