At the end of 2019, Volkswagen released a very charming and bittersweet animated tribute to the Beetle. While I think the video is wonderfully done, the fact remains the only car shown in it is one that hasn’t actually been built for 16 years, and I think the attempt to tie in modern Beetles to the legacy of the original is inherently flawed. I’ll explain why.
First, you should watch the animation:
There’s a lot of nostalgia being played on in there, and plenty of cultural references, including Kevin Bacon in his ’74 Beetle from Footloose (the Love Bug is a notable absence, since I bet Disney wouldn’t play ball, and I’m not shocked they left out Jack Nicholson’s ’73 from The Shining), a Beatles soundtrack, and Andy Warhol, snapping photos.
Also interesting is the “70 YRS” license plate, referencing the 1949 sales of two Volkswagens in America, since, even though the basic Beetle design was set by 1938. VW’s earlier corporate history is, of course, something VW isn’t eager to highlight.
The featured car looks to be a ’62 Beetle, and it’s worth noting that the modern version of the Beetle, the one based on the Golf with the water-cooled engine up front, the one that’s actually being discontinued, is nowhere to be seen in this tribute.
In fact, the car VW’s sending off so beautifully stopped production way back in 2003, in Mexico, and hasn’t been sold in the United States since 1978 (1980 for the convertible). I think it’s extremely telling that VW didn’t even bother to try to shoehorn in the modern Beetle into this sentimental exercise, and it speaks to the fundamental problem VW has had with the New Beetle and the recent Beetle: they don’t really feel like actual continuations of the original.
Sure, when the New Beetle came out in 1997 it was exciting! The retro design was delightful, and I was thrilled to see some sort of return of the Beetle. The problem was that conceptually—even if we ignore the very different mechanical design of the car—it wasn’t really a Beetle.
That’s because the Beetle was, fundamentally, a triumph of basic, cheap transportation. The reason the Beetle became classless—like the Mini and 2CV and very few other cars—was because it represented a certain engineering honesty.
It was designed to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible and to do its very basic transportation job as well as it could. It looked the way it did because of idiosyncratic reasons that made sense when it was designed in the late 1930s. And it doggedly refused to change or submit to the whims of design and fashion for decades afterward.
The original Beetle was truly a volkswagen, with a little ‘V’, in the original “peoples’ car” sense. The reborn Beetles, stylish and fun as they may have been, were not that. They were cars designed to play on the reputation and design of an older original, as opposed to being continuations of that original car’s goal, and that difference was somehow always understood.
Compare the modern Beetles to the modern Jeeps or Ford Mustangs and this will make more sense. Ford and all of Jeep’s owners over the years have managed to keep their iconic car’s identities feeling more connected and coherent, even though they radically re-design them far more often than the Beetle ever was because the fundamental roles and goals of the respective cars always remains the same.
The Mustang is always a usable but fast pony car (even the Mustang II was at least trying for that). The Jeep Wrangler is always a 4WD off-road focused vehicle with a removable top. They both have iconic styling cues they make sure to keep incorporating, but those cars are in no way the same as what they were when they started, yet they still attempt to occupy the same conceptual space.
VW didn’t do this for the re-imagined Beetles. They moved the car up-market a bit, made it a niche lifestyle car instead of a quirky-but-rational entry-level car for absolutely everyone.
Hell, when the Beetle was popular, everyone could feel comfortable in one. Sure, Beetles were popular among college professors and hippies, but Dick Cheney also drove one. And Paul Newman. And Hugo Chavez. It wasn’t a “lifestyle” car or a design statement, it was a good, cheap car that would last and get your ass where you wanted to go.
If Volkswagen had re-introduced the Beetle as something closer to their Up! line of entry-level cars, I think it would have made a lot more sense. I’ve mentioned this before, but now, seeing the glaring and obvious absence of the modern Beetles in this tribute video, it all becomes relevant again.
I liked the modern automotive tributes to the Beetle, but I never considered them to be really part of the original Beetle’s lineage. And, deep down, I don’t think VW thinks that way either—hence the tribute only showing the air-cooled car.
I do think VW has a chance to try again, though. I think if VW re-introduces an entry-level electric car with some Beetle styling cues, that would be a fitting and reasonable continuation of the original Beetle.
An MEB-based (ideally rear-motor’d) EV that could sell for, oh, under $20,000—something below a Nissan Leaf in price—would make a fine and welcome new Beetle, and I think VW would be fools not to seize this opportunity.