This is the sort of thing I usually spend my time on at red lights, waiting in lines, looking around. Sometimes I see something and my gut tightens or my jaw clenches uncontrollably, and I can’t help but stop and wonder why. So I ponder it, dissect it, try and rectify why, wonder mostly what I’d do if I called the shots.
I’m talking about the New Beetle by Volkswagen. It’s a topic I’m almost qualified to have a genuine opinion on – I learned to drive a stick shift on a 1978 Champagne addition Bus, learned even how to shift gears without a clutch (a skill that’s served me well on 3 separate occasions.). Years later, I owned a New Beetle, vintage 2000, the one which was largely a styling exercise to make a front engined Golf/Jetta look sort of like a Beetle. A few years after that, I wound up with a 1975 Porsche 911s in my driveway, a much closer kin to the original Beetle than the thing with the VW logo on its hood. Air cooled, horizontally opposed 6 cylinder engine, rear wheel drive – perhaps one of the simplest cars ever made – and it’s virtually bullet proof.
I’ll be honest; when Volkswagen rolled out the concept car sometime in the mid 90’s, I knew I wanted one. I thought it was a beautiful design – eye catching, sexy curves, a cute ‘face’, round, plump, offbeat… Eventually, I did buy one, and little by little the nickels and dimes turned my smile into a frown. Little things, like the turbo burning up after 2000 miles. Having windows suddenly drop out of their frames and disappear into the door panels on a random saturday drive to the grocery store… The numerous – 18? – mass air flow sensors I replaced, changed maybe as often as the oil. There was the new intake manifold – the new fuel injection system, the new ignition components and wires and sensors, none of which solved the glitchy misfire it had for half its life. But there was something else that bothered me about it and I never really had the time to consider what it was until recently.
At the end, it was a car I simply hated and wished didn’t look so cute while driving a dagger into my soul. It died a wonderful death; totaled in my driveway by a large pick up truck piloted at a high and uncontrollable rate of speed by a teenage boy trying to impress his girlfriend. Thank God for hormones. He had insurance, they were both unscathed and, after a citation and lecture from the police, drove his truck away. No one was hurt, nothing suffered, save one shrub in the neighbors lawn, and my Beetle… problem solved… Moments like that are the caryatids supporting the structure of my religion and make realize there is a God who works in mysterious and miraculous ways.
That was a while ago, though, and now I’m detached. I drive a Jeep these days and it’s never given me a moment of grief or doubt. Volkswagen, on the other hand has come out with a redesign of New Beetle, which looks about like a PT Cruiser; an uglier and shittier version of the previous.
It’s more aggressive looking. It’s meant to appeal to people who want to drive something with attitude (was the original Beetle ever about a demographic? Aggression?, A Sporty car?), the top flattened, the back end with an unsightly bulge to give headspace(?) to the rear passengers, and the tail lights – well, let’s just say they completely fucked those up…
The real way they fucked up the New Beetle wasn’t/isn’t so much in the styling; it’s the fact that they used the wrong platform.
Porsche and VW have long had a strange, often incestuous relationship. Dr. Porsche designed the original Beetle, and later went on, using the same rear engined, air cooled platform for his own car company. To this day, members of the Porsche family are on the board and often president of Volkswagen. A number of years ago, when Porsche wanted to build an SUV, the Cayenne, they pumped money into and made a deal with VW to develop it for them. VW did, and got to keep the chassis, and a tuned down version of the V8 engine for their own use. They put a different body on it and called it a Touareg.
With that in mind, what I’ll never understand about reintroducing the Beetle and the nature of the Porsche/VW relationship, is why VW didn’t do the same? Ask Porsche, who still makes a rear engine, rear wheel drive 911, the direct descendent of the original VW Beetle, to develop a 4 cylinder platform for their New Beetle, letting Porsche (who’s now developing a new 4 cylinder version of their Boxer style engine…) keep the engine design for their own use in their own vehicles.
Because then, it wouldn’t have just been a styling exercise of hiding a Golf under body panels to make it look like a Beetle. Rather, it would have been a genuine resurrection of the original. Having the engine in the rear, mating the transmission to the underside of the engine block, keeping it all short, compact and low, allows the same similar proportions and features of the original; storage in the front, a small space behind (usable) rear seats for a bit more storage.
The New Beetle has some odd proportions, if you’ve ever sat in or driven one you’ll know what I’m taking about – a dashboard that goes on, seemingly, forever, blind spots perfectly crafted to make any pedestrian invisible and lane changes precarious. You can’t touch the windshield with an outstretched arm… The rear seats are useless, except maybe for children, but getting them strapped in would be almost impossible…
If you’re going to do retro, or cling to the past, at least do it right… Stop trying to make it anything more than simple, easy to understand, basic transportation. Stop trying to give it an attitude; it sold pretty well across many spectrums without aggressive styling or a demographic niche before, because it was useful. Let it be sort of cute, quirky, slightly goofy. The original Beetle was, in spirit, much like a Special Olympics Athlete; when you own one, you know there’s a different victory at hand and it’s more important than crossing the finish line first… Bring back some chrome bumpers and headlight shrouds, and stamp the sheet metal in the hood to give it some definition and style.
Maybe it’s just because I realized the other day at the store, while checking out the meat selection, that the New Beetle, the reason why it’s always caused me so much angst inside, is about exactly the same as a tofu hotdog. It’s a visual trick, playing on something that people desire, but aren’t or won’t allow themselves to actually have the real version of…