JUAREZ, Mexico - In the two decades since the original Beetle was last sold in the United States, the car that was a paisley-powered rite of passage for millions of driving Americans has faded from memory. Whatever lingering and unrequited affection there was for the old dumpling, it might be fair to assume, was satisfied by the introduction two years ago of the New Beetle, a glossy, postmodern rendition of the adorable Bug that has almost nothing in common with the original.
New Beetles are built in a gigantic factory in Puebla, Mexico, emerging from its robotic gantlet at a rate of 150,000 units per year. Nearly all of these cars head for the docks to be dispatched to international markets, in particular the United States.
But in another, much smaller part of the factory, unnoticed by the rest of the world, Volkswagen employees still build the old-style Beetle--the air-cooled rear-engine icon--largely unchanged and largely by hand, to satisfy demand in Mexico's domestic market.
The best-selling car in history is still a hit, more than 60 years after it was rolled out by the Third Reich as the Kraft Durch Freude Wagen, the KdF-Wagen, or the "Strength through Joy Car." Twenty-two million copies, and counting.
It's been a long, strange trip for the Beetle, but there is a certain symmetry to it. It began life as a car for the statist Everyman, mobility being part of a program of rewards for allegiance to a grander Nazi state. It rose from the ashes of the Wolfsburg factory--fortunately, the body stampings had not been destroyed when the plant was bombed by the Allies--to become the first true world car, rugged, simple to repair and affordable.
In the 1960s, when VW built hundreds of thousands, the Beetle achieved a sort of classless ubiquity. Rich kids drove them to college because they were cute and fashionably anti-establishment; poor people drove them because they had to.
By the late 1970s, the Beetle could no longer keep up with American crash test and emissions standards, and VW stopped U.S. imports of the Beetle. By that time Beetle production had been moved out of the mother factory in Wolfsburg, West Germany, and farmed out to places like Brazil, Nigeria and Mexico.
Today only the Mexico plant continues to build the Beetle, at a steady annual rate of 40,000, selling for around $7,000 a copy. It has come full circle as a car for the walking proletariat, though it's hard to imagine a society more different from Nazi Germany than the struggling and rowdy Mexico.
Stand on a busy street corner in Juarez and close your eyes. The Beetle's familiar exhaust note--a muttering, chuffing, simple sound, like an overly gregarious lawn mower--comes at you from all directions. On any given day about a third of all vehicles on the street are Beetles, new ones and old ones discernible only if you keep up with subtle changes between model years.
And they are subtle. At the Juarez airport, I picked up a forest-green Beetle with 43 kilometers on the clock, and the car was almost exactly the same as the one I drove 20 years ago. Obviously, some of the detailing had changed--seat materials, various trim bits--but in profile the car was identical.
A Mexican Beetle is an automotive Madeleine, summoning up the past in waves of hazy grooviness. Unlike a vintage car, which has the wear of years on it, this is a new Bug. Where were you when a car like this smelled like that?
In some ways the new Beetle is much diminished from the cars of old. The door handles, once chromed steel push-button levers, have been supplanted by dull and cheap powder-coated aluminum. The chromed turn indicators that were once situated on the front fenders have been replaced with amber plastic lenses in the bumper. The tilt-out rear windows, with the Bakelite ivory knobs--were they Bakelite?--have gone the way of the dodo.
Still, the textured rubber running boards are still in place, as are the tilt-out front quarter windows (smokers rejoice). Above the left front fender a deposit box-style lock has been installed that activates the car's built-in alarm. Meanwhile, in the center of the dash, there is a receptacle for a plastic immobilizer key. Plainly, security is a big issue in the Mexican market.
Lift up the rear hood and you will find a 1600cc engine not much changed from the one Dr. Ferdinand Porsche called for in the first prototypes. Electronic fuel injection has replaced the carburetors. Horsepower is up to 44, a fair bump from the original car's 25 hp. Meanwhile, the VW four-speed gearbox, which has seen service in everything from race cars to dune buggies, remains unchanged. The foot-long gearshift still wiggles in its boot on the floor between the front seats.
At one time, VW offered Superbeetles, high-content versions notable for their MacPherson strut front suspension. But in the interests of low cost, the current Beetle uses the less complicated torsion bar suspension of old. This clever and compact suspension works well over the highway and only becomes a problem when you try to horse the Beetle through a corner; then it begins to lift its inside wheels, heel over badly and slide around.
Even so, without power steering or power brakes to deaden the sensations coming from the wheels, the Beetle feels wonderfully alive and controllable in a way modern cars often don't. If it's not particularly fast--top speed seems to be around 82 mph--it is fun in a basely mechanical, go-cart sort of way.
It would be easy to dismiss the VW Beetle as a clumsy anachronism. But this car, besides representing the ultimate in amortized factory tooling, has a genius about it. It has outlasted every other car in history and continues its service with blithe directness and simplicity--faultless, guileless and, yes, cute. It's adorable and it is adored. Never has a car done so much for so many for so little, for so long.