Curbside Classic: 1986 Volkswagen Cabriolet – What Women Want

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What is it that makes a car a “chick car?”  Put another way, what is it about some cars that appeals to the fairer sex?  And why is it so hard to come up with one on purpose?

LaFemme

It’s easy to to come up with a new vehicle that appeals to men: all you need is power, bold styling and macho details.  A good name helps, too–like, say, ‘Firebird’, or ‘Ramcharger’. On the other hand, it is much harder to come up with a car that appeals to women.  Chrysler gave it a shot with the 1955-56 Dodge LaFemme–but alas, without success.  Maybe both of these examples seek to caricature their intended demographic.  And perhaps the fact that carmakers do better with heavy-handed appeals to us guys than those directed toward the girls says less about the cars than about us.  In fact, you could argue that any given car has masculine traits–after all, it is a machine made of welds, castings, bearings and a crankcase filled with oil.

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A vehicle marketed to women must be more subtle; it is not about the machine, but rather about how the machine makes the woman feel.  An early example is this famous print ad for the Jordan Playboy.  Everyone has forgotten the car, but once you have read the ad, it is unforgettable.  This ad highlights a truth about what a car is: It is about ourselves.  Who among us has not looked upon a car and then seen herself or himself in a different light?  The car has a way of highlighting who we want to be instead of who we actually are.  In this sense, the Cabriolet of the 1980s and 90s succeeded far beyond the Jordan Playboy of the 1920s, because the Cabriolet itself said what Jordan relied on ad copy to say.

Rabbit

As a car, the Cabby is moderately interesting.  The Mk I VW Golf  (Rabbit, to those in the U.S.) was a hugely influential design, one that leapfrogged Volkswagen from the 1930s into the 1970s in a single amazing jump.  The car had the good fortune to hit the U.S. market as a 1975 model, just as gas prices were rising and small cars were becoming the new normal.  In one small segment, however, VW was still stuck with a vehicle well past its freshness date–the convertible.

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In the U.S., the VW convertible had been almost a cult car.  Never as common as its closed-roof (or sunroof-equipped) brothers, the ragtop had been a perennial in the lineup from very early on (1948, according to one source).  Unfortunately, the old Beetle was running on borrowed time, and U.S. emissions laws (and Americans’ desire for such creature comforts as air conditioning) were pounding the nails into its casket even faster.  The Rabbit had rescued the VW line in the United States, but convertible lovers were still stuck with the increasingly anachronistic old Beetle.  I once worked with a fellow who traded his ’71 Karmann Ghia convertible on a 1980 Beetle convertible–triple white, just like the feature car–and he was a hit everywhere young-ish women congregated.

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The Rabbit/Golf-based convertible arrived in the U.S. for the 1980 model year, which was also the final year of the Beetle ragtop.  The entire car actually was built by Karmann in their own factory.  Although VW supplied most of the parts, all unique body parts and stampings were from Karmann.  Also, if we are going to be hyper-technical, the car is designated as a Type 155 (according to the knowledgeable folks at cabby-info.com).  Although the car came late to the lineup, it compensated for that in longevity by continuing to be offered in VW showrooms into 1994.  The car was a moderate but steady seller in the U.S., good for 9-12,000 units annually for ten years. Sales tapered off only during its last five seasons, when the car was clearly showing its age.1986VWCabriolet01

The Cabriolet immediately struck a chord with female purchasers.  In fact, in the 80s or early 90s, almost every female VW owner of my acquaintance owned one.  One such owner was my next door neighbor, a divorced mother of two girls.  She loved her little black Cabriolet, and kept it even after replacing it with something newer and more practical.  Only later, and very reluctantly, did she finally let go of it after coming to realize how much money it would take to turn it back into the car she fell in love with.   I believe that her second husband was at work there with the “c’mon, honey, be practical.”  I am happy to report, however, that she went back to the well a few years ago with a new navy blue New Beetle convertible.  Though she liked the more modern car, she never loved it the way she loved the little Cabby.

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As for this particular car, is it a 1986?  I really have no idea.  These can be found equipped with a wide array of wheels and upholstery styles.  Also, these wheels were often seen in the 1983-86 era. This one is certainly a Wolfsburg edition (given away by the circular badge on each front fender), and just as certainly a pre-1988 version (given away by the older-style bumpers).  Otherwise, I will happily defer to members of the Curbside Commentariat who may be better versed in Cabby minutae than I.  Anyhow, for what this car represents, does it really matter?  I am not sure it does.

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The Cabriolet’s success was that it really gave women what they truly wanted instead of what others (mostly men) thought they wanted.  The Cabriolet brought to mind (and brought out) the freedom, beauty, fun and sex appeal that every woman knows is part of her personality.  That these cars never had a lot of appeal to guys was never a big deal to the girls who drove and loved them–nor should it have been.  Did VW set out to make a chick car?  I don’t suppose it really matters.  For a good number of years (and in other models since), VW gave women what they wanted, and in no way is that a bad thing.

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