Autobiography: The Volkswagen New Beetle And The Cult Of Cars

“You would have to search every crevice in this house to find it, and who wants to do that?”

Out of all the things my father could expect to come out of my mouth, an inquiry regarding the whereabouts of a trinket from the 1998 New York Auto Show was probably near the bottom of his list. But it was important for me to locate the one tangible item connecting me to my automotive awakening.

I had always known we were a bit different than the other families in our cul-de-sac. One of the most obvious examples was the automotive fleet in our driveway. Unlike the other households in suburban New York, my dad’s vehicles were (and still are) older and have quite a number of miles on them. Throughout the years his vehicular loyalties have shifted, but during the Clinton administration they were aimed squarely towards Volkswagen.

Now to be fair, my dad wasn’t interested in owning the New Beetle (although he would purchase a Golf some years later), he was drawn to the massive press surrounding the car. And for good reason: like those ever ubiquitous Head On commercials, the hype was everywhere. It was certainly justified; the Beetle nameplate was still popular throughout the United States, and its re-imagining took its best aesthetic qualities and modernized them. Unlike the 1996 Ford Taurus, this was a “no hard corners” design that resonated with most people.

And it wasn’t just the exterior that was endowed with good looks either. Especially with that black-and-tan combo, the Beetle interior manages to simultaneously broadcast a warm environment with that steely German sturdiness. Like the Golf and Jetta that would start arriving on American shores in MK. IV form, the New Beetle evoked a sense of quality that wouldn’t be matched by the competition for quite some time.

The funny thing about New York City is that all of the television shows and films extolling its magical essence are exactly right. They’re also inaccurate, in a sense that they cannot translate the experience well enough to substitute actually taking a trip there. For example, my first NYC memory involved dodging human excrement while navigating between two moving subway cars on the way to the Jacob Javits Center, the location of the New York Auto Show. It was both an exhilarating and slightly terrifying event, a feeling that has been replicated on subsequent trips to the Big Apple.

And what better way to first experience New York’s biggest city than by going to such a big event? All of the people and cars huddled together, judging one another…it made me realize that cars were more than just transportation devices. I’m sure every contributor and comment writer here has a similar story, but it was this event – and the introduction of the New Beetle – that really opened my eyes that man and machine really go hand in hand.

When you’re young, pop culture plays a large part in forming how you interpret the world. That I continue to personify cars well into adulthood can in no doubt be attributed to my passion for The Love Bug, which was amplified when I found out that the Beetle nameplate would be revived. It didn’t have to be the same exact car, because the Beetle was being resurrected, dammit! The friendly face would be returning to driveways everywhere.

At the intersection of personal experience and pop culture came the trinket you see before you. Mine was red, but otherwise it looked exactly the same. These were given out at the ’98 show after waiting in a very long line. We didn’t realize why it would take so long to receive one until we noticed that they were making them right on the spot – a plastics molding machine would press them right before your eyes! I still vividly remember holding the still-warm pen holder in my hands wondering how they were able to craft such an item in so short a time.

Although our automotive loyalties have shifted, I’m going still going to consider this post a love letter to Volkswagen. It’s also a shout out to NY and the Auto show. More importantly, the trip also reflects the multi-cultural aspect of our environment (these are German products being consumed by Americans, after all) and the influence they produce in our lives. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to trace your passion from one instance, and I hope all of you can do the same for you interests as well, even if it didn’t involve a New Beetle pen holder.