Today brings the fall equinox, the first official day of autumn in the northern hemisphere. I’m usually one of the very last hangers-on to summer, long proclaiming after Labor Day that oh no… it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Well, she just sang. One would never know it from the robust chorus of locusts that continues to rise and swell throughout my cozy, forest-like neighborhood of Edgewater on Chicago’s north side. In fact, it is the reassuring buzz of these fascinating insects that serves (briefly) as one symbol of continuity as one season shifts to another.
I had seen the car in the first photo again just this past week during rush hour, which triggered my memory that I had seen and actually photographed it before – as it turns out, seven years ago. I believe it to be a 1971 or ’72 model. This got me thinking about all of the different Beetle convertibles I had been fortunate enough to spot in Chicago and snap over the years. The convertibles were never omnipresent as were the closed-roof variants, but I remember regularly still spotting many Beetles on the road into my 1980s childhood in mid-Michigan.
The sound of their rear-mounted, air-cooled engines has always seemed to have an insect-like buzz to me, especially under acceleration, not unlike the slightly alien-esque song that the locusts are still singing outside, accompanying my evening walks. This next part isn’t specific to just the convertibles, but the Volkswagen “Type 1” (as it was officially known) did descend upon the United States not unlike a Biblical “plague” of locusts, and it ate away at the potential success of many small-car competitors, both foreign and domestic, for decades after its introduction.
To backtrack slightly, I wouldn’t necessarily call the Beetle a “plague”, as it seems to have been universally beloved as a small, affordable car for the masses. Even as I had grown up in the patriotic-leaning, car-building factory town of Flint, Michigan, the Beetle was one of few foreign cars that it seemed 100% okay to like. I mean, it wasn’t Volkswagen’s fault that General Motors didn’t adequately test, perfect and prep the early Chevy Vegas before unleashing those attractive-but-half-baked subcompacts onto the car-buying public. I’m guessing that by ’73, toward the beginning of the end of both the Beetle’s dominance among small cars and the Vega’s credibility, few who had been burned by a Vega purchase would have been laughing at the owner of a slow, archaically engineered and styled Beetle.
Decidedly unmodern-looking for much of their lengthy production run, there’s also something timeless about the style of these little cars. I’m in no way criticizing any of Volkswagen’s subsequent convertible offerings, and they may all be safer, faster, and/or more accommodating – but as far as enduring aesthetics, none of them will ever hold a candle to the iconic, status-symbol-in-reverse panache of a Beetle convertible. At least, to me.
I wouldn’t want to take one on the Dan Ryan Expressway, where driving even a reasonably modern economy car like a Chevy Spark can sometimes give me the heebie-jeebies, with maniacs whizzing across lanes of moving traffic like the rest of us are standing still. Still, I can’t think of many other economy-minded, small convertibles that would be more fun to “wear” around town – much like I used to affix the dried, shed skins of locusts on my clothing when I was a kid.
Click here for a brief, related read from Paul N.