COAL: “Beetle”, The White New Beetle (1999)

An archive picture – my Beetle looked exactly like this one.


The New Beetle was a round peg trying to fit in a  square hole – an homage to a form designed in the thirties for a rear engined car, and forced-fit on a platform designed for square cars like the Jetta and the Golf.

As a result, the New Beetle was heavily compromised – an example of function having to find a way to follow form, the exact opposite of the design philosophy advocated by Dr Porsche when he led the design of the original Beetle. As a result, the headroom at the back was extremely limited, and trivial things like changing a headlight lamp were very complicated, but it was a cute car, with a huge capital of sympathy.

When I first arrived in the US, my company was renting cars for me. Pontiac Grand Prix, Subaru Outback, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protégé, … a different (and somehow dull) car every other month. As my stay in the US was extended (never trust an IT project to be finished on time), it was decided I would have to buy my own car.

Being new to the country, I did not have access to credit, and had to buy whatever I could pay cash, with the allowance the company had given me. I did not want a beige three box design, I wanted a manual hatchback, something that drove like a European car. The Ford Focus and the New Beetle ended on my short list. I did not want to have to deal with conventional car dealers either, and I went to Carmax for a no haggle/no surprise purchase. I drove both cars, liked the New Beetle better, and bought a 4 year old white GLS model – with a 2L engine, a 5 speed manual and a flower vase on the dashboard.


The American road trip – reflection of our white beetle in the hubcap of an eighteen wheeler


As a 2 door coupe devoid of any sports-car ambition, the Beetle was a good buy – solid road manners, nice engine sound, good gearbox, it was pleasantly finished and very well equipped compared to the cars I had driven in Europe. Our two dogs could fit in the rear compartment, and the car was comfortable and powerful enough for long distance trips.

My co-workers – typical IT guys driving big black Yukons and Tahoes, could not understand why I was driving such a small car, when I could have afforded something more imposing, and after they saw the paper sunflower in the flower vase, they started questioning my sexual orientation.


Naomi and Pinup in their white Beetle.


Besides being supposedly gay friendly, the New Beetle also had the reputation of being unreliable, and that part was well deserved. From the get go, the airbag was temperamental – I brought the car to the VW dealership multiple times – they would keep the car for a few days, strip the interior of the car to the metal and supposedly fix it, but a few thousand miles later the airbag idiot light would be on again. The cable controlling the fuel door also broke rapidly (they all do that), and the car ate headlight and tail light lamps at an alarming rate – sometimes all of them going dark at the same time.


Not my picture – but I really drove with a paper sunflower in the flower vase. Like this one.


When the car reached the 80,000 mile mark, real trouble started. First the A/C compressor needed replacement. Then the alternator. I don’t remember which one required changing the timing belt, maybe both, but the water pump did not like it and shortly after it exploded inside the engine. My independent mechanic (I had stopped trusting VW dealerships long time ago) flushed the cooling system, but could only recover parts of the water pump impeller – the rest must have been wandering inside the conduits in the cylinder head. It was a time bomb, and I got rid of the car as fast as I could. The next car would have to be  something of known reliability – like a Mazda (don’t laugh – the Miata is one of the most reliable cars available today).

There are cars you regret selling, and cars you regret having to get rid of. The Beetle falls into the second category. Cute, original, rather fun to drive (for a non-GTI compact hatchback), I would have liked to keep it, but it was far too unreliable to trust.