Curbside Classic: “In Ordnung” – The New Beetle Turns 20

(first posted 10/31/2017)      In 1949, Volkswagen officially began exporting the Type I to the United States, which, in ‘Deluxe’ trim, featured a few more color options over the Standard model, plus chromed bumpers, headlight rings, door handles and hubcaps (the engine hand-crank hole was deleted, too). Thirty years later, the last (convertible) Beetle destined for the USA would roll off of Karmann’s Osnabrück production line. Production of the Type I Beetle would continue through 2003, when the 21,529,464th and final rear-engined, air-cooled “Última Edición” Beetle would roll off the line in Puebla, Mexico on July 30. That same day, in another part of the Puebla plant, Volkswagen would also produce the 700,000th (or thereabouts) New Beetle, which had been introduced in October, 1997 and which went on sale in the US in the Spring of 1998.

In 1991, Jay May and Freeman Thomas – both Art Center graduates – opened a combined Volkswagen and Audi design center in Simi Valley, California, and the first big project they did together was a Bauhaus-influenced reinterpretation of the Type I ‘Beetle,’ which they named ‘Concept 1.’ At the time, VW sales in North America were declining rapidly (~40K units in 1992), and focus studies indicated that to most Americans, VW meant the classic air-cooled Beetle – because of both its iconic shape, and the fond memories it evoked of the 1960s. May and Thomas proposed the project to VW’s new head of design, Hartmut Warkuß, who gave approval to proceed, despite some resistance from Volkswagen headquarters, where the Type I was considered to be quite outdated. Ultimately, a mockup was presented in ‘Valhalla,’ where the old air-cooled Beetles were originally presented to Heinz Nordhoff. Only this time, they were presenting to the grandson of Herr Doktor Porsche, Dr. Ferdinand Piëch. After viewing the car, his cold response was “In Ordnung” (“In Order”). He then cracked a smile and gave the order to have a show car produced.

The marketing strategy created to sell the car involved focusing it on being an emotional, not rational car – design-driven, with an outstanding personality. Both the ‘Baby Boomer’ and ‘Gen X’ demographics were considered as target markets, but ultimately it was felt that the only connection Boomers might have was one of nostalgia, which was felt would not turn into a high rate of sales. Gen X-ers, on the other hand, were seen as “easily impressionable,” compatible with VW’s then-current marketing strategy, and who would better appreciate counter-culture styling as they typically were looking to be different, fun and unique. Pricing started around $15,000 and with extras could approach $18,000, which was somewhat high for the small-car market. By comparison, the top-selling Chevy Cavalier ran from $12,110 (base) to $19,910 (convertible) and the Ford Escort ran from $11,745 to $14,245.

Back in 1994, I was still driving my 1971 VW van (the ‘Mayfield Belle‘), and was sorting out a 1964 VW Beetle I had purchased from the son of the original owner (shown in lead photo) that I would subsequently use as a DD in Atlanta, GA for six years. I happened to stop in for a haircut at Rob’s Barbershop (Rob gave me my very first haircut as a young boy), and this May 1994 edition of Automobile magazine caught my eye – Rob let me keep it, and I dug it out of attic storage to reference for this article. Mays and Thomas had invited Jerry Seinfeld in to see the car – Seinfeld had considered being a car columnist before ultimately going into comedy – and the seven-page spread covered the development of the car as well as the Bauhaus influence on its design, right down to the door pulls and shifter. A sidebar to the article listed a 1-800 number and encouraged readers to call Volkswagen and share their opinions.

Also from my attic archives is this undated spread in Vochomanía magazine, which I’ll leave up to you readers to translate on your own. Given it shows what appears to be a production or near-production car on the succeeding pages, I would assume it’s from early 1997, give or take. Note that the car is still being referred to as Concept 1 in this article – interestingly, May and Thomas never intended the car to carry the ‘Beetle’ name (and fully expected it to be around twenty years hence); the ultimate name choice of New Beetle would later cause no end of confusion when its successor entered production in 2012 as just ‘Beetle.’

Concept 1 debuted at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show, which was chosen both for its distance away from California as well as for the potential for press coverage with which VW and its agency could gauge reaction to the car. A convertible version was displayed at the 1994 Geneva Motor Show and a nearly-production-ready car was exhibited at the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show. It was the strong, positive public reaction to Concept 1 that convinced VW to proceed with development of the production car. One could argue the New Beetle turned VWoA’s sales decline around, with full first-year sales of 107,090, rising to a peak of 160,147 in 1999 before slipping back to around 100K annually through 2003-04. Sales would quickly drop off afterward, however, running around 35-45K annually until VW pulled the plug after the 2010 model year and a run of 1,163,890 cars.

The production New Beetle was actually quite a bit larger than the Concept 1, which had been designed around the VW Polo platform. The production car was based on VW’s fourth-generation front-engine, front-wheel-drive Golf platform. Several different gasoline engines would be offered in North America, including a 115-hp 2.0l variant, as well as a 150HP, later uprated to 180HP turbo engine of 1.8l displacement. After 2006, a five-cylinder 2.5l powerplant making 150HP would replace the former 2.0l engine. A 1.9l 90HP TDI diesel capable of over 40MPG was also available through 2006, after which it failed to meet regulations and was removed as an option. Either a five-speed manual or four- or six-speed automatic (on the turbo engines) got the power to the wheels. A number of other engine and transmission options were offered outside of the North American market.

Other than practically-useless cupholders, the interior (to me, at least) captured the essence of the original Type 1 quite well. Soft-touch rubber was used on a number of surfaces (which ultimately didn’t wear well in the long-term), and instrumentation was simple and clear.

The New Beetle would receive one face-lift during its production run, when, in 2006, creases were added to the fenders and the front and rear bumper covers were mildly restyled.

A New Beetle would also share screen time in 2005 with a certain 1963 Beetle in the (somewhat disappointing) film Herbie: Fully Loaded, which was more of a LiLo ‘vehicle’ than a true Love Bug reboot.

In 1999, I started my own business doing creative work for a number of companies in the Atlanta area, and found that I could no longer accommodate my ’64 Beetle’s off-and-on high-needs relationship (the joys of owning an old car!). The New Beetle had been on the market for two years, and I set my mind on getting a diesel, which turned out to be fairly easy as they weren’t selling quickly at that time. I would own my NB for over twelve years and nearly sold it out of frustration on more than one occasion due to numerous quality issues. After reaching 150K miles, however, it was actually quite reliable until I sold it locally with nearly 220K on the odo, and I still see it around town. It was succeeded by a 2013 Beetle TDi convertible, which I sold after only 18 months due to quality issues and the fact it simply lacked that Bauhaus feel the New Beetle had.

Perhaps it’s confirmation bias, but it dawned on me recently that I still see New Beetles everywhere! In one afternoon driving around town, I counted at least five, and these were all driving, not parked. Surprising, given they were not known for high levels of reliability. So does that make the New Beetle eligible for ‘Cockroach of the Road’ status? If so, it has my vote!

I believe I can also now answer the question posed by one of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s iconic ads (slightly modified to make the point), as there are rumors floating around the interwebs that the current (A5) Beetle is not long for this world and 2018 may be its last year. Whenever the inevitable occurs, it will likely be the last hurrah (or gasp) for the Beetle.

There was a certain magic that surrounded the original Beetle – a huge part of that had to do with where American culture was in the late 1950s and 1960s. VW was able to recapture some aspects of that with the New Beetle, but after twelve years in a market becoming saturated with other ‘retro’ offerings, culture was simply ready to move on. The 2012 successor, while perhaps more faithful to the lines and proportions of the original, simply didn’t capture the essence of its air-cooled forbear – something the New Beetle did much more successfully, at least from my perspective of having owned all three iterations.

So ‘Happy Birthday,’ New Beetle, and thanks for all the smiles!


Related Reading

COAL Comparison: Three Generations of Beetle

Autobiography: The Volkswagen New Beetle And The Cult Of Cars