Ed Wallace

Killed once by affluence, the second time by indifference

In the Mexico City of 50 years ago, a fairly affluent family typically would own a big Ford LTD sedan and a little Volkswagen Beetle. Then again, in 1969 high-end luxury cars weren’t anywhere near as common as they are today — even though we were not far from the Jardines del Pedregal, where some of the city’s richest had built their mansions on hardened lava beds that dated back to 5,000 bc.

On one particular day I was going to be shown the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, about 60 kilometers north from the family’s home on Insurgentes Sur, on the southern end of Mexico City. And, since just my host’s daughter and I were taking this trip, it would be made in the family’s VW Beetle. Quaint by American standards, this was a really bare-bones Beetle, similar to the ones engineering geeks bought in the Fifties (long before we gave that label to those who proudly used pocket protectors). It had no seatbelts, only an AM radio, and a cabin noise level that was amazingly high even for that era of the automobile. Right around that time, VW sold some 1.3 million Beetles worldwide in one year, but would never do that again. Forget Peak Oil; we were living through Peak Beetle.

Setting out at 5 that morning, we headed north toward the Pyramid of the Sun at a fairly high rate of speed, blowing through every red light on Insurgentes as we zipped through downtown Mexico City. As I asked the doctor’s daughter about her unique driving skills that day, while mentally converting to Ralph Nader’s gospel of automobile safety devices, she calmly replied, “We’re the only ones on the road at this time of the night.”It took two or three more intersections for me to realize that, Mexico City’s metro population of over 10 million at the time notwithstanding, she was right. At that hour, before the sun began its climb over the mountain rim and into the crater that was Mexico City, the two of us in that VW Beetle were in fact the only ones driving through downtown and north to the ruins.

Ironically, I was just a month out of my first accident, also in a Volkswagen Beetle. It was owned by a rather unwise family friend, who foolishly offered to let me take his car for a spin. Hitting gravel while turning onto 183 from Vickery we slid, and for a mere $180 the bent wheel and suspension were repaired.

Even as the middle Baby Boomers came of age in the late Sixties and early Seventies, though, VW was becoming a bit passé. The microbus and Beetle may be the image we remember of hippies out on the West Coast, having a lot more fun than we were at the Griff’s on Camp Bowie; but it was far more likely that, for many Boomers, their first new car would be a Chevrolet Vega, Ford Pinto — or, if your parents were really mad at you, an AMC Gremlin. Those American-made compact cars sold in such astronomical numbers that it became a mathematical certainty: Every last Baby Boomer who owned one of those vehicles would buy Japanese cars in the future. However, sales were falling so quickly for VW in that period that our dealer on the West Side picked up Winnebago motor homes to sell on the side. After all, Winnebagos were hot when you couldn’t give a Volkswagen away; and the reverse was true a couple of years later, when the Arab Oil Embargo hit America.

True, the two major energy crises in the Seventies gave VW a couple of chances to come back to life, but the company just couldn’t seem to get any long-term traction from its product line-up either time. The Scirocco seemed to have a bit of a cult following in the mid-Seventies, but it didn’t improve the line-up, nor did the Rabbit convertible long term. Owners were still quick to ditch their VWs over quality issues. By the late Seventies, as the Japanese juggernaut swept the country, VW just didn’t seem to hit the right chords with the public.

Even then, those who noticed such things saw some car dealers and friends in Dallas starting to buy Suburbans with three rows of seats to haul their families around, gas prices be damned. It was a trickle at first, one or two dropping off kids at St. Marks in Dallas. But the trickle became a flood, and a decade later the Suburban would be named the National Car of Texas.

Audi, on the other hand, was becoming hotter approaching the mid-Eighties. It was often picked as one of the Top Ten in Car & Driver’s annual “Best of” list —that is, until the Audi 5000’s “unintended acceleration” story hit in 1988. That story wasn’t true, of course, in any way, but it did collapse Audi’s sales momentum, while sending 60 Minutes in such a different direction that one day it would surprise no one that the show’s big story of the year was an interview of an adult film star.

By the time my radio show launched, VW was all but dead in America. Yet the very first story I did on air in 1993 was the announcement that Volkswagen was going to bring a new Beetle out in 1998. In the time between that announcement and the new car’s arrival, VW’s U.S. sales fell to barely over 50,000 vehicles. If a single car line sold that few vehicles, it would get canceled; this was a manufacturer’s entire line-up.

Even before any Volkswagen dealer in Texas received one of the first New Beetles, one was delivered for my Fox Four review. It was nothing short of amazing. Not the car; frankly, it wasn’t much other than cute. But it was bright yellow; and as you drove down the street the people you passed would stare, trying to figure out what it was. When it dawned on them that it was the New Beetle, they broke into the darnedest smiles you’ve ever seen.

People would follow me until I pulled over so they could see the car up close. Parking it out in front of my home got so bad, I learned to drive down the street on a first pass and remotely open my garage door, then drive around until there were no other cars in sight, quickly dart into the garage, and shut the door.

Few cars I’ve been in during my life have elicited such a strongly positive visceral reaction when others saw it. There was a magic to that car and where it took us mentally that no other vehicle could possibly duplicate. And in fact, none has been able to. True, the Mustang, Challenger, and Camaro have done a fine job in the retro market, but it was different with this goofy little Volkswagen —at least in America, where the first year we bought nearly 84,000 Bugs.

Meanwhile, it shocked Volkswagen that the retro New Beetle didn’t get the same response in Germany. There were stories of those cars being displayed inside grocery stores, trying to gin up some consumer interest. But it was obvious why Americans had these silly grins on their faces every time we saw a New Beetle, but Germans shunned it: Americans were reminded of our youth, or the youth we had mentally envisioned but never got around to actually living. On the other hand, it reminded the Germans of their very different past— and of the grinding poverty that endured for decades after the war. They bought a VW Bug not to become a hippie, but because it was the only thing the family could afford.

For what it’s worth, in Mexico they were still building the last variation of the original Volkswagen Beetle. They would do so until 2003, when production finally called it a day after almost 60 years.

Bye-bye, Bug

In America, after that boom first year, sales of the New Beetle fell and kept falling until a mere 15,000 were retailed. Strange. Of course, the first-generation New Beetle that caught everyone’s attention was OK to drive, but really nothing to write home about. Cute, yeah, including that little plastic holder on the dash to hold that little plastic flower — because we no longer had hippies on every major corner of the Metroplex selling carnations like we once had. (For those of you who aren’t Boomers it’s hard to believe, but that roadside cheap-flower business once seemed bigger than Uber.)

Two years ago, the rumor surfaced that Volkswagen was going to end Beetle production for good worldwide. VW refused to comment on that rumor, calling it media speculation, but it was true. That’s sad, because the second generation of this New Beetle was possibly Volkswagen’s best driving car. Certainly it was the most fun to drive. It felt substantial for the first time in its history, it was surprisingly quiet, and it was priced right against other compact cars. That is the most surprising part of all.

Just as the Volkswagen Beetle finally became one of the best compact cars in the world, nobody seemed to want one anymore. Ah, the curse of the auto industry —like Billy Crystal’s Fernando Lamas on Saturday Night Live, stating flatly, “It’s better to look good than to feel good.” And when it comes to car purchases, we too often follow that skewed advice. When the New Beetle came out in 1998, was cute beyond belief, and brought back memories of the youth we wished we’d had, it sold in great numbers. But it wasn’t really a great compact car. A few years later, when it became the best Beetle ever made and one of the best compact cars for the money, nobody seemed to care much anymore.

At long last the final eulogies will be written for the car that changed Germany, or at least gave the country a reputation for mass market vehicles after the war. Now the original is 15 years out of production and the retroversion is set to join it in the automotive afterlife —or maybe just an auto salvage yard outside of Eagle Pass. And, while no one can tell what these vehicles might be worth once they can no longer be acquired new, I’m guessing the last Beetle convertible could become a more than reasonable long-term automotive investment.

Even if it’s not, it will still be one of the finest compact cars you’ll ever own and certainly still one of the most fun to drive.

© Ed Wallace 2018 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com