Home » The Volkswagen New Beetle Was A Huge Deal When It Came Out And Still Deserves Your Respect Today: Car Redemption

The Volkswagen New Beetle Was A Huge Deal When It Came Out And Still Deserves Your Respect Today: Car Redemption

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Time, as we all likely know by now, is kind of a jerk. It’s cold and unfeeling and trudges on forward inexorably and doesn’t give a brace of BMs what you think about that. It ages us and pushes our memories further and further away, changing the way we see things. That’s why sometimes we need to take a moment and remind ourselves to consider some things not just in the context of our eternally-fleeting present, but in the overall period of time where it existed. I think Volkswagen’s New Beetle is a great example of this; today it’s often dismissed as some silly, less-practical Golf, or, worse and more troubling, with the misogynistic moniker of a “chick car,” but the truth is when the New Beetle hit the scene in the late 1990s, it was a huge deal. I know, because I was there, and I was excited as all hell. Plus, it brought back an element to the automotive world that had been in painfully short supply: fun.

I remember the period when the New Beetle was being developed and teased and tested and eventually released extremely well. I was, in some ways, an ideal target for the car: a longtime air-cooled VW Beetle fan, someone who daily drove a 1973 Beetle, in my 20s, working in a creative industry and caring about the design of things. Well, I guess if I actually had money to spend on a car, that would have helped, but that’s just a detail! A silly detail.

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Vidframe Min Bottom

As a kid, I grew up in the back (often the very back, in the luggage well) of my dad’s ’68 Beetle. I remember seeing one of the very last Beetle convertibles in a VW showroom in 1980. From there, I remember the transformation of VW from the company that made peculiar and friendly rear-engined, air-cooled cars that were curvy and distinctive into a company that made highly rectilinear FWD, liquid-cooled machines that, while often very competent and interesting in their own way, nevertheless did not have the same character as the old rear-engined cars. In some ways, I felt like Volkswagen had given into the pressures of the mainstream automotive landscape, and there was nothing left for me there.

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Then, in 1994, the Volkswagen Concept One was shown at the Detroit Auto Show and everything felt like it changed. It’s hard to explain to people who didn’t live through it, but the 1990s were a strangely optimistic time. There was a feeling that permeated everything that made you feel like things were changing, but in a good way. It felt like we were finally figuring things out. The internet was just becoming part of life, and it was still early enough that you could believe all of the utopian-sounding hype about it. For a while, everything felt like it was it changing and getting better, and the reveal of this re-born Beetle fit the narrative perfectly.

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It was a day I never really thought would come; I knew Volkswagen of Mexico was still building original-style air-cooled Beetles, but getting those into America was an unlikely and difficult pipe dream. The idea that VW finally seemed to be paying attention to all of us old Beetle-obsessed fools just felt incredible.

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(I like this early sketch because it seems to have the turn indicators on the tops of the fenders, like the original Beetle)

And, even better, it looked to be a truly modernized Beetle, still capturing that Beetle essence, but updated for the end of the 20th century. This, of course, was due to the incredible design work of Freeman Thomas and J Mays, who undertook the project without the initial approval of Volkswagen in Germany, who, culturally, saw the Beetle in a very different context than Americans did. For the Germans, the Beetle was a reminder of hard and lean times after the war, and while there was certainly affection for the Käfer that helped to start the whole German economic postwar miracle, there was a lot less nostalgia for the old Bug than in America.

When re-imagining the 1938 Volkswagen Type 1 (the official name of the Beetle) design into a modern design vocabulary, Thomas and Mays distilled the Beetle down to its absolute most basic visual essence: three curves.

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The basic three curves became the New Beetle’s logo, and you can easily see how this concept was expressed in the form of the concept car, known as Concept One:

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The Concept One was based on the VW Polo platform, which wasn’t available in America and was a bit smaller than the Golf. It was a front-engine/FWD/liquid-cooled platform, completely the opposite of the original Beetle, and while I was disappointed by this, I also remember just kind of accepting this as the Way Things Had To Be. And, while in my mind that made these re-born Beetles not true Beetles, I was still so excited by the general concept and look that I accepted it as the price of existing in modernity.

I remember seeing this picture below in magazines, a VW-released collage of the design process, with old Beetles around for inspiration and some interesting hints at ideas that didn’t make it, like the rear deck vents on the turquoise model in the lower right.

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The hype when the Concept One was shown was enormous; this was one of those times where a car was making news that went beyond the usual greasy-fingered gearhead circles, and had everyone talking. This is partially a testament to the incredible success of the original Beetle; even in the early 1990s, when the car hadn’t been officially sold in America for over a decade, almost everyone still had some sort of Beetle story, whether they owned one themselves or some kooky friend had one and the went on that crazy roadtrip, or the things they did in one or whatever. So many people had an emotional connection to the Beetle, and this concept reminded people of that.

After the first Concept One, VW showed a red convertible New Beetle at the New York auto show:

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In 1995 came the Concept Two, shown at the Geneva Auto Show, and by this iteration the design was just about finalized to what it would look like as a production car:

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Here’s a production one, from the first year of production:

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As you can see, a few things were changed from Concept One: the car was now larger, on the Golf 4 platform, the front end lost the oval grilles that evoked the original, pre-’68 Beetle’s horn grilles and replaced those with a wide, under-bumper grille. The hood had been lengthened a bit, and some of the purity of the “three circles” idea had been lost, but not much, and the result both felt like the archaic old Beetle and something completely new.

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Living in Los Angeles at the time, I remember seeing pre-production New Beetles being tested on Wilshire Blvd, surrounded by a coterie of black Jettas and with their badges missing or taped over– like anyone would think they were, say, a new Chevy or whatever. VW didn’t bother to really camouflage these, because what would be the point? Beetles just look like Beetles. All of this was in the everyone-has-a-camera-on-them-always era, so I regretfully never managed to get any pictures of those test Beetles. But I wish I did.

I can’t overstate the impact the New Beetle had on overall design at the time; it came onto the scene just as industrial design was starting to feel a bit more free, more open to having fun, and the New Beetle was like a massive, obvious banner reading YES LET’S DO IT to every company out there, no matter what they made. The bright colors, the pure and friendly curves, the exuberance and unashamed glee, these were all things inherent in the New Beetle and ready to pop all over industrial design. And that’s nor even mentioning the effect the New Beetle had on retro-inspired automotive design, which paved the way for the new Mini, new Fiat 500, the Mustang re-design, the Ford Thunderbird, and more.

Newsweek Jobs

One of the best examples of this is perhaps the most famous: the iMac. Look how this Newsweek article about Steve Jobs and the introduction of the iMac starts:

“Look at That!” says Steve Jobs he pulls his Mercedes into a parking space. He’s pointing at a new Volkswagen Beetle, and as soon as he parks, he dashes over, circling the shiny black Bug, taking the measure of a well-publicized update of once great product design. “They got it right,” he concludes.

I’m not saying the New Beetle inspired the iMac, but I am saying that both the New Beetle and the iMac were at the vanguard of a revolution in industrial design that was happening in the 1990s; it was as though the whole material world had suddenly rediscovered color and frivolity and translucency and for a while, everyone decided it was okay to have, say, a microwave that looked like a gumdrop or a de-humidifier that seemed like it came out of a CGI cartoon.

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Automobile Mag

I found an old Automobile magazine from 1997, and you can feel the optimism in the coverage of the New Beetle. They’re excited. The New Beetle was nostalgic and hopeful and just about fun. There was so much hype about the way the instruments illuminated (a blue designed to look like how an illuminted swimming pool looks at night) and the bud vase, built into the dash. Yes, old Beetles in the ’50s and ’60s could have an optional flower vase, but these were never common. And yet VW decided to make it a standard part of the design! A standard flower vase, on a mass-market car. Just think about that.

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My parents got a yellow turbo New Beetle (the one that made a very respectable for the time 150 hp) and got a custom license plate that read YOLKSWAGEN. This is the sort of thing the car inspired, even in parents like mine, a diminutive elderly couple who routinely has conversations at a decibel level that makes local airports call and complain and whose general idea of fun is buying things and then returning them, with complaints. They were inspired to get a fun, quick, bright yellow car with a punny license plate because this was the power of the New Beetle’s design.

Sure, late ’90s to early 2000s Volkswagen quality wasn’t great. I’ve been stung, badly, by VWs of this era, and New Beetles were no exception. But they had better interiors than almost any other car of their class at the time, they could be engaging to drive, reasonably practical, and, again, were simply fun. This was a car designed from the get-go to cause people to smile, and that alone makes it worthy of redemption in my book.

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The look is definitely of an era when seen today, but the charm is still there, and I think these little colorful bubbles deserve our respect, because they did something simple and noble: they tried to make the world a little more fun.

You can still find these around, for usually pretty cheap, and I’m often tempted by a convertible new Beetle as a cheap, fun little ragtop. People who roll their eyes at New Beetles or treat them with the peculiar hostility of the insecure need to, I think, just lighten up. The New Beetle new what it was, and it was just that. Fun.

 

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Bill
Bill
22 days ago

The final facelift before they got phased out was really classy and cool looking. I was never a fan of the original new Beetle shape, but I appreciated that they existed. The final model years are cars I would actually consider owning.

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
23 days ago

I was only 10-11 years when these came out but I know that after seeing them around for a few years now,while I really appreciate them,I wish Volkswagen would have stuck with the idea of the Polo platform. I always felt that it was a bit too big for itself,kind of like a kid in his daddy’s suit.

ReverendDC
ReverendDC
24 days ago

Adjusted for inflation, plus the fact that I’m old enough to remember when these were coming to market, AND the fact that my larger than average frame was not comfortable in one…these were expensive Jettas with all the pratfalls of VW (that time or later…or even before…reliability since the air-cooled era was never all that great, and never has been…) with no head room that appealed mainly to those people who remembered the original Beetle and therefore had the wealth to purchase one. When the prices dropped off a cliff about halfway through the run, that’s when you started to see them everywhere.

Matt A
Matt A
18 days ago
Reply to  ReverendDC

I guess you’ve never been in one, because these have miles of head room. That curved roof makes it so you really could get and sit in this car with a fedora on. Way more head space than the contemporary Golf/Jetta. My dad bought a used 98 for my mom, and while it did have a bunch of issues with sensors and things, it kept going. It easily fit our family of 4 with my dad, brother and I all being 6 ft or more. My brother still has it waiting to get fixed up, but it made it 260k miles on the original clutch and we both learned to drive in this car

S Chen
S Chen
24 days ago

I “inherited” a New Beetle convertible when I married my wife. She bought it herself before we met. Worst car I’ve ever had. Rattled like crazy. It was still under warranty so I made multiple dealer trips to have rattles fixed, but it made no difference. The window regulators, which drop the windows an inch to allow the glass to clear the canvas top, would often not return the window to the up position. Eventually, the powered convertible top would sometimes not move up. I decided to sell this car because I just had a feeling it was going to get really expensive once the warranty ran out. VW and their associated brands are dead to me.

SurvivedAPintoCrash
SurvivedAPintoCrash
24 days ago

Only car I’ve bought new… loved it and never had any problem.

Tsorel
Tsorel
25 days ago

I remember when VW were promoting the Concept One. They came to one of the classic VW shows and were handing out swag – still have it. I also remember that the magazines were saying the hard top was going to be $11,000 and the convertible $13,000. Soon after, VW started suing all the enthusiasts in the market for naming their business “Bugformance” or “Beetle Power”, or even “Buggy House”. I even received a “cease and desist” letter because I was selling kids clothes with the hand drawing of my Westfalia pop top. All this was done in an effort to pave the way for VW controlling the Volkswagen narrative and marketing. All they really did was completely alienate their fan base!

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