The Volkswagen Beetle needs no introduction. But it does deserve a farewell. And that, after 80 years in production and more than 23 million cars sold, is exactly what this story is. Because as of later this year, the Beetle will be no more.
THE BEGINNING OF THE BEETLE
An odd-looking but simple car, the original ‘Type 1’ Beetle of 1938 transcended its somewhat awkward beginnings (it was commissioned by Adolf Hitler as a people’s car, or ‘volks wagen’) to become a cultural phenomenon and a record-breaker. And while modern iterations might not have been nearly as successful as the original (of the 23 million Beetles sold, around 21.5 million where the old air-cooled models), they were significant in their own right for being at the sharp edge of retro-themed design.
The classic Beetle, in its own way, also marked the beginning of Volkswagen’s ongoing love of platform sharing. This, after all, was the car that lent versions of its underpinnings to split-screen vans, buses and campers, as well as the pretty Karmann Ghia coupe.
And it was embraced by the aftermarket tuning scene, members of which relished the car’s simplicity and ubiquity. So much so, in fact, that seemingly every fraternity of the customising world came to embrace the little Volkswagen, building everything from beach buggies to dragsters. Plus of course, it found fame on the big screen as ‘Herbie’, cementing the idea that the Beetle had a personality all of its own.
Nothing lasts forever, though, and by the late 1960s the Beetle’s popularity in Europe was on the decline, with buyers instead moving towards more modern and practical hatchbacks such as Volkswagen’s own Golf (launched in 1974). That wasn’t the end for the Type 1, however, which continued to be built in small numbers in Germany, and on a larger scale in Brazil and Mexico. In fact, it wouldn’t be until 2003 that the final ‘classic’ Beetle rolled off the production line in Mexico.
THE ‘NEW’ BEETLE ARRIVES
All the while plans moved ahead for a new, modern interpretation of the Beetle. That car was unveiled in concept form at the 1994 Detroit motor show, and the production version, launched in 1997, went on to be a hit, particularly in the US. By 2011, around 1.2 million had found homes.
The final, third-generation Beetle followed immediately as another front-engined, front-wheel-drive hatchback based on the Golf. Yet while it might have been more carefully built and a better to drive than before, the public had seemingly lost its appetite for cars that looked back to the past. And so, with a modest (for a company the size of VW) 530,000 units sold, time has now come to pull the plug.
NEW MEETS OLD
What might come as bad news for Beetle fans does at least provide the perfect excuse for VW to build a last-hurrah special edition, as well as to gather together new and old to see just how far the concept progressed over its eight decades.
That ‘Final Edition’ Beetle was launched earlier this year at the LA Auto Show, and apes the specification of the Ultima Edition that signed off the original Beetle’s production run. That means a choice of Blue or Beige paint, with chrome accents and Beetle badging in place of the usual ‘Turbo’ logos.
We were lucky enough to drive one of these Final Edition Beetles through LA traffic, towards a rendezvous with one of its ancestors from 1949. It is still a vehicle that elicits friendly waves and smiles from the passing traffic and pedestrians – which, let’s face it, is not something that can be said about many modern cars.
The Final Edition is, of course, a million times more advanced that its flat-four-engined predecessor. This point is underlined as I climb from new into old, and find that the latter is not only lacking any kind of luxuries, but also some essentials. For example, there are no wing mirrors, the brakes are dreadful, and the gearbox doesn’t have synchromesh.
Driving it is thus something of a challenge – not that our glacial progress seems to be bothering the other users of Highway 1, many of whom can’t resist a glance and a smile as they pass by our slow-rolling roadblock.
It’s a lovely last memory to have of a charming and humble car. Whether the Beetle might one day return only VW can say. But for now at least, it is time to say farewell.
Search for a used Volkswagen Beetle on CarGurus
In the market for a used car?
CarGurus makes it easy to find great deals from top-rated dealers. CarGurus compares price, detailed vehicle data and dealer reviews to give each used car a deal rating from great to overpriced, and sorts the best deals first. Find out more and begin your used car search at CarGurus.