David Dudley is the executive editor of CityLab. He is the former editor in chief of Urbanite magazine and a former features editor for AARP: The Magazine.
RIP Volkswagen Beetle, the car that conquered the city.
On a late-1970s road trip across New York state, my brother and I counted so many Volkswagen Beetles that we got tired of punching each other. We began simply counting them silently, with the notion that, at some point, we’d see who’d counted the most and declare a Punch Bug Champion. I’d counted more than a thousand by the time we got to Bridgeport, Connecticut. Later, bored in the hotel, we sat by a rain-smeared window a few stories above the beat-up industrial city, counting Beetles until the sun set. Downtown Bridgeport in 1977 was a veritable sea of Bugs.
It’s hard to convey to a younger person just how omnipresent these vehicles once were, how they just filled your field of vision if you looked around anywhere in urban America during that era. Go stream some gritty ’70s urban action movies—Bullitt or The French Connection or anything else shot on location—and you’ll see them parked in the background of every car chase. The streets of American cities were once carpeted in Bugs. From 1968 to 1973, more than a million were sold every year. In 1972, when it passed the 15 million mark, the Bug overtook the Ford Model T as the best-selling vehicle on the planet.
Yesterday, the German automaker announced that it would be killing the Beetle brand for the 2019 model year, news that surprised zero industry observers—these plans have been known for years—but still generated an involuntary spasm of nostalgia. Volkswagen, after all, has been making Beetles of one kind or another since the 1930s.
The current model, of course, is a “New Beetle,” which is technically only a very loosely related sibling of the rear-engined original. It’s a regular front-wheel-drive Golf in a retro-inspired Bug body; when it debuted in 1997, purists dismissed this modernized remake as too big, too plush, and too pricey, compared to the bare-bones basic transportation that the People’s Car offered when it puttered forth from the ruins of postwar West Germany. (Yes, history buffs, VW has a Hitler problem. But, as Hitler problems go these days, it’s a relatively minor one.) Even after imports to the U.S. ceased in 1980, original air-cooled Bugs were still being made in Mexico until 2004, and the unkillable Vocho is still quite common on the streets of cities in Latin America. Here’s one in Puebla, Mexico.
While they are very different cars underneath the sheet metal, Beetles old and new shared something more important than powertrain layout: They both broadcast a sense of whimsy, a certain wide-eyed exuberance, and a general just-happy-to-be-here mien. They were joyful machines that celebrated the idea that getting around town was essentially a fun thing to do.
VW leaned in on the adorability idea—perhaps too hard—when it relaunched the Beetle. The new cars had that little dashboard vase, so you could put flowers in there. People stuck cartoon eyelashes on the headlights and filled the rear window shelf with stuffed animals. They came in bright silly sherbert-y colors. But it worked. Remember this haunting TV ad from 2003, where Sad Gen X Cubicle Man’s heart leaps when he sees a Beetle convertible? Somewhere, out on the streets, there’s color and light and happiness and freedom!
The original People’s Car, the Model T, did not convey this. The T, which set America on its road to automobility back in 1908, was a glorified piece of farm machinery, famously available only in severe black. It had a grim and serious job to do: take rural Americans to town in a crude and roadless age. The Bug, like the many other, even tinier city cars that emerged from Europe after World War II, may have been similarly austere, but its heart was light, its face was friendly and round, and it was made for a youthful and urban world. You could stuff a family of five in there, or 18 college kids. You could park it anywhere. If it broke, you could pull the engine out and fix it on your kitchen table. For millions of young people—students, moms, working parents—the cheap, gas-sipping VW was your ticket to selfhood. Ford may have built the automobile age, but the Beetle conquered the city.
The new joys of urban transport are different, and cars like the Beetle can no longer deliver them. For a lot of the young urbanites who would once have been buying Beetles, freedom means riding in the back of someone else’s car, or perhaps on an e-scooter. Not only are two-door vehicles singularly ill-suited to pulling ride-hailing duty, but cars in general are fading in popularity, as U.S. buyers gravitate to crossovers and SUVs and their burly kin.
That doesn’t mean the Beetle is well and truly dead—carmakers are fond of reanimating their iconic brands periodically. But if the name re-emerges on some future VW, as many have speculated, it will probably be attached to some all-electric mobility pod, possibly shared. Maybe it’ll have big happy eyes and a vase for a dashboard flower, to remind the children of former Bug owners that driving your own car around was once a joyful thing.