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Beetle nears the end of the road

The last classic Volkswagen Beetles will roll off the assembly line this summer. For American fans, though, the passing of the classic Beetle has little real impact. The legend will continue. MSNBC’s Jon Bonne reports.
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The Beetle is dead, long live the Beetle! There’s plenty of symbolic mourning as the Puebla, Mexico plant churns out its final models this summer of the car that largely made Volkswagen’s reputation. For its American fans, though, the passing of the classic Beetle has little real impact. The legend will putter on.

That isn't to say there won’t be a bit of sackcloth. Volkswagen of America, certainly has been keen to cap this era in its history and move on to promoting other models, like the new Touareg. And it’s impossible for the car’s fans not to note the passing of a seven-decade era that produced 21 million of these bulbous, iconic cars.

“It’ll be a sad day and every club newsletter will have an obituary,” says Rich Kimball, who runs the VW Classic, a California car show for vintage Volkwagen enthusiasts, and writes a column for Hot VWs magazine.

For many countries, though, the actual demise of the classic “old” Beetle came with the last U.S. model year in 1979 and the ’79 Beetle convertible. Beetle production in most other countries — Britain and Japan, for example — wrapped up at that point, but the Puebla, Mexico, plant kept rolling along, churning out some 20,000 Beetles a year, mostly for the Mexican market. A Brazilian plant closed in 1986.

Its fans were undeterred. In the quarter-century since its U.S. finale, vintage Beetle owners in the United States created a small Beetle economy of their own — a flourishing trade in used models, parts and accoutrements. With tens of thousands of old Beetles, and perhaps far more, still on American roads, a healthy business will continue for those who want to keep their beloved cars rolling. For Americans, owning an old Beetle is a nod to a more pleasant, more populist past. (To a point: The car’s populist origin came from Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Fans presumably connect with its more recent history.)

“The ending of Beetle production is maybe more of a spiritual loss than a financial loss,” says Kimball, who met his wife at a VW club gathering. “We’ve already been bummed since 1980 that they wouldn’t let us buy one from them, so we’re pretty much over that.”

For those who want to own, the classic Beetle retains a small market of its own in America, with model years back to the 1950s being sold. Hundreds of old Beetles are up for sale in classifieds and on eBay, for anywhere from $1,500 to over $7,000. In many ways, it is less about buying a car than a collector’s item. Even so, it is a highly accessible one. Even with the production run ending, there always seems to be an old Beetle around to rescue. Kimball says his son just left another 1950s-era model in the driveway to restore.

Back to basics
Part of the allure is the ease with which an owner can perform basic maintenance on a Beetle — an early selling point that prompted a whole market for self-repair guides. Serious enthusiasts shop for their own parts and trade advice, fueling a thriving subculture of Beetledom, even spawning all-vintage VW repair shops. Dealers around the nation resell perfectly restored Beetles. For these folks, the demise of the Puebla Beetle is just a ruffle.

“It’s a nonevent for people that are in the business,” says Randy Henning, who owns Mofoco, a VW parts and repair shop in Milwaukee, Wisc. “It shouldn’t have any impact on businesses like mine because we’ve already been fixing these cars for 25 years after they’ve stopped making them for us.”

Henning, the “old man in the back” of his repair shop, describes some common views about the love of Beetle. For most owners, there’s a combination of practicality and nostalgia. Many love their old Beetles as a cheap, durable, easily fixable car. For others, it’s a throwback to the past; perhaps it was their dream car as a college student and they simply want to follow through. Others may simply want to project the Beetle’s “everyman” image as a car you could drive even if you were tuning in and dropping out, a direct challenge to Detroit’s Big Three and their eight-cylinder splendors. (That Volkswagen of America is now located in Auburn Hills, Mich., is beside the point. Or maybe very much to the point.)

A new generation has also warmed to the message. Henning says at least a third of his customers are under 25; some love the mystique and some remember the Beetle from childhood, or perhaps from one of the “Love Bug” films, which Disney turned into a 1970s cottage industry.

“If you’re a 25-year-old son of a guy who had a Beetle when you were one year old, that could still be nostalgia,” says Henning, who owns three vintage Beetles that actually run, plus “lots of dreams.”

The last new Beetles
None of this is to say you can’t still buy one of the last new “old” Beetles, which over the years incorporated modern concepts like, say, fuel injection and a catalytic converter. If the Mexican Beetle isn’t exactly built for performance, it is still made for durability. And price: Dealers in Mexico sell them for about $8,000.

It’s no longer legal to directly import a Mexican Beetle into the United States, and Volkswagen has shown little interest in doing so. At least, it’s not possible to import a whole Mexican Beetle. But the Beetle community resounds with what Henning calls “urban myths” about how to obtain a new Beetle from south of the border. One method, according to Beetle lore, calls for a buyer to find the most junked classic Beetle they can find and drive it to Mexico. Then they buy a new one, switch the license plates, dirty up their new baby and drive it back.

Btlmex Inc., in the border town of Nogales, Ariz., tried a different method: merging the pieces of a new Mexican Beetle with the skeleton of an old one. “We restore U.S. Beetles,” says owner Miguel Padres. “We get an old U.S. Beetle and we restore it with all the parts of a new car.”

Not for much longer, though. Btlmex stopped the conversions last year, and Padres has all but sold out his inventory of 20 classic Beetles, with the last three expected to vanish before mid-July. Because of his close ties with VW dealerships in Mexico, he knew the Beetle’s run was likely to end and turned to selling parts. Though the Puebla factory will retool, Padres says that it must continue to produce old Beetle replacement parts for another 10 years. Other manufacturers also make Beetle parts, but Btlmex thinks owners will seek out the quality of original parts.

“We would like to cater to people who have Beetles, to continue to keep them original Volkswagen,” says Padres, who owns five himself.

Beetles on Abbey Road
The Brits, meantime, have better access to the Mexican Beetle, and they’re taking advantage while they can. On one week in June, specialty dealership Beetles UK Ltd. in South Gloucester made about two months worth of sales — some 30 classic Beetles. A basic model starts $13,200. (That’s with the steering wheel on the left, mind you. A right-side model costs an extra $1,650.) Even at that price, it’s still dirt cheap for a new car, suggests Christopher Jones, managing director of Beetles UK. Better yet, it’s a new car with some real history.

“What appeals to them is they’re buying a brand new classic car,” Jones says. “These people are the people, I think, that Volkswagen would like to sell new Beetles to.”

Losta luck. A dividing line remains between the original Beetle nostalgia and the sort Volkswagen used to market its new Beetle: that vaguely fond sense of the past combined with a desire for the latest in auto engineering.

There are plenty of crossovers — Kimball invites both new and old Beetle fans to mingle at his events — but gaps remain between the two Beetle factions, with some hard-core classic fans viewing new Beetle owners as arrivistes with no loyalty to the original Beetle vision. Says Jones of his more devoted customers: “People that buy the classic Beetle would never buy the new Beetle.”

For those folks who can’t do without a new-old VW, there will be one other option. Though the Beetle is on its final lap, Volkswagen of Brazil still markets classic versions of its “Type 2” bus — known there as the “Kombi” — the practical van-like vehicle that evokes a rounded-off brick. The Type 2 already makes up 80 percent of Beetles UK sales. Volkswagen may be puttering forward into the future, but so long as it keeps one wheel in the past, it still has customers ready to take a classic ride.