From Hitler to Herbie – and from hippies to hipsters – the Volkswagen Beetle transcended generations.
Almost everyone has a story about a Beetle, a car that made most people smile – and left others bruised during games of “Punch Buggy” if the other person spotted one before you did.
In the end, though, even millennials couldn’t keep the Love Bug alive.
The last ever Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the production line in Mexico this week, but it had been on life support for the better part of a decade.
The first generation Beetle was in production for a record 65 years – from 1938 to 2003 – making it the longest-running continuously-made single model in the automotive world.
With its characteristic “dak-dak” sound you could often hear a Beetle long before you could see it.
The simple design – a steel dashboard that was also part of the body, to save space and cut costs on materials – with its air-cooled engine in the back, made it unlike any other car on the road.
In Australia, where tall poppies are cut down, the back-to-basics Bug became a symbol of fun and freedom. Few cars exuded the Beetle’s kudos.
By the 1990s, cars had become plastic and soulless, so Volkswagen hatched a plan to change that and, presumably, boost its profits.
It even had a plastic vase on the dash, a throwback to the porcelain Blumenvase option introduced by US dealers from the 1950s to the 1970s.
The floral arrangement was seen as a stroke of genius by diehard fans and a tacky marketing ploy by its detractors.
The modern Beetle was never intended to sell in the same numbers as the original, but it was supposed to do better than it did.
Volkswagen sold an average of 330,000 original Beetles annually over its 65-year history. The modern version sold at a rate of less than 77,000 annually over 22 years.
The world had changed and there were infinitely more choices for new-car buyers. Instead, the modern Beetle became a cynical marketing exercise.
It was essentially as cheap to make as a Volkswagen Golf (only the shape of the body had changed, the underpinnings were the same) but sold for a much higher price.
In Australia, that amounted to a starting price of about $36,000 when the modern Beetle went on sale in the early 2000s. At the time, a Golf hatchback – its twin under the skin – cost from $26,000.
Initially, enthusiast buyers didn’t care. The modern Love Bug pulled at their heartstrings and opened their wallets.
But the fad wouldn’t last. After an initial surge (sales were strongest in Australia in the first two years) the modern Beetle went into freefall as buyers baulked at the price premium.
The modern Beetle was extinguished from Australian showrooms in 2016, although a handful appeared on sales reports in 2017 as dealers struggled to clear stock.
For fanatics, its demise was as painful to watch as an upturned bug in a spasm after being sprayed with insecticide.
Volkswagen managed to sell 1.2 million examples of the first iteration of the modern Beetle in the 14 years from 1997 to 2011, but sales slowed to less than half that rate (530,000) for the second take on the modern Beetle made in the eight years from 2011 to 2019.
In the meantime, memories of the original Beetle will live on thanks to a healthy collection of pristine examples of classic models in Australia – and a new fan base among millennials who dream of when life was simple, the steering in cars was heavy, and the brakes were a bit wonky.
A new generation of buyers in their 20s – who had only just been born when the original Beetle was pronounced dead – are now snapping up cars deemed too scrappy for hardcore collectors.
They take their Beetles (or other classics) for trips down memory lane on weekends and commute on public transport during the week.
Now the Beetle is gone forever, less than immaculate examples will likely start to hold their value – even if they are at an age when they can’t quite hold their fluids.
VW Beetle by the numbers:
21.5 million: the number of original Beetles made from 1938 to 2003.
1.7 million: the number of modern Beetles made from 1997 to 2019.
9848: the number of new generation VW Beetles sold in Australia from 2000 to 2017.
Mid 1950s: VW Beetles initially assembled in kit form in Australia.
1959 to 1968: VW Beetles manufactured in Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton, at a site which would later become a Nissan factory and then a Holden Special Vehicles assembly facility.
1968 to 1976: VW Beetles returned to being assembled in kit form in Australia.
$1942: the price of a new VW Beetle in Australia in 1960.
$36,790: the price of a new VW Beetle in Australia in 2000.
Where to from here?
The Beetle may be dead, but Volkswagen is about to revive one of its other classics, the Kombi. Modern versions of the Kombi van and people-mover are due in Australian showrooms in two to three years from now.
There’s one catch: the hippie-mobile of the future will only be available as an electric vehicle.