Beetlemania comes home

Germans welcome a reborn old favorite months after it wins over North America.

The saga of the world's most popular car will come full circle when Volkswagen's New Beetle finally rolls into German showrooms today. Designed in California, made in Mexico, and tested on the North American market, the sleek new model is at last returning to the country of its humble origins.

Impatient Germans watched with curiosity - and a certain amount of envy - when the New Beetle first became available to US and Canadian drivers in March. It was the first time that Volkswagen, Germany's largest car manufacturer, introduced a new model on foreign roads.

Volkswagen was well aware of America's transatlantic romance with the car's pudgy forerunner, the Beetle. Its mysterious charms made way for the renewal of an unlikely relationship that has lasted for decades.

Simple economy car turned big favorite

The Beetle's appeal lies in its defiance of great odds, says Nils Jockel, curator at the Museum for Art and Industry in Hamburg. "It's a car full of contradictions," says Mr. Jockel, who is preparing a design exhibit on the New Beetle.

Spurred on by Adolf Hitler's desire for a Volkswagen, literally a "people's car," German engineers designed the roundish prototype in the 1930s. But the outbreak of World War II prevented the car from ever being mass produced in Nazi Germany.

"After the war, its design was already totally antiquated," says Jockel, a fact that did not deter the car's makers from trying to sell it. In the 1950s 1 out of 3 autos on German roads was a Beetle, and the roaring little car soon became a symbol of West Germany's economic miracle.

At the same time the buggy auto was making unexpected inroads on the American market. "People saw it as a curious, fun second car," says Jockel. "And then there were those who rejected the status symbol of luxury cars."

Even in those days, few had any illusions about the car's deficiencies, such as its small size and lack of comfort. "The Beetle has as many shortcomings as a dog has fleas," Volkswagen executive Carl Nordhoff once joked. "But who would think of getting rid of his dog because of that?"

Company workhorse

Certainly not the millions of Americans who in the 1960s saw the Beetle as the automotive embodiment of the credo "small is beautiful." In 1970, the heyday of the Beetle, Volkswagen sales of all models totaled some 570,000 vehicles in the United States.

When that number sagged to 50,000 by 1993, Volkswagen began developing a new strategy to recapture the US market. The New Beetle was the answer.

"Business was up 38 percent prior to even selling the first New Beetle," says Steve Keys, a spokesman for Volkswagen's US division. "The New Beetle is not intended as a volume car, but rather as a magnet to bring people into the showrooms."

That their car is no more than brand-name bait is unlikely to disappoint the emerging generation of New Beetle enthusiasts. But the realization that the new model has nothing in common with the original Beetle might come as a surprise.

"The New Beetle is a completely different car," confesses Fred Brbock, a spokesman at Volkswagen's corporate headquarters in Wolfsburg. "The relation to the old Beetle is emotional. Viewed rationally, the car is a Golf because of its chassis," he says, referring to Volkswagen's second-most-popular car, whose frame serves as the skeleton for many other models.

All legends are steeped in myth, and German drivers are as blind to technicalities as anybody else. In the past months, some New Beetle devotees went to great lengths to buy the car in the US and ship it to Germany.

Volkswagen dealers here have received more than 10,000 advance orders, and long delivery times are expected. For German consumers the arrival of the New Beetle is the homecoming of a child who has made it in the world. For Volkswagen it is business as usual on the global market.

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