A beetlephile unwraps nostalgia and finds it shiny new

A snappy gold Volkswagen beetle convertible, the top piled back, sat expectantly in the office garage the other day -- not a Rabbit convertible, mind you, but an honest-to-goodness bug.

It looked magnificent, at least to this beetlephile of going on 20 years now.

Simply, there is something about the beetle -- who can explain it? -- that captivated untold numbers of Americans, starting in 1949, and kept them coming back every few years for a new one. And what did they expect? Like an old shoe , it was familiar, comfortable; yet unlike an old shoe, worth buying over and over again. And it was dependable to boot.

The old VW beetle sedan hasn't been built in Germany for several years now -- nor has it been sold in the US since 1977.

But don't get the idea that the bug is kaput. Not by a long shot. There are a few million of them still on the road in the US because, as every beetle owner knows, they last a long time. My own VW beetle, 10 years old and with 134,000 miles on the clock, is still going strong.

Also, the beetle is still being built in Puebla, Mexico, as well as in the large VW operation in Brazil where about 1,000 cars a day are coming off the line.

Ironically, the familiar-shaped car is being sent to Germany from both Mexico and Brazil as an import -- and a lot of West Germans are buying them.

Indeed, the beetle may be on its way to becoming a counterculture car for the second time around, a spot it first attained during its heyday in the 1960s and '70s.

In 1979 VW produced 263,340 beetles and 181s, the 181 also being known as the Safari and, when it was sold in the US market in 1973-74, as the Thing -- a takeoff on a vehicle used by German troops in the North African desert in World War II.

The beetle convertible is still being built by Karmann in Osnabruck, Germany. Karmann also produces the Rabbit ragtop, which is just now getting under way at VW dealerships in the US.

Not surprisingly, the Rabbit ragtop lacks the charisma which is so much a part of the beetle.

In February, VW dealerships sold 1,234 beetle softtops and had 2,053 in stock at the beginning of March. At that rate, the last beetle ragtop should go out the showroom and onto the road before the end of April.

One California dealer, with 10 beetle convertibles in stock, was asked: "Isn't that a lot of cars?" He replied: "I wish all my worries today were like that!" As for price: New beetle ragtops are going out the door at $9,000 and up. And they keep their worth for a long time. One beetle owner, for example, not long ago sold a 1978 convertible for $5,800.

The Rabbit convertible, which went on sale a few weeks ago but will never fully replace the beetle, is also in very limited supply. At the end of February VW dealers had a total of 788, including cars in transit. That isn't even one car per dealer.

"We've even had to restrict them for company use because of the demand," says a Volkswagen of America spokesman.

Only a little more than a thousand have been bought into the country so far. The Rabbit convertible, like the beetle ragtop before it, is built by Karmann in West Germany.

Nearly three years ago I wrote a story about the demise of the beetle in the US. Even though it continues to be built just south of the border in Mexico, it can't be brought into the US because it does not conform to federal regulations which govern the design and performance of an automobile.

I said at the time that if VW wanted an idea for a 1990-model automobile, it should bring back the beetle. "And don't change a weld," I wrote.

Today, I wouldn't change a comma in the story. No sir.

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