Shuttered Bug: Mexico rolls out its last classic Beetle

The last, much-loved 'vocho' - a Mexican workhorse and American icon of the 1960s - zips out of the factory Tuesday.

Wednesday, Mexicans will bid farewell to an icon when the last classic Volkswagen Beetle - the longest-running model in auto history - rolls out of its lone surviving plant here.

But while Americans nostalgically recall childhood games of "Punch Buggy," collectors anticipate windfalls, and aging hippies lament the death of still another symbol of innocence, Mexicans simply regret the loss of a good car - a friend that has served them well for 50 years. With Mexico City aiming to clean up its notoriously polluted air, and with Mexicans facing a plethora of inexpensive car-buying options that didn't exist just a few years ago, the world-famous Bug will finally be exterminated.

Though the Beetle has long since faded from other locales, it has never left Mexico. As worldwide sales declined in the late 1970s, Volkswagen confined Beetle production to Mexico and Brazil. Since 1996, only one Beetle production facility has remained, in Puebla. The reason was purely practical: They still sold well here.

"Mexicans know the Beetle," says Volkswagen spokesman Israel Victoria Diaz. "They know how to fix it. They know they can find parts almost anywhere. And they know they can depend on it when driving on the country's rough road conditions."

In Mexico, a passing Beetle does not evince quaintness, or evoke cries of, "Ah, how cute!" Here, the bug is king. And it is ubiquitous. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, Adolf Hitler's vision of a "people's car" for every family has become a reality, selling new for a mere $7,400.

"I really don't make enough money to own a car," says construction worker Andrés Durán López of his well-used 1988 white Beetle. "My family owes a lot to this vocho," as the Beetle is known here. "It still works after 11 years of hard punishment we've given it."

It is also the workhorse for the Mexican taxi industry. In Mexico City especially, there is virtually no major street at any time of day that isn't full of the little green couriers.

Taxi owners typically rip out the front passenger seat of their Beetles to allow easier access to the back seat, and attach catalytic converters to help them pass the city's strict smog tests.

Little Volkswagen buses, rigged with ropes and levers to allow the driver to operate the sliding side door, have been similarly drafted en masse for an entire division of the city's bus system.

Mario Medina Martinez, spokesman for Mexico City's Department of Roads and Transportation, estimates that more than 70 percent of the city's registered 106,000 taxis are Beetles, to which must be added an estimated 15,000 unofficial drivers (almost all of which use Beetles), for a total of nearly 90,000.

But just last October, city officials passed an ordinance requiring that all taxis have four doors, citing safety concerns. Many here see the new rule as a salvo aimed directly at the Beetle, whose outdated engine has been blamed for contributing to the city's pollution.

Mr. Victoria says the new Mexico City ordinance was just one of many factors in the company's decision to discontinue production, which include declining sales in general. But many here point to the coinciding of the timing of the decision and the loss of what once was the Beetle's single largest customer.

"A true star knows when it's best to retire," Volkswagen board member Jens Neumann said in a press conference July 10.

Over the past few weeks, the Puebla plant has been producing a special collector's edition of the Beetle, featuring original markings, whitewall tires, and the car's original two colors: beige and baby blue. And Puebla will continue to be the only production facility for the new Beetle in North America, mainly for export to the United States.

But this is little consolation for Mexicans, for whom the new Beetle's hefty price tag puts it far out of range for a people's car.

Besides, as Mr. López says, "It's just not the same."

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