Originally created 02/22/98

Beetle Mania



From Nazi propaganda tool to hippy love machine, few automobiles have captured the public's attention during the past six decades like the Volkswagen Beetle.

With its bubble-shaped body, tiny rear engine and legendary durability, the Beetle is cherished as a pragmatic, yet fun mode of transportation.

Now, after a 20-year absence, a new generation of Beetle will debut in U.S. Volkswagen showrooms in the spring.

The rounded body and modern features of the New Beetle, like its older namesake, emit a sunny disposition.

But the new version also is chock full of frills, comforts and a hi-tech engine - a far cry from the simple 36-horsepower Beetle that first caught the eye of American consumers in the 1950s.

And, with a $15,200 base sticker-price, the New Beetle no longer will be considered an economy car.

"Where the original Beetle provided basic transportation, the new Beetle is an upmarket, lifestyle vehicle," says Clive Warrilow, president and chief executive office of Volkswagen of America Inc.

"It is designed to appeal to people who fondly recall the past, as well as young people who have no connection at all to the original."

Prospective buyers of the New Beetle already face a three- to four-month wait for the car at Gerald Jones Volkswagen-Volvo-Subaru-Audi in Augusta, says manager Mike Troup.

The waiting list was actually started several years ago, when Volkswagen officials first publicly acknowledged they were working on a new Beetle prototype.

Mr. Troup says the response from his customers has been positive.

"They say it's just cute - very attractive. And, of course, it's got new engineering," he says.

"This is the newest thing since Honda. .ƒ.ƒ. I feel it will be the hottest thing on the market for a long, long time."

But this cute little car had an auspicious beginning. The first generation of Beetle was developed in the 1930s in Germany after Adolph Hitler envisioned building an inexpensive volkswagen, or "people's car."

In 1934 Hitler's government commissioned famous auto consultant Ferdinand Porsche to design such a car. Four years later, Hitler unveiled the creation to the public, billing it as the kraft durch freude-wagen, or "power through joy car."

The New York Times ran a photograph of the car in the late 1930s, calling it a "beetle" because of its round shape. The nickname stuck, though the car always was officially referred to by Volkswagen as the Type I.

When the first Beetles arrived on American shores in 1949, they were considered little more than a quirky foreign novelty. But a decade later the Beetle was established as a legitimate automotive option in the competitive American auto market.

Though often used as a symbol of the rebellious 1960s, no

car crosses more generational, social and economic barriers than the Beetle.

Phil Colman, who opened Augusta's first Volkswagen dealership on Gordon Highway in 1958, says he sold the cars to people of all walks of life.

"You'd sell them to many people of different educational levels, to anybody who wanted an economy car," Mr. Colman said. "Anyone who had any sense bought one."

Augustans could buy a new Beetle from Mr. Colman for $1,650 in 1958. For most of Mr. Colman's 16 years selling Volkswagens in Augusta, a six-month wait was required for car.

"(The Beetle) was so ugly it was cute, but it was efficient," said Mr. Colman, who sold the dealership to Gerald Jones in 1974.

Beetle enthusiasts always have been a staunchly loyal breed, quick to defend their little car.

"It was the last car made with personality," said George Lock, 19, of Aiken. "It is a happy car. It's just one of those cars that sticks out -- has a presence."

Mr. Lock, who sold his 1993 Saturn six months ago and bought a 1973 Beetle for $600, says he appreciates the car's dependability.

"They're the type of car that you can drive for 200,000 miles until it blows up, then you just buy another one," he says. "Besides, they float. If a car floats, you know it's indestructible."

While the Beetle's durability is legendary, so too is the car's tendency to break down at the most inopportune times.

But unlike today's computer chip-laden, hi-tech wonder cars, which require rocket science to fix, owners of the classic Beetle quickly learn to make repairs on the fly.

Richard Allewelt of Aiken once owned a 1973 Beetle with a loose front passenger wheel. He solved the problem by inserting a bent nail into the axle. The wheel would stay secure for about a month, at which time he'd simply install a new nail.

"If you've got a screwdriver and a hammer you can fix just about anything on a Beetle," said Mr. Allewelt, who now owns another 1973 Beetle.

Lee Hanks, who has operated a Volkswagen repair shop in North Augusta for 19 years, says Beetle owners become personally attached to the cars.

"They're just a tough little car -- they become like a member of your family," he said. "They're very much a fun vehicle -- most people can relate to them because (Beetles) were around when they were growing up."

Mr. Hanks says many of his clients are looking forward to the new models.

"They're just tickled to death to see (Volkswagen) rejuvenate this car," he said.

But most classic Beetle loyalists aren't ready to give up their old favorite.

"As far as the look of the New Beetle goes, it's kind of stylish and it's kind of neat, but I don't think anybody's going to trade their old Beetle in for a new," Mr. Allewelt said.

Russell Moores of Augusta has owned six Beetles, including a restored 1959 Beetle, which he still drives.

"Obviously the body (of the new Beetle) slightly bears a resemblance to the old Beetle, but when you read that the new models will have a front water-cooled engine, you can't really call it a Beetle," he said. "I guess you could call it the son of Beetle, or maybe the nephew of Beetle."

Mr. Colman says he might purchase a New Beetle, but not right away.

"I'm going to have to wait 20 years and buy a used one, because I won't be able to afford one right away."

BEETLE CHRONOLOGY

1935 -

In response to Adolph Hitler's wish for an inexpensive, well-built family car, the German government commissions the first prototype Beetle. The car was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who would later found the famous sports car company bearing his name.

1938 -

The Beetle is officially unveiled and goes into production.

1940-44 -

With the outbreak of World War II, the military took over Volkswagen production, instead manufacturing military vehicles.

1945 -

Civilian production resumes under British military government.

1949 -

The first Beetles are imported to the United States, and the first Beetle convertible is built.

1959 -

The first Beetle advertisements begin running in the United States.

1967 -

Production of Beetles begins in Mexico.

1969 -

The Love Bug movie is released, featuring Herbie, a personable VW Beetle.

1972 -

The 15,007,034th Beetle is produced, beating the record held by the Model T.

1978 -

Beetle production ends in Germany, signaling the end of Beetle sales in the United States. The car continues to be manufactured in Mexico but can't be imported to this country because of strict U.S. emissions standards.

1994 -

A Concept 1 prototype car is unveiled at an auto show. The car is the basis for the New Beetle.

1998 -

New Beetle ready to debut.