Originally created 08/07/03

Beetle, like all good things, must come to an end



About 21.5 million Beetles after Adolf Hitler demanded a "people's car" and 30 years after I traded away my medium-blue 1966 Bug, Volkswagen has shut down the car's last production line, relegating a historic car to history.

The old Beetle hasn't been sold in this country for years, of course, but in Latin America it has long been popular as basic transportation and a cheap taxi. (I used to live in a city where the police cars were VW Beetles.) The only remaining factory, in Mexico, recently sent its last Bug to Germany as a museum piece.

As had happened decades ago in the United States, the nearly indestructible Bug was pushed out by more advanced competitors.

Those last cars at the factory didn't have the changes seen in the final Bug sold in this country, the Super Beetle. Instead, they had the same thin bumpers, the same flat windshield, the same bare amenities as my 1966.

Did you ever own a Beetle? If it was like mine, it had no air bags, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, power steering, CD player - or cassette player, for that matter.

My car was cheap to drive, though. Reliable. Fun. Oh, and quirky. The battery was inaccessible beneath the back seat. The heating system (if you can call it that) was an unfunny joke. The trunk (in front) was mostly filled by the spare tire.

Whoever owned that car before me obviously had done some hard driving. The interior, once white, was a weathered pastel. The driver's seat was ragged and patched with duct tape.

I kept the electrical system operating by way of a box of fuses in the glove compartment. Another box held little coil springs to replace the one on the throttle that would snap off from time to time, sending the engine revving into high rpm. A third box contained rubber bands for when the supply of springs ran out.

The upside was that the little engine ran like the Singer sewing machine of cliche fame. In those days, $2 would fill the gas tank, and I could drive forever on those 10 gallons. The egg-strong body was unblemished, still so airtight that the doors were difficult to shut with the windows up.

The two-door was comfortably cozy. At night, I would lean forward a couple of inches so my face pressed against the windshield, letting me see every inch of the highway ahead of the short hood. I could hear the air-cooled engine in the back, a reassuring chugging that has all but disappeared from America's roads.

At the same time, the little sedan was big. I once moved in that car. After removing the passenger seat, I could fit all sorts of belongings inside. It took countless trips back and forth, but I did it.

My car was very similar to the Beetle that began in Germany in the 1930s, landed in America in 1949 (when only two were sold), and led the foreign-car invasion. It was as rugged as it was ugly. The Bug's reputation grew, and people even said it could float. I never found that out personally, though I know it could handle tough terrain.

In the mid-1970s, the Beetle was no match for the Japanese imports in the United States, and so it was replaced by a totally different - that is, normal - car, the Rabbit. In Latin America, the car continued to flourish, but after a while, it could't meet U.S. safety and emission standards and was stopped at the border.

If you ever owned a Beetle, stop and say a little prayer for the passing of a giant.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or gmoore@augustachronicle.com.