If you've watched The Stepford Wives – a 1975 movie about a group of men who turn their spirited wives into submissive robots – you'll understand how I felt as I drove the 2012 VW Beetle.
This new Beetle is a remake of an automotive legend – the VW Bug, which dates back to Adolf Hitler's rise to power. That original car played a major role in my life – I have owned several, and spent time as a professional VW-Porsche mechanic.
The old Beetle was known for its bad heater, dodgy handling, weak brakes and a thudding, rear-mounted engine that could be heard from blocks away like a jungle drum. The 2012 Beetle was a different animal. It handled well. The heater actually worked. The brakes were excellent. And the motor was so quiet that I had to turn down the radio to hear it.
Yes, I was in the Stepford Beetle. The deeply flawed yet oddly charming car I had once known was gone, replaced by a perfect, submissive clone. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine myself in a Toyota Corolla, a Ford Fusion or a Mazda 3.
The 2012 Beetle is an infinitely better car than the original. Yet I liked it less. Which got me to thinking about the nature of existence, automotive and otherwise.
When I looked at the 2012 Beetle from a distance, it bore a distinct resemblance to the original, with bulging fenders and the curved shape that earned the car its insect nickname. But up close, the illusion vanished: it was like going to a Janis Joplin concert, only to realize that I was watching Celine Dion dressed up in bell bottoms, tinted granny glasses and love beads.
I opened the new Beetle's hood (the engine is now located in the front) and looked at the slick new components that have replaced the old car's quirky heart. Gone was the old air-cooled four-cylinder motor that had propelled countless stoners to Woodstock. In its place was a water-cooled, five-cylinder engine lifted from the new VW Golf.
Another rough edge had been sanded off the great plank of life. And the fate of the Beetle is the fate of the world itself. The strange and the unusual disappear, replaced with the smoothed-out apparatus of a looming corporate future. The mom-and-pop diner is bulldozed to make way for another McDonald's franchise. A generic outlet mall rises where a country store and its wooden Indian once stood.
None of this is the 2012 Beetle's fault, of course. It's a fine car. But it made me think about what author Susan Faludi calls “the flattened state of things to come.”
The new Beetle is one in a long list of classic cars that have been resurrected by their manufacturers in an attempt to capture the mojo of a bygone automotive age. Ford brought back the Boss 302 Mustang. Chevrolet pulled the Camaro from its grave. Dodge remade the Dart, Plymouth reissued the Challenger, and Fiat made a new 500.
The Beetle presented a special challenge. Bringing it back was not unlike raising Jimi Hendrix from the dead. Like Hendrix, the Beetle is an icon. The Beetle was commissioned by Hitler in the 1930s, and designer Ferdinand Porsche came up with a design that would become the most enduring in automotive history – a monocoque steel body mounted on a stamped metal chassis with a rear-mounted, air-cooled motor. The Beetle sold in the millions thanks to its low cost and toughness, and stayed in production for nearly 70 years (German production ended in 1978, but a Mexican factory kept making Beetles until 2003).
The air-cooled motor played a key role in the original Beetle's demise. The engine was simple and reliable, but it was a gross polluter (due to its wide thermal range, it needed looser tolerances than a modern, water-cooled engine, which allowed unburnt fuel to pass through the exhaust).
The Beetle was also an evil handler due to its rearward weight bias, a lift-generating aerodynamic shape, and a swing-axle suspension that acted like a vaulting pole when the car spun sideways (one of the Beetle's favourite tricks).
Although the original Beetle was nearly indestructible, it did need regular tuning and repairs. My undergrad degree was partially financed by correcting dragging brakes, replacing Beetle exhaust valves and tightening loose cylinder heads. The car had numerous built-in problems. Holes in the exhaust sent engine fumes directly into the passenger cabin. The battery was under the rear seat – if you neglected to install its plastic cap, a heavy passenger could push the steel seat springs onto the battery terminals, creating a short circuit and a possible fire. The defroster was hopeless. (Like many Beetle owners, I kept an ice scraper in the cockpit to scrape the inside of the windshield.)
Despite all this, people loved the Beetle. So I wasn't surprised when VW decided to resurrect the car in the 1990s. The only question was how they'd do it. Like many Beetle fans, I hoped for a car that would update the classic platform. I envisioned a slightly stretched, aerodynamically improved Beetle body with four-wheel disc brakes and a rear-mounted, water-cooled boxer engine. The paradigm had already been established by the Porsche 911, which, like the Beetle, had run into emissions control problems due to its air-cooled motor. (Porsche fixed the problem by making the engine water-cooled.)
VW took a different path with the Beetle – the car that came out in 1998 was a Beetle in name alone. Designers created an exaggerated, rounded body and mounted it on a chassis borrowed from the Golf, with a front-mounted engine and front-wheel-drive. A flower vase was mounted on the dash. The Beetle cognoscenti were not amused.
It enjoyed a brief moment in the sun, then turned laughable. This is not a car that will go down in history. On to the 2012 Beetle. It looks a lot better than the last version, with a shape that hews closer to the original. And the Golf platform does make a lot of sense from a corporate perspective, since the company didn't have to develop an expensive new engine and chassis for a single car.
Then there's the safety and liability aspect: the front-engine, front-wheel-drive layout makes for safe, benign handling, which is one of the reasons that it's become the default for most of the cars built today. If you go into a corner too fast, a front-heavy car will usually plow off the road straight ahead instead of snapping into a spin like the original Beetle liked to do.
So the 2012 Beetle is a good car. Excellent, even. But is that enough? I thought about this the other day as I listened to audio clips of the original car on a website called beetlesounds.com. A recording engineer had spent months sampling the sound of Beetles like the ones I used to own and fix for a living. (Yes, I was surprised too.) But the sound clips brought it all back – Woodstock, and nights on the concrete floor of my parent's carport back in the 1970s, wrench in hand as I learned the mechanical mysteries of a car that rode through history.
That was the Beetle. Imperfect. Original. Memorable. It even had its own soundtrack. You don't get that with a Stepford Beetle.
Want to hear more from Peter Cheney on the Beetle? Click below:
- A Bug’s life: my unbreakable bond with the Beetle
- The Beetle, the barn and the bootlegger
- And (surprisingly perhaps) Related content10 worst cars chosen by our readers
And don't forget to check out our gallery: In pictures: The Beetle, from 1935 to 2012
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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive
Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/