On The Road

The Volkswagen Beetle of the '60s - the second time around

They were teddy bears on wheels. The Volkswagen Beetle, affectionately known as the Bug, was as much a part of the '60s uniform as granny glasses and Army surplus. Bug owners were marked as nonconformist and counter to everyday culture.

"I rode in one once," a colleague of mine told me. "Could you always see the highway through the floorboards?"

He was talking about a used Volkswagen Beetle. The company stopped production more than 20 years ago, and more than 4.7 million were sold in the U.S.

Next month, after no Bug production in two decades, Volkswagen is bringing back the Beetle in a new '90s style. Prototype models have shown at numerous auto shows throughout the country with huge fanfare.

"It's more power and less flower," said the chairman of Volkswagen, because the new Beetle will sport a new rounded look. Gone is the traditional rear engine configuration.

There are other features on the new Beetle, such as water cooling instead of air cooling, heat and air conditioning instead of only heat in the summertime, The new Beetle also has a six speaker stereo system with a cassette player.

But most important, how can this new Beetle replace the good karma the old Beetle provided?

Volkswagen Beetles were things of constant wonder that achieved a personal love that's hard to replace. A political friend of mine, former Cupertino Mayor Gary Stokes, loved his blue Bug. He kept it for 12 years and still has an unrelenting love for the car.

"It was easy to park, I never had a problem, never had to buy tires and you could fill it up with gas for less than $3.50," Stokes said. "The kids loved to crawl through the hole to ride in the back, but best of all, I never had to check the water."

The Beetles of the '60s were affordable. In yesterday's culture, Beetle owners flew the pennant of "less is more." They endorsed the sufficiency the same as today's sport utility vehicles do, but sport utilities waste gas and dirty the air more than the Beetle did.

The Beetle was the Discovery Channel of today. It was transportation, and the style stayed in vogue for 20 years. It competed against a crazy car world that was loaded with chrome and big fins. When you were trying to thumb a ride you could always count on VWs. They'd stop.

The Beetle was the first car many people owned. Most cost around $1,700 back then, which is under $10,000 in today's dollars. Gas gauges and passenger-side sun visors were options.

When my daughter, Candace, graduated from college, she had her choice of a new car or free tuition for a master's degree. She chose a new green Volkswagen.

She kept the Bug for 21 years and 325,000 miles. She sold it to a student when she purchased a new Acura. The green Bug is still making the trip to UCLA and back.

"It was fun beating out everyone at the traffic light" she said. "On the freeway it was slow, but it got me where I was going - Eugene, Seattle, Los Angeles. And a friend of mine drove his clear across country in 2 1/2 days. My Bug was egalitarian, to a fault."

As for the new Beetle that will be in car showrooms in April, nothing can be as simple, as pure or uncomplicated.

The new Beetle might pretend, but too much rubber has hit the road. You can't go home again and neither will the new Beetle, which has more power and less flower. Base price will start at $15,200 with many additional options and it will compete with the Ford Taurus, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

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