Beetle-mania, Nineties-style

Volkswagen has updated its most famous car, but are the punters suffering from nostalgia or infantilism?
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THE VW Beetle is a major 20th-century icon. But what is it an icon of? Hitler's vision of a mobilised Germany? The Californian myth of love on the road? Or, in the moment of its second coming, does it stand for the continued failure of a generation to put away childish things?

When I was in New York a few years ago promoting a novel of mine called Still Life With Volkswagens, a local photographer and I set off to find an old VW Beetle so I could be posed in front of it for an author pic. It was a long, frustrating afternoon, and I thought this was strange because I'd been to America plenty of times before and there had always seemed to be a Beetle on every street corner. They seemed absolutely all- American. But the truth was, I'd mostly visited California and the desert south west. These, it appeared, were Beetle places. New York obviously was not.

We did eventually find a Beetle, and later, when I started living in New York, I met one or two people who owned or had owned Beetles. Lesley, for instance, used to have a "triple white" Beetle convertible - that's one with a white body, interior and hood. It hadn't been a success. The hood hadn't offered enough security. People would break into the car while it was parked and use it as a toilet, and the final straw came when she left it for a couple of days, then returned to find that some street person had made his home in the back seat.

I learnt to live with the idea that New York just wasn't a Beetle kind of town. I'd see the occasional one, but they were a rarity, and the whole thing about Beetles is that they're supposed to be ubiquitous. Seeing one isn't supposed to be an event. Then one day I was walking down Fifth Avenue and I saw this strange little black bubble of a car driving along; kind of retro, kind of futuristic. Of course, I knew what it was because I follow these things, but that didn't make it any less surprising or shocking or pleasing. Coming at me was one of the much-vaunted, much-talked- about New Beetles, Volkswagen's end-of-the-millennium rethink of the old favourite, a car that one of its designers, Freeman Thomas, described as "warm Bauhaus". It looked very much like a New York car. It was something to do with the contrast between this vehicle that was all curves and flow, and the geometry of straight roads and vertical skyscrapers. I was very glad to see it.

A lot of New Yorkers apparently feel the same. The New Beetles have invaded the city, although not quite at the rate many would-be purchasers would like. Waiting lists at the dealerships are long, and when your car arrives the chances are that it won't be in the colour you ordered. Everybody wants yellow or silver; Volkswagen appears to want you to have white. People are taking what they can get. Either that, or they answer an ad in The New York Times offering one at a $5,000 premium.

Of course, the New Beetle is by no means only a New York car. They're madly popular in California, naturally, and there'd be plenty of people who'd buy them in Britain if only VW would pull its finger out and make a right-hand-drive version. It says it's working on it, but keeps postponing it. You sense the company stage-managing demand. People always want things they know they can't have. The consumer is being manipulated. And yet, in another way, the New Beetle looks like a major triumph for consumer power.

The car started life as the Concept One, a design exercise that first appeared at the 1994 Detroit Auto Show. It was a product of VW's California Design Studio, and was never really intended to go into production; it was just a bit of window-dressing, something to attract the punters to the stand. However, having been attracted they were far more interested in the Concept One than in any of the VW cars they could buy. Something had to give.

Motor manufacturers are happy to give the public what it wants, so long as it happens to be what the manufacturers want too. Besides, industry wisdom has it that what people say they want is very different from what they really want. Nobody ever felt any overwhelming emotional response towards the Ford Escort or the Toyota Corolla, yet they shifted by the million. The other side is that people lie through their teeth about these things. They say they care about safety when all they really care about is acceleration and aggressive styling. They say how much they care about the environment and then they go and buy petrol-guzzling, four-wheel- drive monsters.

However, there's no doubt that plenty of people are sincere about liking and wanting to buy the New Beetle, and they always say there are three reasons for this: that it's cute, that it's fun, and that it reminds them of the old Beetle. I think there's a certain amount of double-think in all this. First, I'm not sure just how cute the old Beetle is. It's always been easy to find people who found it profoundly ugly, including VW apparently, since one of their early advertising slogans was "Ugly is only skin deep".

And fun? Well you could take an old Beetle, and paint it up and make it look as though it might be a fun car, but it was never much fun to drive. It was a nightmare going round tight bends and lethal in a crosswind; and if you ever tried to do comparatively simple things such as change the battery or a brake cable you pretty much had a definition of "no fun" right there. The old Beetle was quirky, eccentric: the engine was in the wrong place; the pedals seemed to be in the wrong place; rear visibility was thrillingly, dangerously non-existent.

None of this is true of the New Beetle. It looks different from other cars, but it drives much like any other; say, like a Golf Mark 4 in fancy dress, which is essentially what it is; a custom body wrapped around tried and tested, quirk-free mechanicals.

And that's what makes its cosmetic resemblance to the old Beetle so intriguing. The punters seem to be transferring to the New Beetle some powerful and profound feelings we have about the old version - feelings that have been developed by seeing the cars on every street corner, reading those fabulously inventive ads from the Sixties, seeing them driven by hippies, seeing them driven on water (they float), seeing the notoriously anthropomorphic Herbie movies. It's a form of product loyalty, a form of nostalgia - also, perhaps, a form of infantilism.

The New Beetle is designed to be liked. No manufacturer designs a car that's actively meant to be hated, but there's something curiously toy- like and frivolous about the New Beetle. I wonder whether this is part of the continuing infantilism of us Baby Boomers, a disinclination to grow up, a refusal to put away childish things.

Last month I was at a VW show in a field in upstate New York; a hundred or so Beetles of all sorts, from Fifties split-screen models up to New Beetles bought the previous week. The New Beetles looked fine, but they somehow looked too simple, too designerish. They lacked history and patina, which are the very things that draw people to the original Beetle. This is not really a complaint, but there was a distinct coolness between the two sets of owners. The New Beetle brigade were over one side of the field, and they were forced to keep themselves to themselves, which, admittedly, they were perfectly happy to do.

One thing's for sure; in the numbers game the New Beetle will never compete with the old one, simply because the world has changed too much. Single models just don't sell in those quantities any more, and nobody really wants them to. Put it this way. Volkswagen is aiming to sell about 50,000 New Beetles this year, at which rate it will take more or less 400 years before it gets anywhere near matching the sales figures of the original Beetle. More than 22 million of them have been produced, and there's a factory in Mexico still turning them out today. That's an impossible act to follow. The New Beetle, I suspect, will come to be seen as a footnote to the original, but as footnotes go, it's a good 'un.

Geoff Nicholson's latest novel, `Female Ruins', is published by Indigo on 1 March, price pounds 9.99