THE BROADER PICTURE / Gathering for a Beetle drive

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The Independent Culture
THEY come under many names. There are Beetle Bashes, Volksfests, Bug-Ins and Bug-Jams, not to mention the inventively-titled Beetles Reunions. But you can be reasonably sure that, on any summer weekend in Britain, somewhere or other there will be a Volkswagen rally taking place. The biggest can pull in 10,000 people over a single weekend; the Beetle Fest at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire, shown here, bills itself as the biggest of all.

Atmospheres at these events vary: some are fun for all the family, others have more in common with rave culture; nearly all have something of the fairground about them. At most rallies there is a concours d'elegance, where owners compete to see who has the most ridiculously immaculate car. At others there will be drag-racing, off-roading, auctions, and a variety of weird competitions (including engine-changing competitions - amazingly, there are people in this country who can remove and replace a Volkswagen engine in less time than it takes most of us to change our oil).

The real joy of these occasions, though, is simply checking out other people's Volkswagens. You will see all manner of VWs at these rallies: camper vans, Variants, Karmann Ghias. But it is the Beetle that all the fuss is about.

There are almost as many different types of Beetle enthusiast as there are Beetles, but certain dominant tribes can be discerned. First, there are the history buffs, who drive Beetles with split rear screens, with cable brakes and crash gearboxes. They will have the original handbooks, and the tool sets will be lovingly polished. Then there are those who prefer the customised approach. This involves adding spoilers, wide wheels and tyres, louvred running-boards, sports exhausts, and so on. Some people have even been known to stick in a Porsche engine, although this is generally regarded as madness. Other enthusiasts go for the Cal-look (as in California). Their cars are dechromed, lowered and painted a lurid colour; they themselves tend to be boys with wacky haircuts and baggy shorts, although a lot of women go for this style too. And then there are those who 'ugly up' their Beetles so that they look as if they had just been driven out of a Mad Max movie.

These are the extremes. Most cars at these events are driven by plain folk who just happen to be fond of their Beetle and want somewhere to go in it at the weekend. But this raises the question of why people get so fond of their Beetles. They are not pretty. They are uncomfortable, they are noisy, they are not happy in high winds or going round corners at speed. And they certainly aren't cheap, considering how old and ordinary most of them are.

When Henry Ford was given the opportunity to own Volkswagen in 1948, he turned it down, saying 'What we're being offered here isn't worth a damn.' Big mistake: 20 million have been sold; 60 years after conception they are still being made in Mexico, and production has recently restarted in Brazil. These new models have additional features like reversing lights and catalytic converters, which means that they are suitable once more for the European and American markets. But are new ones necessarily what people want?

Some people say that they love Beetles because they have so much character. It's easy to argue that the opposite is true. Could it not be that their very lack of character is the secret of their success? Beetles are so ubiquitous, so much a part of the scenery, that they essentially represent a blank.

A Beetle can be what you want it to be: a symbol of hippiedom, of classic motoring, of being cool. There have even been times when owning a Beetle has been seen as a sign that you didn't care what kind of car you drove. But try telling that to a Beetle maniac.

(Photographs omitted)