VW strikes gold as Beetlemania grips America

David Usborne in New York sees an old favourite roar back with a vengeance
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IN A COUNTRY in love all over again with big cars - not long, low cruisers but those towering sports utilities with room for half a soccer team - there would seem little hope for a nipper from Volkswagen.

But with its new Beetle, VW is striking gold. For reasons that can only be guessed at - nostalgia for the old Beetle of the Seventies, its look that is still bulbous but also sleek, or VW's inspired advertising campaign - the new Beetle is as sought-after here as the Viagra potency pill. It is so hot there is already a black market for them.

"It's been overwhelming to say the least," says Demetrio Merlino of Prey Auto of Greenwich, Connecticut. Since the first cars were shipped from the VW Puebla factory in Mexico last month, Prey has received three that were sold instantly. It has a waiting list of 75 customers, most of whom will have to wait until October for delivery. Other dealers tell similar tales. While the official price for a basic model starts at $15,200 (pounds 9,500), Prey has been overrun with customers offering to pay thousands more to jump the queue. Mr Merlino refuses such offers, but numerous dealerships around the US are gladly taking the additional mark-up.

There is also evidence of dealers not officially affiliated with VW buying as many Beetles as they can lay their hands on and selling them on at grossly inflated prices. And people are biting, even though buying from non-authorised dealers nullifies the manufacturer's warranty on the car.

And those lucky few who are driving their own Beetles around already are finding that they have an unexpected opportunity to turn them around immediately by selling them second-hand, if only barely, at a handsome profit.

It was a temptation that presented itself to Wally Leach of Tennessee, for instance, who paid $18,000 for his model. Within a few days, he was stopped in a supermarket car-park by a man who offered him $27,000 for it. And that after someone else had tried to pay him $23,000. "When I told him 'No', he said, 'Can I give you more'," Mr Leach recalled.

The original "people's car", the Beetle was first made in Germany in 1939. It arrived in the United States in the 1950s and was a hit largely because it was affordable and easy to run. By the Seventies it had also become an icon of the flower-power revolution.

Although it retains the contours of its forebear, the new Beetle is altogether more modern: it has air conditioning, a real heater (rather than just air circulated over the motor) as well as an engine in the front rather than the rear. It will not be on sale in Europe until autumn.

It is being promoted here with an advertising campaign whose main slogan is "Less Flower, More Power". As well as employing the usual television and billboard strategies, VW has been identifying the hippest parties and events at clubs in New York and Los Angeles and parking Beetles by the kerb outside.

The Beetle offers a tremendous boost to VW, which has clung on in the North American market during a thin decade when most of its European competitors gave up entirely.

It is pushing out as many of the cars from Puebla as it possibly can.

Mr Merlino has no simple explanation for the phenomenon. It may be, however, that the new Beetle is becoming America's must-have-one fashion accessory of the moment; a toy with the chic appeal of a Swatch, but a tad more expensive. "People kind of like it just to have one in their driveway", Mr Merlino offers.