Detroit Journal: The End of the Affair

I’ve been moping around lately, mourning the end of the line for the iconic Volkswagen Beetle – even though I contributed to its demise (crossovers and not Beetles are parked in my garage today).

Volkswagen is halting production of the Beetle in July 2019 and says it has no immediate plans to replace the storied nameplate.  But what really killed the Beetle? And why did we love it so much?

The root of our love affair may be as simple this: The Beetle was essentially drawn with all circles.

I remember interviewing Freeman Thomas, the auto designer whocollaborated with fellow Art Center graduate J Mays on the design of the Volkswagen Concept 1, a modern re-interpretation of the original Beetle. As we talked, he picked up his pen and drew three circles on a napkin, essentially the outline of the Beetle’s silhouette – and the head of the most famous mouse in history.

volkswagen beetles
It’s the end of the road for the iconic Volkswagen Beetle.

It is said that Walt Disney knew his cartoon creation was so appealing because he makes us feel intuitively and subconsciously safer because of his shape.

I think that’s why I forged an emotional connection to the Beetle – and not the Ford Mustang or the Chevrolet Camaro – when I was growing up in the Sixties. Looking back, the Beetle had the feel of a sanctuary, a place of refuge – even though it often felt like I was driving a giant smiley face down the road.

My first post-college vehicle was a 1976 Beetle, and I was one of the first customers in line when VW relaunched the car – Freeman’s car – in 1998. I bought a yellow one, complete with a dashboard bud vase and a rear spoiler.

I loved my original Beetle so much that I gave it a pet name (Flora), cried when it was sold and kept a picture of the two of us for the last 40 years. I’m hugging Flora in the picture.

Despite a parade of cars and trucks in my driveway (test vehicles from automakers and personal vehicles), I have never recaptured the feeling that I had with my Beetles – and apparently that magic has vanished for VW and its customers as well.

Today, I buy crossovers mainly in reaction to what else is on the road. There’s little room for a caricaturish car in a world filled with trucks and SUVs – not to mention road rage.

And I wonder: Will drones, electric scooters and boxy self-driving shuttles ever rekindle the feeling we got with the Beetle?

I recently interviewed two young Chinese auto designers. The computer screens in their workstations were filled with inspirational pictures with an aggressive bent – Star Wars spaceships and fierce-looking Kabuki masks. They are working on our future ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles.

It probably wouldn’t hurt to throw some comforting circles into the inspirational mix.

Volkswagen Beetles image courtesy of Volkswagen AG.


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