Words by Elias Guerrero Photos by Jerel Fajardo
When Volkswagen launched the New Beetle in 1998, both the media and the motoring public hailed the revolutionary new design as the rebirth of an iconic automobile. Its new “three-semi circle” geometry came as a refreshing reboot for the car model that, for six decades, has remained essentially unchanged. And while air-cooled Beetle assembly lines worldwide were winding down to make way for newer platforms, this second generation “Millennium Beetle” seemed to be pointing towards a bold new direction for the brand. No longer a humble, ubiquitous and utilitarian People’s Car, the Beetle was now an object of desire, a statement of one’s status and taste, a timeless design icon.
But that was 15 years ago. This year, in what appears to be a massive reboot to the Millennium Beetle’s design, the third generation “New Beetle” seems to be closer in appearance to the classic car it was designed to evolve from. Even with its comparatively lower, wider, longer, and more aggressive stance, the New Beetle’s lines are virtually identical to the air-cooled classic.
Beetle enthusiasts will immediately recognize how the New Beetle’s roofline would arch just after the sloping windshield, and in one continuous, sweeping curve, trace the classic Beetle’s outline from the roof, to the rear window, down to the rear bumper. And the more you look, the more you notice certain classic shapes and curves.
During one afternoon at the Volkswagen showroom at the Bonifcacio Global City, C! Magazine went searching for other vestiges from the Beetle’s glorious past, with the help of Roberto Dosalla, Jr, a sales consultant at Iconic Dealership, Inc.
We begin with the Beetle’s front end. Notwithstanding the bulging fenders and bonnet, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see a smiling face in the fascia of a Beetle. And as you admire the old bug from the front, you’ll find that your gaze trails invariably toward the headlights. Perhaps this comes from a very human impulse to look at faces — smiling faces — and at the eyes, and the classic Beetle arguably has one of the friendliest, roundest eyes on the highway. It is nothing less than mandatory, therefore, to replicate this same emotional response in any redesign of the classic Beetle. And true enough, there appears to have been lot of thoughtful consideration given to headlight design.
Though the Millennium and New Beetles may not have the same protruding headlights as the classic Beetle (owing to the modern, aerodynamic front-end styling), the circular eyes were never abandoned. But because the headlights are integrated into the curves of the front fenders, the headlights are actually oval-shaped when viewed from the side. This becomes even more pronounced in the sportier styling of the New Beetle. To soften this more aggressive look, a few subtle details were added to the headlight assembly. The most obvious detail is the LED daytime running lights that can only be described as “eyelash-like” — which is somewhat humorous and apt, as Beetle owners do tend to regard their cars as if they were living creatures, like pets.
Another detail is the redesigned bi-xenon headlights. Inside each clear glass housing, the light actually comes from two distinct smaller housings: a larger “eyeball”-like lamp topped with a visor-like shape, and a smaller, disc-shaped lamp with rectangular ridges. Now a classic Beetle owner might say that this is a dual reference to both the aftermarket “eyelids” of the early model Beetles and the canister-shaped Stanley sealed-beam headlights (for 1968 Beetles and older); however, no “canonical” explanation exists for these details and this might be a just a simple case of “wishful seeing” (as one local Volkswagen representative puts it) on the part of the viewer. But whether or not the headlights were meant to recall the classic Beetle’s accessories, or to make the Beetle resemble a friendly, living creature, there’s no doubt the emotional response is still there.
Board of Design
In the classic Beetle, the running boards are a pair of rubber-coated horizontal flanges that run from the front to the rear fenders along the bottom of the car. They are visually similar to step boards or sidesteps on SUVs, though in the Beetle, they are not really designed to bear a person’s weight (or even a fraction of it) as it might distort the aluminum sheet enclosed within. Functionally, running boards are (dare I say it) practically useless. However, as a design cue, they are irreplaceable. Remove this, and it would be like removing the lapels off a good suit: you can leave your house looking that way, but why would you? So essential is the running board to the Beetle’s appearance that a vestige of it remains in the Millennium and New Beetles.
Built into the New Beetle’s body frame, the running board is stubbier and more robust, almost indistinguishable from that of the Millennium Beetle’s, except for the chrome trim that runs along the leading edge. This is clearly a reference to the classic Beetle’s running board, albeit without the black rubber surface. In the classic Beetle, this trim was paired with a longer chrome trim that ran along the classic Beetle’s body and doors, and this subtle detail is delightfully echoed in the New Beetle. The addition of these shiny metal trims (“nickelado”, as they are known to the classic VW community in the Philippines) is undoubtedly a tribute to the old design, as the classic Beetle had so many shiny exterior goodies like handles, side mirrors, turn signals and window frames — all of which seem quite dated once they are applied to a modern car. This reintroduction of shiny exterior trim reminds us of the possibilities of chrome (or anodized aluminum, for that matter): that it can be used, tastefully, for more than just hood ornaments or grilles.
Visual Easter Egg
One of the peculiarities about older cars (the ones made when air-conditioning was still a deluxe option) is the presence of venting windows. A pair of rotatable quarter windows (sometimes called quarter lights) near the side mirrors allowed air to be scooped into the vehicle from the front. The rear passenger windows, in turn, could be tilted slightly outwards, allowing the trapped air inside the cabin to be vented out into the slipstream. Working together, these venting windows kept passengers cool — even if the main windows were rolled up during rainstorms — as long as the car was in motion, of course.
With the arrival of the car air-conditioner, quarter lights and venting windows have become all but extinct. Car windows began to take on sleeker, more irregular forms, instead of just plain rectangles. You won’t find quarter windows on the new Beetle, of course, but a vestige of this curiosity still remains. On the interior side of each door, where the side mirror mounting meets the door frame, is a cleverly hidden auxiliary speaker (a tweeter, most likely) and around it, almost unnecessarily beveled into the plastic, is the distinct triangular shape of the classic Beetle’s quarter light. Another case of wishful seeing or a visual easter egg? We’ll let the enthusiasts decide.
The Millennium Beetle’s circular tail lights were clearly referencing the tail lights of the ’70s and ’80s Super Beetle. But, strangely, one of the the new Beetle’s signature design cues — the tail light design — isn’t a vestigial part of any classic Beetle at all.
Like in the Millennium Beetle, the New Beetle’s large, red, semi-0val/semi-rhomboid lamps are nestled flush into the rear fenders and bumper. To a Beetle enthusiast, this aerodynamic styling comes at a strange cost: it breaks the tradition of the colorful nicknames that Beetle owners gave their cars’ rearward protrusions — names like “snowflake”, “tombstone” , “elephant’s feet”, etc.
What’s notable though, is the observation that the Beetle’s tail lights and short spoiler (also not a classic Beetle design cue) look suspiciously like the rear of a Porsche Boxster. And some might say that this is a double reference to Ferdinand Porsche, the Beetle’s creator, and to the boxer engine, the air-cooled power plant of all the classic Beetles.
That may seem like a stretch, but perhaps the Porsche-like back view also serves another, more psychological purpose. Many classic owners are familiar with the feeling of anxiety their Beetles create whenever a motorist in a newer car pulls up from behind at a stop light. The New Beetle’s intimidating back view reassures those motorists that this isn’t their grandfather’s Volkswagen, and that they shouldn’t worry so much about being stuck behind a “slow-moving” Beetle.
Inside the New Beetle, the vestigial details are not so much visual but tactile, specifically in terms of hand movements, muscle memory, and how the driver and passengers interact with the car.
Muscle memory occurs, the theory goes, when a set of physical movements for a given task is repeated so many times, the movements can eventually be performed without any conscious thinking. Therefore, anyone who has ever driven (or ridden) a classic Beetle for any extended period of time will eventually develop a muscle memory peculiar to the Beetle’s many idiosyncrasies. And some of these are thoughtfully carried over from the classic to the New Beetle.
The stem of the inside door handle, for example, while thoroughly updated, allows for the same kind of grip and hand movement as the classic Beetle to open the door. No other car in the current Volkswagen line has this exact door handle. The overhead hand straps for the rear passenger — also unique to the Beetle — were also carried over. It even sports the same striped design.
But even more noteworthy is the way the new Beetle retains the same hand movement for giving access to the rear seats. On an ordinary car, you pull a lever near the floor, on the outer side of the seat. In the classic Beetle, you simply take hold of front seat by the backrest and tumble it forward. The new Beetle practically retains this same hand movement, with only the slight addition of flicking a safety latch.
Not every hand movement was referenced, though. The glove box of the new Beetle is a carry-over from the Millennium Beetle. Instead of turning (or pushing) the ubiquitous knob on the pull-down glovebox lid, the passenger must push a small lever on the glove box lid and lift the lid upwards. Perhaps it is a collision safety issue, but the signature knob (as well as the passenger’s horizontal grab handle) is simply not there. To atone for this (or so it seems), the new lever faintly resembles the badge on the glove box of the Ultima Edición. As for the grab handle, the larger interior dimensions of the New Beetle can rival the proportions of a modern full-sized sedan; a grab handle on the dashboard would be impractical, since it would actually be out of the passenger’s reach.
This is just a small sampling of the New Beetle’s most obvious vestigial details. Perhaps there are plenty more details that are obvious only to the “classically-trained” eye. One even wonders if there are vestigial details under the hood, though many enthusiasts are quick to point out that the front-mounted, liquid-cooled, inline engine alone makes any New Beetle an entirely different creation, one with no real connection to the old. But in its unambiguous referencing of the old Beetle, the New Beetle is clearly an homage to classic design, more than just a mere makeover, which the Millennium Beetle now seems to be.
Quite possibly, the only thing lacking to make the New Beetle a true tribute is the revival of the air-cooled, rear-mounted flat-4 engine. But you probably shouldn’t hold your breath for that one just yet.