What are your three creepiest insects? Here are mine: spider, beetle, cockroach. Though it seems unlikely that we’ll see a Cockroach on our roads, the motoring world has welcomed a shedload of Spiders – and a veritable infestation of Beetles. 21 million of them, to be exact-ish.
According to my grand-dad, who is dead, the Spider connection comes from the delicate roof construction of Edwardian horse-drawn carriages. As for the Beetle, some say that English schoolboys first made the insect association in the early '50s. That’s arguable, as is the origin of the Beetle itself. Some, who may have been Nazis, say that Hitler drew the shape on a napkin while masterfully pointing out the aerodynamic superiority of the beetle to that well-known idiot Ferdinand Porsche.
The most likely explanation however is that the Beetle’s design was nicked from Czech rear-engine gurus Tatra. Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia put the mockers on Tatra’s legal action against Volkswagen, but the case was reopened after the war and Tatra allegedly received a bung of 3m Deutschmarks from Volkswagen in 1961. Make of that what you will.
Beetle fans will point to its 65-year production run and say ‘if that’s a failure then show me a success, you git’. But its sales success was almost entirely down to dull attributes like build quality, affordability and reliability – things we take for granted now, but which were conspicuous by their absence among mainstream manufacturers during the Beetle’s heyday.
By any dynamic yardstick, though, the Beetle sucked. Unlike the 2CV, which punched well above its proletarian aspirations with removable seating, a full-length sunshine roof, comfy ride and acceptable handling, the Beetle provided no ‘surprise and delight’ features.
And woe betide the poor sods who had to fold themselves into the back of a Beetle. Today’s ad copywriters would of course be praising the ‘iconic coupé-like lines’, but back then only masochists enjoyed its iron maiden accommodations. The Mk1 Mini had far more usable space.
The Beetle’s mid-1930s air-cooled motor wasn’t really a car engine. It was a generator engine. Many years ago I bought a Type 2 campervan with the hopeful idea of picking up
None of the replacements that were meant to succeed the Beetle (411, Variant, K70) did, so Volkswagen shrugged its corporate shoulders and went with the flow. With the tooling costs long since amortised, it made some sort of sense to build a few thousand more Beetles in the slightly less particular and, shall we say, more Germanophile countries of central and south America. The Beetle became a popular taxi in Mexico until the government there decreed (not unreasonably) that female passengers were entitled to feel that they could get out without needing the driver’s permission.
Interestingly, the disingenuously named ‘New Beetle’ still carries no Beetle badging. And is it a coincidence that Volkswagen’s British website crashes when you ask it to tell you about this particular model? Even now you get the impression that Volkswagen is only selling the Beetle under sufferance, under accountants’ orders, or perhaps in the vain hope that it may yet achieve Mini or Fiat 500-style cool. Somebody should tell them that flares will never come back.