I’ve talked about cars that age backwards and cars that are transformed by the forgetfulness of history, but let’s take a quick look at a car that was two different ages at the same time – the Volkswagen.
One car that is two ages. While the Käfer was an outdated, stodgy, old car in Europe during the uncomfortable years between Kurt Lotz and Rudolf Leiding finally shifting VW from its air-cooled/rear-engined mantra with some southern thinking from NSU and Audi, and the realization of this new ideology in the form of the 1974 Golf.
Meanwhile in America, the Bug was only cementing its position as a youthful, evergreen machine as its counterculture modernity transitioned to counterculture cheapness in the face of more forward-thinking small-car rivals. In spite of an equal degree of obsolescence creeping up on the US-market VW as it’s European contemporary, the Bug’s tradition as an anti-car car meant that mechanical deficiencies could do little to tarnish its alternative position in society. At the very same historical moment, the Volkswagen was both young and old.
The trick to how the Volkswagen Beetle performed this remarkable feat was that really, it cheated. It never really was one car at all. To think that Käfer translates to “Bug” is just wrong – ‘Volkswagen” in German has a very different context as does “Volkswagen” in English and though European and American Beetles look the same in pictures, they each sent completely different signals to American and European eyes.
Strange to think that now the two evolutionary strands might be converging – like if Africa and South America drifted back together and hornbills started living with toucans. These might be the final years in America when VW parts are cheap enough and mechanical knowledge plentiful enough that Beetles can serve as student cars. I do not know the situation regarding the ability of German teens to fix cars, nor how easy it is for them to procure parts for their old Käfers, but it seems that young Germans are more willing today to take the Beetle on as a cheap starting point for a low-cost hot rod. Well, I think that they’re more into Opels these days, and VWs are going out of style, aber vielleicht ist das eine Frage die ein Ami nicht sicher antworten kann.
All in all, the Volkswagen is just another wonderful instance where time does not progress linearly, where identical terminology across different contexts leads you into false conclusions, and where we get to look with fresh eyes at a tired and oft-overlooked piece of the automotive landscape.
In conclusion, let me also say that it is amazingly disorienting to look across so many cars in so many times and places. It makes for a terrible article, but a good point as to how different the seemingly uniform Volkswagen Beetle is.