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VW's new 'Concept':The Beetle rides again Bitten by the BUG


Judy Anderson remembers her father driving one in the early '50s when people would blow their horns and wave because they'd never seen anything quite like it. Her sister, Elizabeth Francazi, remembers the cramped back seat of her dad's as the only place her parents could be certain she'd fall asleep.

Chris Francazi doesn't have any Volkswagen memories, yet. But the Linthicum teen-ager is already making plans for two years from now, when he gets his driver's license, fixes up the 1967 Beetle his parents let him buy -- the one sitting in his Aunt Judy's driveway -- and puts it on the road.

"I've never ridden in one," Chris, 14, says from his parents' front porch. "I just like them. I like the way they look and all. They're different."

Different they are. But that never stopped three generations of the Anderson family from joining millions of other Americans in adopting a quirky little German import that first hit our shores more than four decades ago. Blessed with heaters that never seemed to work, an engine where the trunk was supposed to be and a face only a mother could love, the VW Beetle would become the largest-selling model in automotive history.

Last month, Volkswagen officials announced they would try to ++ catch lightning in a bottle twice by introducing a streamlined and modernized version of the beloved Beetle. Although it will look substantially different from its ancestor and be equipped with the sort of gadgets Mr. Porsche never dreamed would adorn his "people's car," company officials are hoping the Concept 1 Cabriolet will pull them out of a prolonged sales slump.

It certainly has the bloodline to do so. From 1949, when Dutch importer Ben Pon brought four Bugs to America and sold them for $1,500 each, to 1979, when the lack of fancy pollution controls and other hi-tech contraptions forced their exit from the American market, more than 5 million Beetles chugged their way onto U.S. highways. The cars are still made in Brazil and Mexico.

Today, 15 years after that last new Bug left a dealer's showroom, Americans' love affair with the only car model to star in three Walt Disney films continues. At least two national magazines -- Hot VWs and VW Trends -- help Bug aficonados find each other and locate sometimes-hard-to-find parts. Giant "Bug Outs," a combination swap meet/auto show, are held in Manassas, Va., every Labor Day and Memorial Day weekend. And the 250-member National Capital Area Volkswagen Club, with members from Maryland, Washington and Virginia, is sponsoring July's national convention of the Volkswagen Club of America.

"I've always loved them, since I was a kid," says Chris Lowman, 20, a student at Anne Arundel Community College who drove a '70 Beetle until it was damaged in an accident. "Herbie was the greatest thing."

The Concept 1 Cabriolet, scheduled to hit the market in about three years with a list price of around $13,000, looks like a Beetle as updated by the makers of "Star Trek" -- it's sleek, with a much-less-pronounced hump in the middle, headlights recessed into the car's body and no bumpers at all. It also comes with air conditioning, dual air bags and a compact disc player with six speakers. Most heretical of all, its engine is in the front.

Curiously, however, many VW lovers are ready to embrace the new model. Anything, they say, to keep the company -- as well as the Beetle spirit -- alive.

"I own five Volkswagens, including a red '64 convertible that Cybill Shepherd used in the film 'Chances Are,' and in 1997, I'll be buying a Concept 1," says Joe Maas, president of the National Capital Area Volkswagen Club. "It's going to be unique. It's going to be a collector's item."

"I'm sure it will increase Volkswagen's sales 10-fold," says George Pearson, whose four VWs include a '71 red Beetle he's going to customize into a showpiece. "It'll probably be just like the Bug all over again."

"I haven't seen them except in pictures. They look kind of neat," says Phil Ruby, owner of Phil & Rick's Service Center in Essex. "If they come out good and run like the old Beetle, they're going to be big."

But probably not as big as their predecessor. Beetles passed the Ford Model-T as the world's most prolific make of car in 1972. And while the days when it was hard not to find a Bug tooling its way down your street are over, many people still swear by them.

"That's all I've ever had," says Mr. Sullivan, an administrator for AT&T; whose first car was a '59 Karmann Ghia, a cousin of the Bug first sold in 1955. A '71 Super Beetle he bought new for $2,200 stayed with him through 20 years and almost 500,000 miles. Right now, he's driving a '77 Beetle he bought three years ago from a woman who had driven it to Baltimore from San Francisco.

"It's really tough to put into words," Mr. Sullivan says of his devotion to VWs. "It just seemed like it was a real practical car to me. They run great. They're easy to work on. They're really reliable, inexpensive transportation."

Some people even drive hot-rod Beetles, with 100-horsepower engines and other refinements that would probably make the original VW designers faint.

"I kind of wanted a sports car, but my insurance would be way high," says Paul Isennock, 19, who estimates he has sunk about $15,000 into his '70 Beetle. That includes a leather interior, 1,600-watt stereo and 1.8-liter engine. "Once you start putting things into them, you can make them into a luxury car."

But such frills aren't for everyone. For many Beetle owners, simplicity is their car's greatest virtue.

Don Anacker bought his '70 Bug new, right after getting his license. Twenty-four years later, the car is sitting in his garage, retired for the moment. Its owner's only regret: He can't buy a new one.

"If I was smarter back then, I would have taken a loan out for $10,000 and bought five of them," says Mr. Anacker, 41. "The heat's bad, the defroster's awful, but they always run."

Ask VW owners to explain themselves, and most sound like Mr. Anacker. Sure, the Beetle may be the most readily identifiable car ever made -- even those who can't tell a Chevy Belair from a Ford Taurus from a Toyota Corolla know a Bug when they see one. And sure, there are those like Mr. Maas, who wax poetic about the car's lineage, noting its design can be traced back to World War II.

But the bottom line: Anyone with a set of wrenches, a little patience and a car jack can keep a Beetle on the road. Even the most inexperienced mechanic can learn to replace a VW engine -- many's the tale of a hardened Beetle owner who has driven across country, changing engines midway. Beetles can be tuned-up with a screwdriver; fuel pumps can be replaced in about 15 minutes. So can fan belts. So can carburetors.

Years ago, some wag marketed a "Volkswagen Engine Rebuild Kit." It was a rubber band wrapped in plastic. Many VW mechanics still have them hanging in their shops.

"They're pretty easy to work on and everyone seems to go nuts over them when they're fixed up," says Mr. Pearson. "They seem to have a mystique about them. I don't know why people go nuts over them, but they do."

And that's why, for some VW owners, the Beetle died when its makers tried to graft air conditioning, fuel injection and other gadgets onto its no-frills frame. Such simplicity, they suspect, can be remembered, but never replicated -- sorry about that, Concept 1. The lightning that was the VW Beetle may never strike again.

"As far as I'm concerned, they stopped making them in '74," when VW abandoned old-fashioned carburetors in favor of fuel injection, says Joe Treas, owner of George's Imports in Glen Burnie. Fuel injection may have given the VWs a little more pep, but it also made the engines a lot more complicated -- and more prone to problems.

"If they brought back just the regular Bug with the carb," Mr. Treas says, "that would be great. They probably couldn't keep them on the lot."

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