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Herbie rides again

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Its heater was unreliable. Its trunk was in the front, its engine in the back. Its looks. . . well, "racy" is not a word that comes to mind.

But if ever a car had a lovable personality, it was the Volkswagen Beetle. The "people's car" was designed 60 years ago by Ferdinand Porsche to be the auto of choice for Hitler's Germany.

Despite these dark beginnings, it debuted in America in 1949 and charmed its way to total U.S. sales of some 5 million by 1979, when tighter safety and pollution controls forced it off the American market.

Since the late 1970s, a Beetle that falls short of U.S. safety standards has been built in Mexico and Brazil. In all, about 21 million of the cars have been produced, making it the world's best-selling automobile. As though that weren't enough of an achievement, the VW Beetle is the only car to star in four Walt Disney films -- as Herbie in "The Love Bug" movies that gave actor Dean Jones a career.

Now Volkswagen has announced that it plans to put a new version of the Beetle on America's roads by the end of the decade. Priced at about $12,500, it will have the familiar rounded looks of the classic Bug but with revisions that include air bags, anti-lock brakes and a front-mounted engine.

The Frankfurt-based auto manufacturer hopes to ease its financial woes by cashing in on the passion that many Beetle-lovers had for the car. And still have. Though 15 years have passed since the last new Beetle was sold in this country, U.S. aficionados continue to share their interest (and information on available spare parts) through magazines such as Hot VWs and VW Trends. They also flock to the annual convention of the Volkswagen Club of America, which was held last July near Washington and sponsored by members from Maryland, Virginia and the nation's capital.

One of the great attractions of the old Bug was its delightful simplicity. Compared to the engine of today with its jumble of wires and computer chips, the Beetle engine was like something out of "The Flintstones."

Will the relative complexity of the new car turn off prospective owners? Read about it, say, five years from now, in VW Trends.

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