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Beetlemania revisited? Volkswagen: The unkillable, lovable little cockroach of a car is coming back, with a more powerful engine, a higher price tag -- and a heater that actually works.


Three times now, the buglike little car has been left for dead, as if abandoned with flat tires on the shoulder of the autobahn.

Dreamed up by Adolf Hitler as the ultimate in family-car efficiency, then embraced by Americans partly for for its quirky inefficiency, the Volkswagen Beetle seemed gone for good.

But last week there it was once again at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, spruced up with a new design and a new price tag.

The Beetle had again risen from the grave, more powerful, comfortable and expensive - $15,200 and up - than ever. And when the car reappears this March in showrooms across America, that will be only the latest swerve in a long, strange drive through the 20th century.

Its most salient selling point: nostalgia. Its popularity may well depend not so much on what the car has become as on what it used to be.

"The response has been unbelievable," Ray Notaro, a salesman at Al Packer Volkswagen in northeast Baltimore, says of the early reaction to the news.

"We get people in here who can still remember the first one they had, stuff like that. But it seems to be a little bit older crowd. Almost everyone is over 40."

Terry Shuler knows all about the value of Beetle nostalgia. A fancier of VW memorabilia himself, he's the author of "Volkswagen: Then, Now and Forever," which came out about a year ago.

Not only does he still fondly recall his first Beetle, a 1969 model, he now owns a 1950 convertible.

"The potential [for success] is there if the quality is behind it," Shuler says of the new model. "I think they'll be able to get the baby boomers and also a whole new crowd."

Such comments imply that the Beetle's only past was as the cuddly Love Bug, the clunky manifestation of Flower Power that faded with a generation's idealism, dying by rust and attrition after production for the U.S. market ended in 1979 (although Mexico kept building and selling them).

But as anyone with a sense of history knows by now, the Beetle goes back much further.

It was all Hitler's idea. The dictator and wannabe architect

sketched the first designs for the characteristic curves.

He envisioned it as the low-cost "people's car" - volkswagen - that would ferry the Thousand Year Reich's first generation down Germany's smooth, new autobahns.

He named the car after the industrial motto "Strength through Joy," or "Kraft durch Freude," so initially the car was called the KdF Wagen.

Then he ordered the building of a huge factory and nearby town to house the workers, calling it KdF Town (present-day Wolfsburg).

Shuler, who saved his press kit from last week's Beetle resurrection in Detroit, did so partly because of a friend who has the same item from the 1939 unveiling of the Beetle. It's worth $7,500.

Germans took one look at the shape and size of the new car and nicknamed it the "Kafer," or Beetle. That label would survive, but at least twice during the next decade the car itself seemed doomed.

The beginning of World War II seemed to be the first fatal blow.

German workers had barely begun saving the stamps that were redeemable for Beetles when production and delivery of the cars were halted to make way for the building of military vehicles atop Beetle chassis.

The KdF plant also helped build the V-1 rockets that buzz-bombed London. Slave labor played a major role in all efforts.

By war's end the town and plant were in ruins. Only by the efforts of some British officers of the postwar occupation forces did the factory stir to life. The officers decided it was just the ticket for rebuilding the local economy.

According to prominent German historian Hans Mommsen, who recently completed an exhaustive history of the company, the British offered Ford, General Motors and their own country's automakers a shot at taking over the operation.

All said no, and that, too, seemed to signal the end.

But the officers got the place up and running with German ownership and management, and the company that called itself Volkswagen was soon building cars for the German public.

A 1949 effort to interest American consumers was a bust, but by the 1960s the car had caught on, and the Beetle was reborn again.

This incarnation came about despite a heater that never seemed to work and a sputtering rear-mounted engine that could barely get a college student and a semester's worth of laundry over a steep hill.

Sales in the United States peaked in 1970, but eventually the Beetle was left in the dust, not only by an onslaught of peppier, sleeker Japanese compacts, but also by tougher U.S. safety standards.

So, the car was taken out of production for the American market, and since then Volkswagen's sales in the United States have never quite measured up.

The company is banking on the new Beetle to reverse that trend, although it's hard to imagine it ever surpassing the worldwide sales totals of the old Beetle - 21 million.

Shuler and others say they like the car's chances for success.

For one thing, he says, the new version is better and roomier in just about every way. The 110-horsepower engine will bolt up hills and the heater works fine.

There are even an air conditioner and, as a whimsical touch, a stem vase for a reminder of the Flower Power of yore. Yet, the car will still get about 29 miles per gallon (the diesel model will get about 48 mpg).

But the car is very much a late 1990s product in another sense as well. In some ways it seems more a creation of marketing than of automaking. The new Beetle has been fitted onto the basics of a chassis from a Golf, the company's most popular model in Europe.

And no longer will the Beetle have perhaps its most distinctive feature. The air-cooled rear engine of the old Beetle has become a water-cooled front engine, the same setup that's found in just about every other car.

And for buyers who want to tack on all the extras, the price will top $20,000.

Still, Notaro says, his dealership has already logged about five orders, people willing to pay $100 now, sight unseen, for what amounts to a right of first refusal once the models begin rolling into the showroom.

Pub Date: 1/15/98

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