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R.I.P. VW Beetle, you were ahead of your time

R.I.P. VW Beetle, you were ahead of your time
CUAUTLANCINGO, MEXICO - JULY 10: Volkswagen's last Beetle produced is displayed while people take photos of it during a ceremony to announce the cease of the production of the VW Beetle after 21 years in the market, at Volkswagen Plant on July 10, 2019 in Cuautlancingo, Mexico. Considered as the successor of the Volkswagen Type 1, the Beetle was produced during 21 years in the Cuautlancingo plant, it is estimated that over 17 millions of units were produced. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images) (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

It was driven by college students low on cash, workers who liked how tough this little car was, amateur mechanics who could easily repair a Beetle motor (it resembled a lawn mower), miners who could only rely on mules and Beetles to scale a mountain and commuters who liked how easily the Beetle could negotiate big city traffic, among so many others.

It also was ahead of its time. The Beetle was the first successful environmentalist car, getting over 30 miles to a gallon and not polluting the air with air conditioning chemicals (though it did have a small heat vent). With gas at 35 cents to a gallon, most Americans in those days drove large gas guzzlers, hence the term road hogs. People who drove Beetles were the antithesis of road hogs. With a Zen-like simplistic spirit, they took up as little space as possible. Look at old 1960s TV shows and movies, and the only small cars you see in the background are Beetles. They paved the way for small and more efficient cars from Toyota and Honda.

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Adding to its luster was the Beetle’s centrality to a rapidly growing car culture. There have been many popular songs about the car, such as “Little Deuce Coupe” by the Beach Boys, “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan and Dean, “Little Red Corvette” by Prince, “Drive My Car” by a most famous group that was originally named The Silver Beetles. The music highlighted the erotic and dangerous fascination with the automobile’s emergence in everyday life, particularly when offering an unexpected freedom and privacy for teenagers. Contrast that with today. There are no popular songs about the joys of driving a large SUV on the beltway or riding an Uber to a nightclub.

The Beetle had distinct features. Partying college kids would see how many of their buddies could fit inside a Beetle. Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot, 1-inch tall basketball star, was part of an ad to testify that even he could fit in its driver’s seat. Scholars soon began studying the social status of cars. They noticed how many poor people would drive Cadillacs they could ill afford, while rich people drove Beetles even though they could afford a Rolls Royce. It turned out to be the difference between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption. Heady stuff anchored to such an innocuous machine as the Beetle.

Volkswagen employees pose with a "Beetle", the final edition of the iconic car, at a factory in Puebla, Puebla State, Mexico, on July 10, 2019. - The bug-shaped metallic blue sedan rolled off the production line in central Mexico to rapturous applause, the last of a model first manufactured in the late 1930s. (Photo by JUAN CARLOS SANCHEZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read JUAN CARLOS SANCHEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Volkswagen employees pose with a "Beetle", the final edition of the iconic car, at a factory in Puebla, Puebla State, Mexico, on July 10, 2019. - The bug-shaped metallic blue sedan rolled off the production line in central Mexico to rapturous applause, the last of a model first manufactured in the late 1930s. (Photo by JUAN CARLOS SANCHEZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read JUAN CARLOS SANCHEZ/AFP/Getty Images) (JUAN CARLOS SANCHEZ/Getty)

There was also the experience being in a Beetle. Your face is about a foot from the flat windshield. With the motor in the back and using a clutch gear shift, you had good traction in snow, but no protection from the tiny front. Seat belts might work, but don’t count on it. And there was that distinct noise a running Beetle made. Once I stupidly drove 20 hours straight from Missouri to Baltimore. My ears were ringing for the next two days. For Beetle owners, though, these quirks were not inconveniences — just routine aspects of daily life.

Having a Beetle was similar to walking a dog. People would see you and ask about it, only to soon reminisce about the time they or a friend drove a “Bug.” It always brings a smile or two to recall a crazy road trip with a Beetle, or how the floors were rusting out but you can still drive to your destination — just don’t look at the roadway below your foot,

In Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, there is a blue, rusty Beetle, maybe a 1967 model I’ve seen a woman drive on occasion. One day I hope to see her exiting the blue Bug and praise her resilience. I’d like to ask how she has kept driving this car for so many years. She must have many stories about staying true to this machine. And it would give me a chance to reminisce about my own Beetle.

Alexander E. Hooke (ahooke@stevenson.edu) is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His most recent books include “Philosophy Sketches — 700 Words at a Time” (Apprentice House) and “Alphonso Lingis and Existential Genealogy” (Zero Books).

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