VW's sleek New Beetle will draw swarms of the nostalgic. But, it may have to go some, and even break down a time or two, to win Bug owners' love.

TIME MACHINE

January 26, 1998|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN STAFF

All you folks out there who loved your VW Beetle like a significant other, who nursed it when the timing was off or indulged it when the heater wouldn't work or fumed when it refused to start in cold weather...

You're the folks Volkswagen officials are counting on to snap up the much-ballyhooed New Beetle when it starts rolling onto dealer lots next month.

And snap it up you will. By all reports, advance sales have been brisk ever since the car debuted at last month's North American International Auto Show in Detroit; the company expects to sell 50,000 the first year. Locally, dealers report customers paying $100 for no more than the right of first refusal when the New Beetles show up.

Eleven customers have put down deposits at Al Packer Volkswagen in northeast Baltimore, which is "just amazing," says salesman Ray Notaro.

Wooton Volkswagen in Pasadena has a waiting list of some 50 customers; five have put down a deposit to ensure they're the first ones called.

"It was really neat, the first couple days when the media blitz hit," says general manager Ron Lane. "And I think when you start seeing the car on the street, that'll create a lot of ruckus."

But will people love the New Beetle as they did the old? Thirty years from now, when The Sun asks drivers to reminisce about their old New Beetles, will dozens write in with odes to their quirky little cars, with stories about how the day they got rid of their '98 New Beetle was the saddest day of their lives, with tales of how 10 bucks and a touch of ingenuity could solve almost any engine problem?

In short, will Volkswagen be able to capture lightning in a bottle twice?

Nope.

Not that the New Beetle isn't a fine car; it certainly sounds as though it is. For upward of $16,000 (fairly cheap, although nowhere near the $1,300-to-$6,500 range for a Beetle during its 30 years on the American market), you get an engine with between 90 and 150 horsepower (compared to 40 to 60 in the old Bug), disc brakes, air conditioning, a compact disc player and all sorts of other bells and whistles the old Bug never dreamed of.

In fact, the New Beetle on display in Detroit so impressed the folks at AutoWeek magazine that they awarded it Best In Show.

And not that VW aficionados aren't prepared to welcome it with open arms. Dave Hansen, president of the League of Volkswagen Enthusiasts, says plenty of his club members have New Beetles on order.

"I know a lot of my friends who are on the waiting list already," Hansen says from his home in suburban Chicago. "It's going to sell like hot cakes."

James Siegfried, president of the Vintage Volkswagen Club of America, agrees -- even if $16,000 is a far cry from what Beetle lovers are used to paying.

Even at the time Volkswagen stopped selling Beetles in the United States in 1979 (they're still being made in Mexico, which is where the New Beetles will originate), the base price was still under $7,000.

"The only objections I've heard from people are, honestly, the price," Siegfried says from club headquarters in Harrisburg, Pa., noting that the days when you could buy any new car for less than $7,000 are long gone.

But a popular car does not an unconditional love make, and love is what made the Beetle something special. What else would convince one owner, heartbroken that his '66 VW was destined for the auto graveyard, to try to have it compressed into a block of metal that could serve as a coffee table in his bachelor apartment? (OK, I admit, it was me. And while my intentions were good, the crushed Bug still weighed several hundred pounds; it never made it outside the scrap yard.)

No, one's attachment to a Beetle couldn't be explained away by noting that its price tag (a couple hundred bucks for a used one) put it within reach of even the most impoverished college student.

With its squat, pug-nosed appearance, the original Beetle was the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of cars; you loved it because everyone else made fun of it. With its distinctive clackety-clack engine sound, you loved it because it spoke a language only you could understand. With replacement parts that cost just a few bucks (a new carburetor could set you back $69), you loved it because it understood you didn't have a lot of money to spend. With a rear-mounted engine that even the most amateur of mechanics could remove and repair, you loved it because it always wanted to do right by the person driving it. All it asked for was a little TLC; if you gave it that, a Bug would run for near-forever.

Not run perfectly, mind you. VW heaters never seemed to work; a simple mechanism that drew heat off the engine as it ran, the heating system always seemed to have something going wrong. A cable would snap, the vent would get stuck either open or shut, or the cardboard tubes that connected the heater to the engine housing would spring a leak.

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