Thought the original VW
Beetles was extinct? In Tokyo you can pick up a new one for about JY2 million. Marish Mackowiak inspects
some choice specimens.
When people think of the "new Beetle" they think of Volkswagen's retro newcomer
that mimics the shape of the original Bug. Most people don't know that the old "Type
1" Beetle continues to be manufactured in Mexico and is available for purchase in
The people's car
The original Beetle is the oldest car still in production. Dr Ferdinand Porsche designed
and built the first prototype in Germany in 1935. It is said that Hitler personally
requested a design for a cheap people's car or "Volkswagen." The first one was
produced in 1938, and a legend was born. By the end of the 1990s, more than 22 million had
been manufactured in Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil. German production
ceased in 1978, but Beetles continue to be made in Mexico's fourth largest city, Puebla.
Beetles remain a common sight in Mexico, where they are often used as taxis and rental
Why does the Beetle survive? It has always had a reputation for indestructibility, with an
air-cooled engine that resists overheating and freezing. Mechanical simplicity reduces
expensive problems. Crash it and you can bolt on a replacement panel yourself. Most
importantly, the Type 1 Beetle has always been one of the cutest cars on the road,
attracting legions of loyal followers.
The Beetle's Bug eyed appearance remains
Beetle" is essentially unchanged compared to the models manufactured there 25 or 30
years ago. Step inside, and the minimalist dashboard and flat upright windscreen remain in
close proximity to the driver, along with the original oversized speedometer. Although the
dashboard sports vinyl padding, similar to 1970s Beetles, there are no newfangled airbags.
Despite being a little narrow, the interior is comfortable, with the familiar arched roof
allowing plenty of headroom for taller motorists. Cloth-covered seats replace vintage
vinyl. The back seat area is less accommodating, but there's some storage space behind the
rear seat backrest. Start 'er up and you can hear the satisfyingly familiar chaff-cutter
burble of the famous "flat four" (horizontally opposed four-cylinder) motor.
The Beetle remains a model of Old World simplicity under the rear engine cover as well,
except for the addition of fuel injection, emissions equipment and an air-conditioning
compressor. Trunk space in the front continues to be shared with the fuel tank.
Flat 4 in Meguro (03-3792-7151, www.flat4.co.jp)
is one of a number of companies in Japan importing the original Beetle. Flat 4's Overseas
Marketing Manager, Mr. Naoto "Nao" Fujita, says that, despite the many
similarities, there are lots of small differences between old Beetles and the current
model. These days, air-conditioning and a security system are both included. In addition,
his company modifies each Beetle to meet its standards. "We change it to resemble
what the Germans used to make it - in Mexico they make it cheaper," he asserts. A new
gearshift and stereo are fitted, while chrome headlight surrounds and stone guards on the
rear fenders add the final touch. Custom accessories are also available to make a Bug your
very own. Alloy wheels, sports steering wheels, roof racks, exhaust systems and all kinds
of engine bits'n'pieces can make your Bug a one-of-a-kind.
Despite adjustments to the engine management system, the Beetle's still no hotrod.
According to Fujita, it's basically the same engine. There's a performance improvement,
but not much. The 1600cc engine puts out a modest 64ps at 4400rpm. Fujita takes a
philosophical approach. "It depends which way you look at it - if you are a big fan
of '60s cars, you will be satisfied with the performance."
Flat 4 displays a rotating array of show
Although production of original VW Bugs is limited, parts are still widely available.
"I think the customer can feel pretty comfortable if things go wrong," says
Fujita. The Beetle's mechanical simplicity affords it an advantage over its modern day
cousins and even locally made cars. "It's cheaper to keep than a Japanese car of
today. Japanese parts are much more expensive than our parts, which we can still get from
Germany or as aftermarket products," says Fujita. Not only can you save on parts, but
also service costs. "Mechanically it's so simple that you can almost fix it by
yourself," claims this loyal dealer. Flat 4 can even supply brand new engines for
Some enthusiasts prefer to buy older Beetles from the '60s or '70s, although
distinguishing the old from the new is a challenge. Customers buying secondhand can also
save money. Pristine older Beetles cost around JY1.6-JY1.8 million. By comparison, the new
Mexican versions are priced at JY1,950,000 in a choice of black, white, red or navy blue.
Fujita says his customer base includes everyone from nostalgic middle-aged men to young
girls looking for a cute first car. Prices have gone down since the Bubble. Flat 4 sells
only about one Beetle a month, compared with two or three in the past - yet 7000 Mexican
Beetles were made in the first three months of this year, and currently they are the
eighth most manufactured car in Mexico.
In an age of anonymous mass production, it's reassuring that there's still an affordable
way to stand apart from the automotive crowd.