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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 Japan.

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 cars.

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 the same

The "Mexican 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 chat
Flat 4 in Meguro (03-3792-7151, 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 cars

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 US$1750.

Vintage options
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.

399: Autophile
Tokyo's 35th Motor show
397: Roar of the Kannon

Tokyo's biggest bikes

395: The Comfort Zone
Nissanfs latest Skyline.
393: Luxury for less
Second-hand luxury cars
389: Having it both ways
Toyota’s new Estima
387: The best of British
Triumph’s hot new 600cc sports bike
385: Fast family fun 
Subaru's latest edition legacy
383: Power rockets
Find cheap, small transport for Tokyo
381: Practically perfect
Porsche's new Turbo
379: A bug's life
Check out the Type 1 Beetle
377: Puttin' on the Ritz
Fancy cars for over JY 10 million
376: Prime time
Nissan's futuristic Primera
375: All revved up
Ducati's CEO Carlo Di Biagio
374: Retro rocket
BMW's sensational Z-8
373: Sales drive
Get a car that's free forever!
372: How Swede it is
Volvo's new S60 sports sedan
371: Moving on up
The new Honda Civic
370: Two-wheeled oddities
The 28th Tokyo Motorcycle Show
369: Scooting along
Piaggio's Vespa Vintage range
368: Sportslander
Land Rover's new release
367: Snatch
Park your bike safely
366: Lending a helping hand
Developments in "barrier-free" driving
365: Get down
A 'lo-lo' show in Tokyo
364: A Runx for your money
Toyota's Runx
363: It's a gas
Alternative gas power
362: Power lunch
Auto-oriented eats
361: Smart attack
DaimlerChrysler's Smart Coupe
360: SLK320
Covertible for couples with cash
359: New year classics
Classic cars from the past
358: On your bike
Chic cycling accessories
357: Custom crazy
The Tokyo Auto Salon 2001
356: A TRIBUTE to Mazda fans
Mazda's TRIBUTE link
355: Biking the open roads of Izu
Riding your hog in Izu
354: Blast from the past
The low-down on the last of the Mini's
352/3: White Christmas
How about a Porsche 911?
351: History in the hills
The Honda Collection Hall
350: Rest insured
Protect yourself and your car


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