A Bug's Life: Remembering The Classic Volkswagen Beetle

Jul 13, 2019
Originally published on July 14, 2019 11:09 am

At one time, the Volkswagen Beetle was so ubiquitous that its sighting is often punctuated by a swift punch in the arm and a shout of "Punch Buggy!" (Or "Slug Bug!" depending on your regional take on the road trip game).

But this week, the Beetle set off down the road to extinction. On Wednesday, Volkswagen ended production of the Beetle, saying it wants to set its sights on manufacturing electric vehicles.

Over the decades, Volkswagen managed to revamp the beloved car's image by distancing itself from an uncomfortable history.

The original Beetle was formulated by Adolph Hitler, who wanted a "people's car," or "volkswagen." But the car wasn't actually produced for civilians until the late 1940s, when the victorious Allies wanted to refuel Germany's economy.

Many rebranding campaigns later, a hipster favorite was born.

For many Beetle owners, bidding adieu to the automotive icon summons nostalgia.

NPR asked its audience to share their favorite Volkswagen Beetle memories. More than 900 of you wrote in. We've excerpted just a handful of your stories — both fond and unpleasant — below.

Hippie's best friend

Kristine Smith's parents gifted her a 2005 robin egg blue convertible Beetle for her 16th birthday.

Although the car better withstood her college move to Los Angeles than her Chicago winter back home, the car accessorized her patched-up denim and her long and flowy tie-dye skirts that she procured from eBay.

"I was obsessed with all things hippie/bohemian in high school, and my Beetle was core to my identity," she said in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin.

Kristine Smith, pictured in 2005, when she first got her robin egg blue convertible Beetle for her 16th birthday.
Courtesy of Kristine Smith

Regrettably, she said, she sold it in 2013 to use the money for graduate school in Washington, D.C.

"The car definitely feels like a pet I once had than a piece of machinery," she said.

But, as a souvenir for her first and only car, Smith did hold onto the fake flowers she kept in the vase next to the steering wheel.

Burned into memory

A hot summer day in Oklahoma was too much for Robert Rillo's family Beetle.

When he was 13, he and his 23-year-old sister were stuck in traffic on the way to a Huey Lewis and the News concert.

Rillo remembered that his sister's friend sitting in the back seat said, "It's getting hot in here."

"It was a hot summer day so we didn't think too much about it, until he says again, 'It's getting real hot!' Suddenly he jumped up and the back seat was on fire."

The battery, located under the backseat, was heating up — catching the seat on fire. Damage control ensued.

"We yanked the seat out of the car and put it out and went in to the concert."

Alas, they missed the show's opening act: Stevie Ray Vaughan — who's famous, as it happens, for his album Couldn't Stand the Weather.

Love Bug

Paul Weidenbach of Topeka, Kan., said he vowed to the previous owner of his first car that he would keep "Gladys" as its name.

The third-hand 1973 Super Beetle, with a Starsky and Hutch stripe trimming its top and sides, witnessed Weidenbach's first love.

Paul Weidenbach in 1984, with his first car, a black-and-yellow Beetle named Gladys.
Courtesy of Paul Weidenbach

"My high school sweetheart, Vicky, and I made the rounds with Gladys' help, including a drive-in movie where we made Vicky's 6-year-old brother, Matt, sit on the roof during Jungle Book at the Chief Drive-In in Topeka," he said. "In full disclosure, we only talked and held hands."

He hadn't spoken to Vicky since 1991, but last year, he said, she died unexpectedly. When he went to her funeral, the memory returned in full force. "Of course, that night at the Chief Drive-In with Matt on the roof played over and over again in my mind," he recalled.

As for Gladys, Weidenbach said, her motor has reincarnated as a rare 1950's VW truck.

"We were ahead of our time!"

You could say Jessica Bray's husband crept into her life. Bray met him five years ago when she was serving as chair of a local car show in Kentucky.

"As cars were lining up to park, here comes a guy driving a silent VW Beetle," she said.

After striking up a conversation with him, she learned that he'd converted his '70 Beetle to an electric vehicle by switching out the motor for a forklift motor and adding batteries, she said. They went out to dinner together that night.

"Six months later, he asked me to be his wife," she said.

Now Volkswagen says it's dumping the classic model to pour money into electric car ventures.

"We were ahead of our time!" she said.

Paint it black

In high school, "cool" came before comfort for Damian Rodriguez.

When his mother gave him her baby blue '73 Bug in 1991, he painted it black to make it "less 'mom-like.' "

In sweltering Austin, his parents thought the idea was crazy. The car didn't even have AC. "I sweated so much in that car, but I loved it and have many great memories of it," Damian said.

But when a milkman totaled the Bug while delivering to the grocery store where he worked, he said, "I was literally crushed."

So when he recently came across a die-cast, black '70s VW Bug toy car, he gave it to his 2-year-old.

Damian Rodriquez gave his son, Diego, a toy replica of his black '70s-era Bug.
Courtesy of Damian Rodriguez

But as it happens — like father, like son.

He dropped it, cracking the back brake light, Rodriguez said, "ironically making it more like my Bug was."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we'd like to take a few minutes to remember an automotive icon. This week, the last Volkswagen Beetle rolled off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico. The car, beloved as it has become, actually has a complicated history. The original idea was formulated by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, who wanted a people's car, a Volkswagen. But the car wasn't actually produced for civilians until the late 1940s, when the victorious Allies wanted to get Germany's economy going again. Multiple rebrands later, a hipster favorite was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's ugly, but it gets you there.

MARTIN: With all the other small car options on the market now, we wondered if the quirky bug will be missed. So we asked you to tell us your favorite Beetle memories, and you did. More than 900 people wrote us, including Kristine Smith. She got a robin's-egg-blue Beetle convertible when she was 16.

KRISTINE SMITH: It really felt like a mascot or like a family pet to me. So it was a really hard decision and when I sold the car because I did feel like I was giving my dog away or something.

MARTIN: A lot of you wanted to tell us about the Beetle's durability or the lack thereof. We're still wondering why so many of you had to use an ice scraper on the inside of the windshield. And then, there was this other thing. Robert Rillo remembers driving to a concert one summer with his sister and her friend and having to wait hours in the Oklahoma heat to park.

ROBERT RILLO: And as we were sitting there, he goes, you know, man, it sure is getting hot in here. And we thought, yeah, it's just hot. Then a few seconds later, he's like it's getting really hot in here. And then, a second or two later, he jumped up, and smoke was kind of coming out from underneath the seat.

MARTIN: The battery was on fire. They managed to put out the fire, go to the concert and see Huey Lewis and the News. But they missed the opener, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

RILLO: That was tragic (laughter).

MARTIN: We were so sorry to hear that. So here you go, Robert. This one's for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRIDE AND JOY")

STEVIE RAY VAUGHAN: (Singing) She my sweet little thing. She my pride and joy.

MARTIN: But everybody who wrote us forgave the Beetle's quirks. Kelly Moors certainly did. She says that in 1976, quote, "I was 16. My boyfriend was 17. He was handsome and sweet and drove a VW Beetle. I loved them both. He taught me to drive it, stick shift and all. He also taught me to kiss in it. It was a lovely summer." You go, Kelly. And she was not the only one to find love.

JESSICA BRAY: He had a Beetle with a beard, and I called him the guy - beard with a Beetle.

MARTIN: That's Jessica Bray. She met a guy when she was the chair of a local car show in Kentucky.

BRAY: By the end of the show, we ended up exchanging numbers. We went out to dinner. And six months later, he asked me to be his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRAY: We've got a bus. We've got a single-cab truck that we call tetanus because it is all rusted out.

MARTIN: Herbie the Love Bug would be so proud. Those are just a few of the hundreds of memories you sent us of a Volkswagen Beetle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.